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Inside the mind of Foye Oluokun
The Falcons linebacker and Yale graduate sees football as a math problem, a puzzle to be solved.
By Tori McElhaney Nov 01, 2021

Foye Oluokun has taken on a new role in Dean Pees' defense, and he's thriving as one of the most dynamic Falcons defenders.

Oluokun sat down with Tori McElhaney at the Falcons headquarters to discuss how he sees the game, and how his analytical approach to football developed.

By Tori McElhaney

Playing MIKE linebacker at the professional level is like walking into the middle of a loud, chaotic freeway. That's how Falcons inside linebackers coach Frank Bush views it.

"There's so much going on that if your eyes are not trained correctly," Bush said, "it can consume you."

Foye Oluokun doesn't get consumed. The fourth-year veteran does the consuming.

There's something calming about the way Oluokun describes how he sees the field in a simple and clear methodical juxtaposition. In the midst of the swirling chaos, the moving pieces, the noise, he picks it all apart. He essentially strips it away, taking a meticulous, analytical approach to the in-game dissection of a singular play or moment.

It's not the Buccaneers or the Saints or anyone else the Falcons are playing that week, it's Xs and Os. It's patterns and angles. When Oluokun breaks it down, football -- at its core -- is math. The Yale graduate sees football as an extension of what you may have learned in your elementary school classroom.

"Kids who like math, everything they see is a puzzle," Oluokun said. "We learn puzzles. We learn patterns in math. That's why I applied it to football. Every pattern you see out there, it's the same application of patterns that you see in math."

Oluokun expounded upon this idea, saying he believes intelligence isn't what you can remember. It's how you use those memories, that learned knowledge you've accumulated, and how you apply it. Oluokun believes intelligence is knowledge in action, and it's a point he has proven throughout his years in the league.

Oluokun was a math kid. He enjoyed it, and an analytical foundation took root, a fact he attributes to his father.

Steve and Josephine Oluokun immigrated to the United States from Nigeria before Oluokun and his brother were born. They did so in part because Steve desired an American education, and he saw that desire through by earning a degree in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

Father and son share a mathematician's mind. Steve applies it to chemical engineering. Foye applies it to football.

"He taught me early on that the world is math," Foye Oluokun said.

But how does this practically show up in a live-game scenario? It's everywhere, and in everything Oluokun does.

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It's in every formation reading. 

"Whatever team you go to there are basic things about formations where they are probably running this play out of this formation," Oluokun explained. "So, whenever I am studying film I am trying to pick up formations teams are using to hide a play or run a play out of. But there are definitely key ones every team is going to have that are kind of universal throughout the NFL."

Bush said the speed at which Oluokun picks up these formational tendencies, and makes the alert to his teammates, is notable. It's something that is sometimes happening before even the coaches see it. 

"That's where he is as a player right now," Bush said. 

This mathematical approach is also evident in the way he views route progressions. 

This is something Bush said comes from Oluokun's days playing safety at Yale. 

"When you play back away from the ball, you understand (route) angles," Bush said. "Almost everything is about angles when you're further away from the ball. But when you get closer to the ball everything is happening a little bit faster, but you still have to understand angles and how you're going to approach different plays and different routes. That part of (Foye's game) is really good."

But, more than anything, you can see it in Oluokun's command of the defense as a whole. 

When Dean Pees took over as Atlanta's defensive coordinator, he switched Deion Jones' and Oluokun's roles. Though Jones is still the captain of the defense, the new staff wanted Oluokun to be the in-game decision-maker. They did so for two reasons: 1. They wanted to free Jones up a bit more to - as Bush put it - "be more Deion." And 2. They thought Oluokun could handle the added responsibility. And not just handle it, but thrive in it because of the way he understands defensive concepts. 

"We have one guy who makes the huddle call, and that guy is Foye now," Bush said. "He's running the show. He's the quarterback for the defense."

And early reports have the coaching staff saying "so far so good" with the switch. 

Coaches feel this way because, when it comes to Oluokun specifically, they don't see him making the same mistakes twice despite taking on a much larger leadership role within the defense. 

When asked about Oluokun and the vision he has as a linebacker, Pees paid him quite the compliment. 

"He knows this stuff," Pees said of Oluokun. "Just like everybody, you tell them something and they may not do it right the first time, but the second time, if he makes a mistake, he's going to clean it up. He's not going to do it the second time."

"And that's what you ask for."

Pees said Oluokun is progressing into exactly what they wanted -- and expected -- him to be at the position. 

"I really feel good about him," Pees said, "and I've had some really good MIKE linebackers in my day. I really feel like, as a young linebacker, this guy's got a really, really bright future." 

His present performance isn't half bad. He leads the team in combined tackles. He's just behind Grady Jarrett in quarterback hurries. He had an interception against Miami and forced a fumble against Tampa Bay.

Asked about the compliment Pees paid him, Oluokun said being a reliable player who doesn't make the same mistake twice isn't just something he wants to be known for. It's what he felt like he needed to be to stick in this league. It was his driving force.

"I got drafted and people were like, 'Oh, we should have gotten this Georgia linebacker.' I knew if I messed up, my shot would be gone," Oluokun said. "I wanted to be, probably, a perfectionist."

Oluokun noted perfection is unrealistic. He learned the best linebackers mess up but are right most of the time. That's how they've built their reputations. And, when asked if Oluokun is "right" most of the time, Bush answered with a light laugh.

"Everybody has a tendency. Every team has a tendency," Bush said. "Foye is playing to those tendencies, and it comes out right for him a lot."

Dependable. Reliable. That's what Oluokun is. And perhaps that's exactly what's been ingrained in him before he ever stepped foot on a football field.

"If I'm messing up the plays I've seen before, I just don't think that I can get to where I want to get to," he said. "I think it's the pressure that I put on myself, the pressure I've learned to put on myself just from me growing up. If you get taught something, there's no reason you should be messing it up."

In Oluokun's mind, football is like a math problem. It's something taught, something learned. It's a puzzle to figure out. It's a pattern to identify. It's angles and trajectories. There are inputs and outputs.

And when all is said and done, Oluokun wants there to be respect in the answer.

"I wanted to earn trust from the coaching staff first and then the players," Oluokun said. "Now, I want my respect from everybody in the league."

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