As the Jacksonville Jaguars began training camp for the 2022 NFL season earlier this week, there are plenty of new faces within the organization. One new addition to the roster this year who Jaguars fans may not be familiar with is safety Ayo Oyelola.
Originally hailing from Dagenham, a town in east London, England, Oyelola’s path to the NFL is much different than most players in the league.
The International Player Pathway (IPP) program, which was first instituted in 2017, “provides elite international athletes the opportunity to compete at the NFL level, improve their skills, and ultimately earn a spot on an NFL roster.”
The Jaguars can carry Oyelola on the roster until the end of training camp, and if Jacksonville decides to keep him after the conclusion of camp, the team will be granted an international player practice squad exemption. This gives the Jaguars an extra practice squad member. Oyelola can also be elevated from the practice squad to the active roster during the regular season.
Prior to being allocated to Jacksonville, Oyelola spent last season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League — the eventual Grey Cup champions.
He also participated in the 2021 International Player Pathway training phase — which gives international athletes the opportunity to showcase their talents in front of NFL scouts — but was not allocated to an NFL team last season.
To learn more about Oyelola’s background, skill set and journey to the NFL, Big Cat Country reached out to several of his college coaches at the University of Nottingham.
Getting to know Oyelola and the University of Nottingham program
Jason Scott, the head football coach at the University of Nottingham, knew right away that Oyelola could be an exceptional player.
“You can see talent a mile off — the way that an athlete walks, how they carry themselves, and how they move — that was one thing that leapt out right away (about Oyelola). Ayo was fast — his acceleration was ridiculous — and he was fearless. All the things you want to see from a defensive player.”
Ben Davies, the defensive coordinator at the UoN agrees. Oyelola’s athleticism and speed immediately stuck out.
“Ayo was obviously already a gifted athlete when he joined the team — being fit, strong, and very fast!” Davies said. “He was always coachable if a little reserved, and had an undeniable drive to perform every drill and every play to the best of his ability.”
American football is not as common in the United Kingdom. It is considered a niche sport there, and opportunities to play and learn the game are few and far between. The competition level is obviously much lesser than in the United States.
However, the University of Nottingham is one of the top football programs in the U.K. and has an experienced coaching staff to teach the players how to play the game, and in Oyelola’s case, even pursue professional football at the highest level.
Scott, Davies and the rest of the staff have quickly turned the Nottingham program into one of the elite teams in the BUCS (British University and Colleges Sport) Leagues.
After his playing days, Scott spent six years coaching at Loughborough University, and then five seasons at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts (NCAA Division III).
He would then coach at Mississippi State for one season. While in Starkville, Scott worked with Jacksonville’s current passing game coordinator and cornerbacks coach, Deshea Townsend.
Prior to being hired by the University of Nottingham, Scott returned to England and served as defensive coordinator for Tamworth Phoenix, helping the team win a senior national title in 2017. He is also the head coach for the Great Britain national team.
Scott gave some background information on the Nottingham program:
“University of Nottingham are one of the most successful teams in the BUCS Leagues over recent years; our past three years at the premier conference have yielded two conference championships and a trip to the national final,” he said. “This staff took over in 2017, when UoN were in Division One, so we have overseen a promotion and a title game within five seasons.”
The University of Nottingham football program began as an offshoot from the “Nottingham Outlaws” team stared in the 1990s. Now, Nottingham has had several graduate student players come over to the U.K. from universities in the U.S., such as Syracuse, Lehigh, Penn State, North Carolina State and Bucknell.
Other teams in the in the BUCS Leagues bring in multiple scholarship players from North America — some rosters may include anywhere between five and 12 American players — but Scott’s program at Nottingham focuses on developing British talent first, and then will use two or three scholarships from “quality leaders” from the U.S.
“The quality of football is pretty high — the level of coaching at UoN is pretty good, and our facilities are amongst the best in the U.K.,” Scott said. “It’s an ideal fertile ground for growing young players who are new to the sport.
“We’re really proud of our program at Nottingham, we have a thriving team that’s getting better and better,” Scott continued. “Going into the 2023 season, we’re expecting to have a roster of around 140 players — many of whom had never played before joining the University.”
How did Oyelola get into American football?
Oyelola’s athletic background actually comes from soccer. He credits his strong footwork on the American football field to his years of playing soccer at very high levels in his youth.
Scott thinks Oyelola’s soccer background also taught him the proper work ethic and dedication to thrive in football as well.
