NASHVILLE – Chig Okonkwo lined up in the backfield in the team's season-finale at Jacksonville, and at the snap, he won a footrace with a defender to the pylon.
Not long after the Titans rookie tight end hauled in his third touchdown of the season on a 21-yard catch, a text came into my iPhone from a contact I hadn't heard from in a while.
"That TE is a stud," the text message read. "Bright future. Fear the Turtle."
The text was from Frank Wycheck, the former Titans tight end who, like Okonkwo, starred at the University of Maryland.
(I shared it with Okonkwo in the locker room after the game, and I hope Frank doesn't mind me sharing it in here).
Okonkwo smiled when seeing those words. While starring at Maryland, he used to see Wycheck's name and photos on the walls at the facility. He's very familiar with the Titans great.
"A great Terp," Okonkwo said of Wycheck, who led the Titans in receptions five consecutive seasons and tallied 505 receptions, 5,126 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career before retiring after the 2003 season. While at Maryland, Okonkwo's 52 receptions in 2021 ranked second-most by a tight end in a single season in Maryland history, behind only Wycheck (58; 1990).
Okonkwo then quickly got serious when looking back at his rookie season – and thinking ahead to what's next.
"My feeling is, now that (my rookie) season is over, I'm just going to put my head down and I am ready to grind and become a better player," Okonkwo said. "It's the offseason now, and I'm just ready to become the best player I can possibly become. I am going to work on everything I struggled with this year – that's my mindset now, turn the page and all I can do is get better for the team and that's what I am going to try and do this offseason."
Okonkwo, a fourth-round draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft out of Maryland, had an impressive rookie campaign.
Okonkwo finished the season with 32 catches for 450 yards and three touchdowns.
Last month, Okonkwo was named to the Pro Football Writers Association's All-Rookie team.
Luke Steckel, the team's current run game analyst who served as tight ends coach last season, said Okonkwo developed a better understanding of the game in 2022, which allowed him to play faster.
"His speed is obviously one of his best assets that he has," Steckel said of Okonkwo, "and you can't use that speed if when the ball is snapped you are spending all your energy thinking of what you are supposed to be doing or reacting to how the defense is playing. The more Chig has gotten a grasp of what we're trying to accomplish and the more he is able to see the big picture, the more he is able to cut loose and use that speed to win, whether it is firing off the ball in the run game and getting his hands on guys blocking them, or running routes in the pass game. So, I think he has made huge strides there."
Okonkwo knows he has room for improvement, and he wants to increase his versatility.
During the course of the season, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel occasionally offered blunt assessments of areas where Okonkwo came up short, even after seemingly solid performances.
Okonkwo heard his head coach loud and clear, and said he appreciates the tough love.
"He'll tell me, he's only going to coach me as hard as he cares," Okonkwo said of Vrabel. "I know when he is pushing me and he is looking at every single rep I am doing, I just embrace it. He doesn't want me to be a terrible player. He wants me to become the greatest player that I can become. So, for me, I always keep that in the back of my mind and don't let anything he says get under my skin. I know he wants me to be great, and I know he is not doing this to make me feel bad. He just wants me to be a great player.
"I think I can get better at everything, really. I feel like I am just scratching the surface. I am just trying to polish myself and become the best player that I can, and I know for that to happen, I have to work on everything."