Draft weekend is time full or nerves and excitement for hundreds of NFL prospects. On one hand, they are filled with elation, waiting to get that phone call and hear their name called, excited to see where they will land. On the other, there is always that inherent fear that your name won't get called. As the draft goes on, players left on the board are less likely to be drafted, and the worry begins to set in that you won't hear their name at all.
Cornerback Amani Oruwariye is familiar with that second feeling. The Penn State prospect entered the draft projected to be drafting in the opening rounds, maybe even on Day 1. He slowly slid down the board though, and managed to make it all the way to the fifth round before he was selected by the Detroit Lions 146th overall.
“I think everyone could finally exhale,” Jason Stokes—Oruwariye’s former head coach at Gaither High School—told Pride of Detroit about the moment Oruwariye was picked.
Stokes was present at Oruwariye’s draft party in his hometown of Tampa Bay, Florida. He was there with the cornerback’s family as he slowly slid down the draft, waiting for a phone call to come and tell him he had finally been selected.
“We were all just kinda thinking, ‘Man, Amani’s better than this kid, he’s better than that kid his measurables, his instincts,’” Stokes said about the sentiment in the room as the draft went on. “We just kept saying we know it’s gonna happen, it’s just a matter of time. Just cause of the special player we know he is.”
Stokes is currently the head coach at Pasco High School in Tampa Bay, and previously coached at Gaither, Riverview and Bloomingdale high school’s in Central Florida.
The head coach has an impressive resume when it comes to developing NFL talent. He previously coached Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Alex McGough, former New York Giants defensive tackle Jacquian Williams and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebackers and current Tennessee Titans linebackers coach Tyrone McKenzie.
Oruwariye may be the best prospect of the bunch, though.
The corner started his high school career on the bench, playing behind an older, more experienced player. He finally got his chance to shine when an injury forced him into a starting role in his sophomore season, and he ran with it.
“I knew he was a special athlete,” Stokes said about the corner. “He was a quiet kid. He had a confidence about him... He wasn't arrogant. Good under pressure, great teammate. He worked hard, I was impressed with him.”
While Oruwariye was always a great player, he started to develop into a potential NFL talent late in his junior year at Gaither.
“He was covering some big-time receivers that are in the league now, and he did a great job,” Stokes said. “I knew he’d be able to get to that level if he had just kept his nose clean and kept grinding—which had never been an issue with him,”
Slowly, Oruwariye started to receive attention from NCAA scouts. The coaching staff at Gaither started to send the corner’s film to everyone they could, knowing they had a special player on their hands. Oruwariye begin to stand out at recruiting camps, and he eventually got his first offer from the University of Louisville.
Oruwariye received offers from prestigious programs from all around the nation: Nebraska, Missouri and even local Central Florida. The corner eventually signed with Penn State, though, and joined the legendary Big Ten program.
Head Coach James Franklin arrived at Penn State in 2014, the year Oruwariye signed with the Nittany Lions. Franklin had his eyes on the corner for years, though. The coach recruited Oruwariye while he was at Vanderbilt, but once he moved from Nashville to State College, he convinced the corner to come with him.
2014 was also the year that Franklin added Terry Smith to his staff as a cornerbacks coach and defensive assistant. Smith worked alongside Oruwariye for five years at Penn State, and the corner made an instant impression on him.
“You don’t see a lot of corners that are built and look like him that have the athleticism and ball skills that he does,” Smith told Pride of Detroit. “We were excited the moment he stepped on campus,”
“It took him a few years to really come into his own, but once he did, he obviously shined here at Penn State,” Smith said, “Led us in interceptions a few years, was a first-team all Big 10 guy and had a great career here for us.”
Oruwariye was named first-team All-Big 10 in his final year as Nittany Lion. He had eight career interceptions and 20 passes defended in the four seasons he played, and scored a touchdown in 2016.
The cornerback began to get NFL attention in his redshirt senior year. As a coach at Penn State, working with NFL talent is not a foreign concept to Smith. Still, though, realizing that a player has a chance to one day play on Sundays is a special moment for a coach.