“To be able to play youth soccer at that level takes incredible dedication and hard work,” Scott said. “It’s that (work ethic) that has helped Ayo get on a (NFL) roster. He’s incredibly coachable, and is able to pick up complex movements pretty quickly. His success in soccer from an early age is due to the foundation that he has built through his hard work and endeavor. Football is an extension of that.”
Oyelola came to Nottingham as a law student in 2017 and graduated in the summer of 2020. He had never played American football prior to his sophomore year at Nottingham. Prior to playing, he stumbled upon across YouTube highlights of Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (who now plays for the New York Giants).
Watching clips of Barkley, along with some nudging by his peers, inspired Oyelola to give American football a try at Nottingham. He originally wanted to play running back, but the Nottingham staff convinced him to play on the defensive side of the ball.
“We got to know Ayo in his sophomore year — he was a Law Student (UoN Law School is one of the best in the U.K.), and felt that he didn’t have much time to play sports during his freshman year as he wanted to get used to the university workload,” Scott said.
“He came along having been recruited by some of his friends (and some friends of friends), having expressed an interest after watching some highlights online. He joined the team and never looked back. Right away, we could see his athletic ability and his desire to be the best he could be. He was extremely raw, but after a few months, he cracked the starting lineup and exploded from there.”
While Oyelola’s soccer experience prepared him for certain aspects of American football, there were certain aspects that Oyelola wasn’t used to, such as the physicality of the sport.
“There were some early teething issues apparent to a coach; his background as a soccer player didn’t prepare him for the new body positions and contact of American football,” Davies said. “What stood out was Ayo’s utter dedication to the process of getting better, both in the gym and on the practice field. He didn’t speak of his professional ambitions to me, but he certainly trained like a pro.”
Oyelola was clearly very thankful for his time at UoN, as he credited the staff and thanked his teammates for getting him in position to make an NFL training camp roster.
”Having never played American football before studying at the University of Nottingham, I’m hugely grateful for the foundation in football that UoNAF gave me,” Oyelola said, via the University of Nottingham’s website.
“The coaching staff is second to none, and they really pushed me to be the very best I could be, on and off the field,” he continued. “I’d especially like to thank (linebackers) Coach (Andy) Mortimer, Coach Davies and Coach Scott for their leadership, coaching and friendship. I would also like to say a huge thank you to all my teammates for the help and support they gave.”
Of course, it is rare that a player from the U.K. makes it to the NFL. So while Scott and his staff didn’t necessarily see this NFL opportunity coming for Oyelola, they knew he had a chance to make a living as a football player somewhere.
“Did we think he had the chance to make the NFL?” Scott asked rhetorically. “I think to say that would be ridiculous, but we knew he had a shot to play at the highest level he could. His drive, dedication and application were elite, combined with that raw talent — we knew he could achieve anything he wanted to.
“He was always so coachable — taking on every bit of knowledge and advice we could give him, and applied it instantly. He listened to a lot of our NCAA scholars, too — they were always blown away by his ferocity on the field, and how he could replicate the skills learned on the practice field, into game week.”
What does Oyelola bring to the Jaguars?
So, what does Oyelola bring to the field with him? Although inexperienced, he is an incredible athlete with all of the physical traits NFL coaches look for. But most of all, Oyelola is a great teammate and an an even better person, according to Scott.
“His physical strengths are obvious — he’s explosive, fast and aggressive, but his real strength is who he is as a person,” Scott said about Oyelola. “He’s someone who is a pure teammate, he’s someone you’ll want alongside you when the going is tough and he will rally the team — celebrating the wins and picking people up when things haven’t gone so well. Whilst his skill set is great, it’s his character that really sets him apart.”
As mentioned, Oyelola is extremely raw and has not been playing football for long. The competition level he faced in the U.K. is nothing like what he will go up every day against in the NFL — where everybody on the field is a top-tier athlete and among the best players in the world.
Scott believes it won’t take too long for Oyelola to adjust to the NFL level, though.
“(Ayo’s) already improved so much because he’s never been complacent — he’s always working on his game and is driven to be the best person, the best player he can be,” Scott added. “He’s going to learn so much being in that (NFL) environment, and you’ll see constant growth. I think he’ll continue to develop at a ferocious pace whilst at Jacksonville — his coaches will love him because of the attention to detail he places into his craft, and how hard he works.”
For Davies, he believes Oyelola’s speed on the field is what sets him apart. He also brought up Oyelola’s fearlessness and competitiveness against bigger foes.
