Diamond in the rough: Gio Ozkan’s path to UB Pro Day - INTERVIEW
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • March 05, 2013 @ 12:42am
Gokhan Ozkan’s path to the University at Buffalo football Pro Day has been anything but predictable.
Born in Turkey before moving to New York City at the age of 6, Ozkan eventually arrived at Brooklyn’s Bishop Ford High School with the intention of playing basketball. Nearly a decade later, “Gio” will attempt a feat only one other Turkish athlete has accomplished: make a roster in the National Football League.
Today, the 6’7, 320-pound offensive tackle will showcase his physical talents in front of pro scouts with two other Bulls—linebacker Willie Moseley and defensive end Steven Means.
But unlike the Virginian Moseley and Buffalo-born Means, big No. 79 took a much more circuitous route to football.
Like most offensive linemen, Ozkan was noticed because he was big. Think Michael Oher from the Blind Side “big.” But unlike many bulky-yet-still-athletic youngsters, he didn’t dream of one day filling the shoes of NFL linemen greats like Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones or Anthony Munoz—he just wanted a fairly easy route to getting college paid for.
“I never really saw myself going this far with football, especially with my background of being born in Turkey and coming here, not knowing what football was until high school,” Ozkan admitted in a phone call last week. “But football’s such a part of life now that it’s shaped who I am.”
The chief facilitator of many things in high school, peer pressure propelled Ozkan onto the gridiron, even if he was clueless as to what the “gridiron” actually was.
“Some of my friends talked me into it—they said I’d be perfect for football—and I didn’t know what they were talking about,” Ozkan explained, mentioning that football wasn’t introduced in Turkey until 2005, and at the point in Gio’s life, he was learning how to pancake defenders as an All-League Bishop Ford Falcon offensive lineman in NYC.
The pride is evident in Ozkan’s voice when he talks about Turkey, though he lacks vivid memories of his birthplace. Still, the giant quarterback protector chuckles at his assimilation into American culture—for instance, the first name on Ozkan’s passport was incorrect until sixth grade.
His official documents read “Giokhan,” and his new friends shortened the misprint to “Gio.” Fortunately, the nickname also happens to be Ozkan’s initials (G.O.)—and the nickname stuck for good.
“I couldn’t do anything about [my name], and it fit well,” Ozkan explained. “It was a little difficult at first, but once I got used to it, it was actually a little easier on everyone because my name had been butchered so many times.”
Considering he was introduced to the sport so late—in America, kids start as early as first grade—the fact that Ozkan embraced the position so rapidly boded well for his future.
Bred by the Bulls
Recruited by the Turner Gill regime at the University at Buffalo, Ozkan red-shirted during the Bulls’ bowl season—their lone post-season appearance in the program’s Division I history.
He played sparingly as a red-shirt freshman, predominantly on special teams, then suffered a season-ending knee injury four games into his sophomore year.
He watched as Matt Ostrowski, Peter Bittner and others set the standard for a Bulls offensive lineman.
“Pete Bittner took me under his wing when I came in, and I talked with him, picked his brain and constantly nagged him about football. He’s been a great role model on and off the field,” Ozkan said.
The hiring of Jeff Quinn as Bulls’ head coach was a further blessing for Ozkan—Quinn was a respected offensive line guru with coaching experience at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Quinn’s bio in UB Today echoes his passion for one of the most under-appreciated aspects of football:
“Now everyone knows about the importance of the offensive line,” says Quinn, who was the left guard while at Elmhurst, where he was known for playing at 225 pounds, and for being tough, strong and nimble, with what players and coaches revere as “quick feet.” “The offensive line is 50 percent of the game. If the quarterback doesn’t have time, the offense goes nowhere.” He has mentored many linemen who have compiled reputations for speed and dogged determination.
Quinn’s intensity didn’t take long to rub off on Ozkan, a 6’7 Turkish sponge in his final two years.
“I started embracing [the position] and understanding what it truly meant about halfway through college when Coach Quinn came around,” Ozkan said. “I learned so much from him about the game, and he made me understand what it meant to be an offensive lineman and how much we affect the game overall and how in charge we are of the offense.”
“His overall fire and passion for the offensive line and fine-tuning the little things—if you talk to him about the offensive line and how aggressive he gets just talking about it, it instills a fire in you and you kind of want to be an offensive lineman for a split moment there,” Ozkan continued.
With the influence of veteran o-linemen like Peter Bittner and Graham Whinery, the looming right tackle paved the way for UB running back Branden Oliver’s program-record 1,395 rushing yards.
As is often the case, Oliver’s combination of shiftiness and power drew rave reviews, and, at least in media circles, the efforts of the Bulls’ offensive line largely went unnoticed.
It wasn’t until Oliver fell victim to a torn MCL against Kent State that the offensive line received its due.
