Former teammate Ezekiel Elliott an ‘inspiration’ for Foye Oluokun

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun played high school football with Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Back in 2009, Foye Oluokun was a freshman football player at John Burroughs School in St. Louis. That season, 11 years ago, seemed like an eternity considering his team was still running the I-formation on offense.

“Kids don’t even do this anymore,” Oluokun said with a smile.

The reason the freshman team utilized the I-formation, Oluokun said, was because there wasn’t a quarterback who could adequately throw the ball down the field. Therefore, Oluokun was asked to line up in the I-formation and lead block as a fullback.

The running back he was blocking for?

Current Dallas Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott.

As freshmen, the two were quite the tandem in the backfield. But once they were on the varsity squad, the coaching staff figured Oluokun’s athleticism could be better used at receiver on offense. Even so, Oluokun was still asked to lead the way for Elliott on occasion. Oluokun and Elliott’s coach at the time, former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte, would scheme ways to get Oluokun in front of Elliott to spring him for big gains.

“Key plays he’d motion me down, I’d be blocking ends, lead blocking, all that stuff,” Oluokun said. “I would definitely lead block. We called them touchdown blocks. I always got motivated to block for him.”

Next Sunday when the Falcons face the Cowboys in Dallas, Oluokun will look to tackle and slow down the star running back he used to help open holes and lanes for. This will actually be the second meeting between the two former high school teammates as they competed against one another in 2018. In that game, Elliott ran for 23 carries, 122 yards and a touchdown in a Cowboys' 22-19 victory. Oluokun led the Falcons that particular day with 10 tackles.

Oluokun and Elliott first met playing basketball against one another in St. Louis. They became friends in the seventh grade once they were attending John Burroughs School together. At recess, they’d play football and basketball where it was apparent just how talented they were.

Oluokun has long been impressed with Elliott’s football ability as a football player.

“What makes him special is his competitive level,” Oluokun said. "He’s had that ever since I knew him when he was a little kid. We used to play against each other in basketball before we went to school together. He’s a fun spirited guy, he always has a lot of energy. I like him as a runner. He’s tough but he can also be elusive. He lowers his shoulder when he needs to.

“He’s definitely an inspiration to me in getting to the league. He went through it first. So if he could do it then I could do it. This is always a matchup I’m going to look forward to going against in these years coming up.”

As they enter the second week of the season, both the Falcons and Cowboys are coming off season-opening losses. The Falcons were beaten at home by the Seahawks 38-25 while the Cowboys fell on the road to the Rams 20-17. In Oluokun’s season debut, he recorded six tackles on 46 defensive snaps. Elliott carried the ball 22 carries for 96 yards and a touchdown, and also caught three passes for 31 yards and a score.

Oluokun will play an important role in the Falcons' defense’s effort to slow down and limit Elliott’s opportunities in Dallas' offense. Tasked with a bigger role now that linebacker De’Vondre Campbell is with the Arizona Cardinals, Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he liked what he saw from the third-year linebacker on Sunday. The next step in Oluokun’s development, Quinn said, will be to produce more turnovers.

“One of the things you can always count on with Foye is that he’s super reliable,” Quinn said. “He’s in the right spot making the right decisions. We’re still looking for him to see if he has the moments to create the big plays for the takeaways. That’s something we’ll always hit with him. (On Sunday), as far as tackling and playing in the box and at the line of scrimmage, we were certainly pleased with Foye.”

Oluokun said his production in the turnover department is part of how he will be judging his weekly performances this season.

“First thing, any time I watch the film, I always think of the things I can do better,” Oluokun said. “I always want to get to the ball more and more, get more tackles. Now I want to start taking the ball off of a runner. A lot of times I was taking shots at the ball while tackling. Until I get a ball out, until I get a ball on the defensive side, that’s going to be when I think I had a good game. That’s the standard I have for myself now, to take the ball away from the other team.”

Elliott was a four-star running back recruit who got a major offer to Ohio State before declaring for the NFL draft after his junior season. After three standout seasons, which was highlighted by a national championship in 2014, Elliott was taken fourth overall by the Cowboys in the 2016 NFL draft.

It took Oluokun a little longer to realize his NFL dream. Enrolling at Yale in 2013, he spent five years in college, which included a redshirt season due to injury. Oluokun was taken in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL draft.

Elliott may have always been the star of the two John Burroughs School teammates. But Oluokun has been able to prove just how much he belongs in the NFL, too. And asked, jokingly, if his lead blocks were the reason why Elliott got so much attention as a high school recruit, Oluokun could only crack a smile before showing some admiration toward his former teammate and friend.

“I can’t take credit. He’s an amazing athlete obviously,” Oluokun said. “I joke with him and say I was the reason, but nah, I would never take credit for that. He’s the reason I’m here. Just that motivation I was talking about earlier. I always like watching him, I hope he likes watching me.”