The NFL Academy has made history. They had never defeated American opposition since its inception in 2019. In the past two weeks however, they have beaten two well-respected American programmes, and the latter in dominant fashion.
The NFL created the UK based Academy, for ages 16-19, as part of their major initiative to make the top tiers of the game more accessible to all. Boasting 62 players from 13 countries, they have made excellent progress in their effort to spread the game internationally.
Situated in Loughborough, the Academy is co-ordinated alongside the town’s elite sporting university, as well as its college. The players live, train and learn all in one very impressive setup. The Academy has ensured that whilst it encourages sporting excellence, education is at the forefront of what it stands for.
It has not always been this way. The academy was initially based in London before it moved in September 2022. Players would commute into London for school and training three times a week. There was very little time to recover and focus on improving their game.
In an interview with the Sports Gazette, star Offensive Lineman Daniel Akinkunmi was keen to state how much of a difference the full-time move to Loughborough had made:
”I feel like this year we play a lot faster…We train five times a week now. We are based exactly the same as our American competition.’’
Akinkunmi epitomises the great strides the Academy has made. In his first year in 2021, his daily journey from Doncaster to London and back averaged 6 hours. If you consider the fact he had never played the game before, this was less than ideal for his progress.
Fast forward to last Thursday: Akinkunmi announces that he will be playing for the University of Oklahoma on a scholarship. He received 35 Division One (D1) college offers, and is one of 15 Academy alumni who will be playing NCAA football in the 2023-24 season. A remarkable story, and a great testament to his character and ability.
Emmanuel Okoye, who selected to play for the University of Tennessee earlier this year, is another prime example. He joined the Academy just after the move in 2022, and is now in a D1 college on a scholarship. The changes implemented have been crucial, allowing their young careers to flourish.
The Academy can and will take great pride in its successful alumni. However, a key factor that needs to be mentioned is its development as a team. The wins over IMG Academy and Erasmus Hall High School not only made history, but also showcased the array of talent the NFL Academy has at its disposal. If US college scouts weren’t paying attention, they are now.
Credit has to go to the staff. Head Coach Steve Hagen sets the standard high. In an interview with ESPN, Hagen stated that:
‘‘To us, the standard is Power 5 [five best conferences in college football] … I know this is a high school academy, but we’re trying to get these guys to Power 5.’’
His extensive coaching history in the US helps with exposure for his players. The connections run deep, and his word goes a long way. The arrival of his old colleague Lamonte Winston has only boosted the ranks too.
Winston’s appointment as Head of the NFL Academy in April shows the desire the organisation has to progress. He has worked in high-ranking roles of player development at both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders. Winston brings a high level of experience that will benefit the young players in a way that few others can.
The Academy’s success will be something the NFL will keep a keen eye on. It is a model that they will look to replicate as they build internationally. With the foundations it has set, it is at the pinnacle of its young existence here in the UK. By no means has it reached its peak however, and it will continue to go from strength to strength.