True freshman tailback Devin Campbell stepped in after second-string runner Brandon Murie hit the injured list as well, and still the Bulls’ running game didn’t skip a beat. Even with a first-year player in the backfield, UB’s offensive line allowed Campbell to total 300 yards over three straight starts.
Despite inconsistency at quarterback, wide receiver and on defense, the offensive line’s steadiness was the least of Quinn’s concerns.
“[Training] camp was very hard on us, and coach definitely did his best to get us together, and then camp was the turning point for us,” Ozkan explained in regard to the youthful o-line in his senior year. “We got cohesive with one another and got closer than I ever thought we could in our offensive line play, and I think it translated on the field.”
One of the two elder statesmen on the line—Graham Whinery was a senior as well—Ozkan displayed his excellence as a run blocker and, while he was passed over for the Mid-American Conference all-star teams, showed consistent improvement over his final two years.
Preparing for the next step
It’s tough to get noticed as a mid-major offensive lineman, especially when you’re not selected to any post-season all-star teams. That’s the purpose of the NFL regional combine and pro days at individual colleges in—scouts from NFL clubs scrape all ends of America to find a diamond in the rough, a mid-to-late round pick—or even an undrafted free agent—with potential to contribute at the next level.
Sometimes, in the 2008-09 cases of LaRod Stephens-Howling, Rashad Jennings, Demetress Bell, Stevie Johnson, Peyton Hillis, seventh-round draft picks wind up with prominent roles for NFL clubs.
At times, all it takes is an injured starter, a surprise waiving during training camp or a dominant preseason for a late-round pick to fill the void and make an impact.
Could that be Ozkan? With former Bulls James Starks, Naaman Roosevelt, Trevor Scott and Josh Thomas all still in the league, there’s no reason why “Gio” can’t be the next in line.
To prepare himself, Ozkan worked out at Absolute Performance Training in Eastern Hills Mall, training with UB alumnus Tom Corradino and former UB strength and conditioning coach Paul Childress. The latter worked with the Gill’s staff at UB, so Ozkan called upon a past connection after he graduated early with a finance degree in December.
Childress wasn’t the only familiar face at training, as former NFL player and UB grad Jamey Richard—who just retired this winter—also works out in Amherst regularly. Looking after a current Bull with pro aspirations, Richard passed down advice to No. 79.
“I reached out to Jamey early on, and he said, ‘Just keep working hard and it’ll happen. Come out on Pro Day and show what you’re capable of.’ That little bit helped me out a ton. I didn’t know him too well, but since he’s an alumni of UB, and he keeps an eye on us,” the right tackle said gratefully.
Since the close of the 2012 season, Ozkan has worked out twice per day in preparation for the myriad tests he’ll take at his pro day, all while monitoring his diet—for the most part, at least.
“Being an offensive lineman, it’s kind of hard to stay away from the good food, but I have cut down on my diet significantly. I feel lean even though I’m 320, and I feel pretty good about myself with the diet they have me on. I feel more energized than ever,” Ozkan said confidently.
“Still, you can’t go wrong with the wings [in Buffalo]—it’s hard not to watch the Sabres’ game without some wings,” Ozkan admitted guiltily. “Santora’s is always great, and Duff’s is right around the corner.”
The future of Gokhan
Tuesday’s UB Pro Day is obviously crucial for Ozkan, a day for which he’s been training for months—heck, years, even if he didn’t realize it. He’s excited to show his quickness in the 3-cone drill and the shuttle, and his strength has benefited from Childress’ power-lifting prowess.
He believes the NFL is a realistic goal, but mentions the Canadian Football League as a possible fall-back.
“[The scouts] will be looking for me to move well in the short distance, and I think I can open some eyes with that,” Ozkan speculated.
Even though he was late to embracing the sport, Ozkan understands the demands of an NFL lineman—durability and versatility.
“I do love the pass game—I think it’s an art in itself to be able to go one on one with a defensive lineman in an open space by yourself. The run game is just being hard-nosed and getting after it. Initially, it was just the run game—I loved inside zone blocking, but now I think I can provide the overall package,” Ozkan explained before mentioning that he’d be more than willing to get a look at guard or even center, if necessary.
The odds of realizing his dream are long for the Turkey-native, who’d join Tunch Ilkin as the lone representatives of Turkey to play the highest level of American football. Good fortunate could be on his side, however, as it has been for several other recent UB student-athletes.
“All I need is one team to give me an opportunity, and I’ll capitalize on it and show them that it was worth it for them to give me that opportunity,” Ozkan said adamantly. “I don’t need 32 teams knocking on my door—which, don’t get me wrong, it would be awesome—but I just need one team to show that I’m a steal, a diamond in the rough.”
(Photos of UB football courtesy of Don Nieman and Dave Marino).