“Ayo’s greatest strength whilst at University of Nottingham was definitely his speed,” Davies said. “Being able to close the distance to the ball faster than anyone else expects would make a successful play. He definitely exhibited the strength and ferocity required to take on players much bigger than himself.
“One thing we were always working on at university was his body positioning going into a tackle, converting speed into power; I’m certain this is an area Ayo has been able to develop since he entered NFL IPP.”
A position change in the NFL
While Oyelola is listed as a safety on Jacksonville’s roster, the defensive backfield is new territory for him. He played as a linebacker/edge rusher with Nottingham, and is also listed as a linebacker on the CFL’s website.
“He played linebacker for us, because that was the best fit for him in our league,” Scott said. “He was quick enough to rush the passer, and really understood underneath coverage concepts. That — combined with his tackling skills — meant he was perfect at or around the line of scrimmage.
“There’s an obvious size difference between the BUCS leagues and the NFL — so it absolutely makes sense for him to play safety,” Scott continued. “I can see him as a box safety type — he’s got sideline to sideline range, has great closing speed and is an excellent open space tackler.”
Scott and Davies want to put Nottingham’s players in the best position to succeed individually, but of course need to also do what is best for the team to win games. Depending on the game, Oyelola played linebacker, edge-rusher, safety and running back for UoN.
“Given Ayo’s talents, it was easy to move him around the field to different positions and be confident he would beat the player in front of him, and be successful at his role,” Davies said.
Given Oyelola’s size, Davies thinks the safety role is the right spot for him at the NFL level. Davies says Oyelola has the speed and coverage skills necessary to run with NFL wide receivers. He also wouldn’t be surprised to see Oyelola in a hybrid role where he could blitz or play closer to the line of scrimmage in certain looks.
Special teams prowess
While it may take some time for Oyelola to adjust to the NFL and get acclimated to the safety position, one area he may become an immediate contributor at is special teams.
“I think (special teams) is where (Ayo’s) strength will lie in the early stages of his career and where he will provide most value for the Jaguars in season one,” Scott said. “He’s extremely smart and will pick up the nuances and scheme. That, combined with his speed and aggression, should see him getting some special team reps whenever he gets activated (to the main active roster).”
Davies agrees with Scott’s assessment, saying that Oyelola’s speed to cover down the field, and ability to make a tackle in open space should allow him to contribute on special teams relatively early on in his career.
Scott says Oyelola’s skill set is “very similar” to J.T. Gray — a safety and All-Pro special-teamer for the New Orleans Saints — whom Scott coached at Mississippi State. Scott draws parallels between them as both Oyelola and Gray played outside linebacker in college, and both guys have very similar measurables and body types.
“Never count against Ayo,” Scott said. “I genuinely think he has the ability and determination to thrive in the NFL. The practice squad will be a fantastic place for him to grow and develop, and I fully expect him to be activated to the active roster by the end of the season. I think he will prove invaluable on special teams, and could really be a stand-out special-teamer early in his career.”
In fact, Scott said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Oyelola become the first IPP player to make a Pro Bowl one day. But it isn’t just on special teams where Scott thinks Oyelola will eventually make an impact.
“I think he could genuinely be a special teams star sooner rather than later — and then develop into a really effective defensive back within his first three or four years,” Scott said. “I predict that he’ll quickly become a fan favorite at Jacksonville, as he’s such a likable guy, with incredible heart and passion for the game.
“I look at his work-rate, effort and character — he is really special. When you combine that with his athletic ability, the sky is honestly the limit (for Ayo).”
Davies also knew early on that Oyelola is special. And, like Scott, he wouldn’t bet against him.
“Ayo’s self-driven determination to be a top-level professional athlete has got him this far; I have no doubt he will continue with the same effort and be suitably rewarded in his career,” Davies said. “It is excellent that he is in a position to show his skills to some of the best coaches in the sport.”
Always looking for improvement
Nottingham tight ends coach/film coordinator Sean Endicott also spoke about Oyelola. Endicott had the difficult task in practices of trying to get his position players to block Oyelola off of the edge.
Endicott also worked as a commentator for the 2019 Football America U.K. University All Star Game, where Oyelola shined.
“(Ayo) was far and away the best player on the field in an all-star game featuring the best players from across the U.K.,” Endicott said. “It felt like we called his name every play.”
While Endicott didn’t coach Oyelola directly, he was impressed by Oyelola’s eagerness to watch game film and try to improve his game.
While it will be an uphill battle for Oyelola to stick around in the NFL and make an active roster, this is an opportunity that rarely comes for international players. Oyelola’s college coaches firmly believe he will be successful.