“It was probably his red shirt sophomore year, which would have been his third year here in the organization,” Smith said of the moment that he realized Oruwariye had NFL potential, “He recommitted himself that summer. He had the best camp that he had for us at that point we knew we had something special.”
Oruwariye would eventually enter the draft after completing his senior season at State College, and left the school as one of the team’s better defenders over the past few years. While Smith was unable to be in Tampa Bay with Oruwariye on draft weekend, he stayed in contact with the corner and gave him clear advice to console him as he slid down draft boards.
“Here at Penn State, we have a set of core values. The very first core value is positive attitude. The thing that we always stress here is ‘control the controllables,’” Smith told Oruwariye on draft weekend, “The NFL is gonna go and each team is gonna make their selections, we can’t control that. Once you’re selected you can control what you put forth.”
When asked what Oruwariye’s greatest trait was, both Stokes and Smith cited the cornerbacks length.
At 6-foot-1, the corner is one of the bigger players at his position. While his arms are not the longest—especially relative to his height—his cover instincts are great enough that is feels like he always can have a hand on a receiver.
The corner also tested well at the NFL combine, showing great speed and agility for a player of his size. He has the tools needed to succeed in the NFL and getting to play under a defensive mind like Lions head coach Matt Patricia could be great for his development.
“Obviously he’s one of the better minds of football, and that will be great for Amani to expand his knowledge of the game and learn football at a deeper level,” Smith said about the Lions head coach.
Oruwariye will also get to play across from former first-team All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay. Slay is similar to Oruwariye in virtually every way. They both have great size and length for their position, and they both are great athletes. Slay was more refined that Oruwariye was when he came out of Mississippi State in 2013, but he is the exact mold for what Oruwariye could be if he reaches his full potential.
“He’s gonna pick up a few things form Darius and he’s gonna pick up a few things from other corners across the NFL and continue to mold and shape his own game,” Smith said. “He’s a student of the game, he puts a lot of time into it. He’s gonna invest all he can into it.”
Adjusting to the NFL is a challenge for every player, though. The game is much faster and all of the other players are bigger, faster, stronger and smarter than anyone a rookie has ever played against before.
It’s a stage that can prove to be too big for some players. Many players have come out of college football looking like absolute stars but just could not put it together at the next level. It usually is not for lack of talent, either. Some players just cannot adjust to the rigor of playing in the best football league in the world.
Oruwariye’s former coaches are confident that won’t be the case for the rookie cornerback, as his calm persona seems perfect for a player trying to fit in in a new league.
“He’s so mellow,” Stokes said. “He gets up for games, but he’s still very stable. Mentally, I don’t think there’s a stage too big for him.”
Playing at Penn State is good preparation for the NFL, as well. Every game the Nittany Lions play has a championship atmosphere. The brutal Big 10 schedule the team faces means that Oruwariye was in the spotlight playing against top talent every week.
“We have 107,000 fans for our homes games. Playing obviously in the Big 10 each week is a tough battle,” Smith said.
“The challenge for any rookie is now that they're in the NFL, the season is longer,” Smith said. “It’s an adjustment with 16 regular season games, plus playoffs, plus preseason. It’s just different wear and tear on the body that is something new for the rookies that they have to get adjusted too.“
Year one of the rookie corner’s career may be a quiet one. Slay, Rashaan Melvin and Justin Coleman will own a majority of the snaps for the team at corner, meaning that Oruwariye will most likely get a season to adjust to the NFL game before potentially taking over a starting role in the near future.
He will need to stay ready to enter the action at any time, though. The Lions are only one injury away from needing to throw the corner into the fire.
If there is one thing that we have learned about Oruwariye over the years, though, it’s that he is always ready to take the challenge on.
He was thrown into the fire in high school, taking over for an experienced player after a surprise injury. Only a few months later he was getting attention from some of the best college football programs in the nation.
After redshirting his first year at Penn State, he stepped into a Big 10 defense and played against some of the best offenses in the country. He was dominant, earned all Big 10 honors and is now playing in the NFL.