Stanford has the most famous No. 20 in all of college football at the moment. Junior running back Bryce Love has stolen most of the national attention on the entire Pac-12 thanks to his dazzling Heisman campaign, but he has also stolen some of the spotlight from his star teammate on defense who shares the same number.
As with most college football teams, Stanford has many duplicate numbers. It’s not uncommon for two guys wearing the same number to both be impactful players. It is much more uncommon to have two of your bonafide stars sharing the same digits, but that’s exactly the position Stanford finds itself in with Love and senior linebacker Bobby Okereke.
Last game against Washington was a breakout performance for Okereke, one he called his best ever in a Cardinal uniform. But Stanford head coach David Shaw claims he saw it coming weeks ago.
“For me it’s been the last month for Bobby,” Shaw said. “The last five games, really, he has really started to take his game up to another notch.”
Shaw went on to say that the biggest change for Okereke is in his awareness and aggressiveness.
“He’s seeing the game quicker,” Shaw said. “He played really well early in the year, but he was still reacting. Now, he’s anticipating, and that’s a huge difference because he’s got speed, length, athleticism, and now he’s feeling the game and making some unbelievable plays.”
“I’m just seeing the game faster,” Okereke added.
His sudden rise to defensive stardom has all been the result of dedicated preparation over the entirety of his Stanford career, but Okereke is no stranger to preparation. After all, he was an Eagle Scout, so he carries with him the scout motto “Be Prepared” as a badge of honor. That preparation and work ethic have transformed the senior linebacker from a special teams role player to a starter to now being considered one of the best players at his position in the Pac-12, if not the entire country.
“The way to gain confidence is through preparation,” Okereke said. “That’s what I did this offseason.”
The results of his offseason preparation have been undeniable during the regular season. Even from his linebacker spot, Okereke is second on the team with four sacks and five total tackles for a loss. Two of those sacks came in huge moments against Washington, and on the first, Okereke chased Washington quarterback Jake Browning all the way back to his own six-yard line before dropping him for an 18-yard loss.
In addition to the tackles behind the line of scrimmage, Okereke has been making plays on the ball as well. He forced two turnovers in the last two games. Against Washington State, Okereke anticipated a Luke Falk pass on fourth-and-one and jumped the route as soon as the ball was in the air. By the time anybody touched him, he was already in the end zone for a 52-yard pick six that he said was his favorite moment as a Stanford player. Then versus the Huskies, Okereke ripped the ball away from Washington running back Myles Gaskin on a run early in the fourth quarter.
“You see the confidence start to build,” Shaw said about Okereke’s play-making ability. “You see him making plays. Not just the plays that come to him — he’s going to plays. He’s accelerating, he’s exploding, he’s getting sacks, tackles-for-loss, getting his hands on the ball for fumbles and interceptions.”
Okereke’s confident play this season is a far cry from his early career at Stanford. After redshirting his freshman year, he played sparingly as a sophomore, recording just seven total tackles in mostly a special teams role. In the following offseason, the graduation of star middle linebacker Blake Martinez opened up an opportunity for Okereke to earn more playing time. He jumped on the chance, winning the starting job for the 2016 season.
“Putting in the work,” Okereke said when asked about that remarkable offseason before his junior year. “Putting in the work in the weight room, putting in the work on the VR and then in training camp and spring ball. Just trying to get better, trying to earn that confidence.”
Even after earning his coach’s confidence, Okereke struggled at times during that 2016 season as he tried to develop consistent faith in himself as a player. His self-assurance seemed to come and go. He had seven tackles and a sack in the opener versus Kansas State, but his performances in the middle of the season were mostly uninspiring. He ended the year with another seven-tackle and one-sack day against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl.
The confidence he gained from the bowl game seemed to carry over into 2017. In the second game against USC, he recorded a career-high eight tackles. The next week, he topped that performance with nine tackles and a sack against San Diego State. Then, Coach Shaw said the proverbial light-switch flipped on for Okereke.
“He went from becoming a starter on defense and playing pretty well to waking up one day about four games into the  season and saying, ‘You know what? I’m pretty good at this.’’’
The game against Washington was the culmination of years of hard work for Okereke. The final stat line read 11 tackles, three TFLs, two sacks and a forced fumble. Even those gaudy numbers cannot truly describe the impact Okereke had on the game. He was everywhere on the field, disrupting Washington’s potent offense and eventually grinding them into submission.
“I don’t know who is playing better at linebacker in the second half of the season than [Okereke],” Shaw said after serving witness to Okereke’s huge game.
Even in the best two games of his Stanford career, Okereke was overshadowed by his teammate wearing number 20 on the other side of the ball. Love also had a 52-yard touchdown against Washington State and then followed that up with 166 yards and three touchdowns while essentially playing on one leg against Washington. Okereke will never receive the same attention if only because he plays on defense, but one thing is certain: Opposing offenses are just as scared of the linebacker wearing No. 20.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.