Joey Okla knows that most of his teammates at Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wis., are in their final weeks of competitive football.
For that reason, the 6-foot-4, 285-pound offensive lineman and Illinois commit is doing his best to make sure he and his fellow seniors end their high school careers on the best possible note.
Okla, who became the first recruit to buy into Bret Bielema’s pitch at Illinois with his commitment in February, knows there’s plenty on the line with only a few weeks remaining in the regular season. Arrowhead carried a 5-2 record into its Friday night showdown with Mukwonago.
“Senior season just means so much more, knowing that it’s going to be my last time playing with my brothers in high school,” Okla said. “They’re going onto bigger and better things in college. A lot of the guys, a lot of my friends, they’re not going to be able to play college football. So just cherishing these moments with them while playing football, it’s huge for me, and I know they’re doing the same.”
Okla is a key factor in the Warhawks offense, particularly in paving the way for standout running back Alijah Maher-Parr. Behind a stout offensive line, Arrowhead is averaging roughly 250 rushing yards per game, and has at least 49 points in four games.
After blowing a fourth-quarter lead in a 53-49 loss to Muskego on Sept. 24, Okla and his teammates are learning about the slim margins that often separate victory and defeat.
“It all ties back to us playing together as a team,” he said. “One of the things we say on our team is win the next moment and really just saying do your job. The rest will take care of itself.”
Though he’s making the most of his senior year and hopes to help the Warhawks to a deep state playoff run, he’s also looking ahead to when he joins the Illini in under a year.
When Okla committed back in February, he became the first prospect out of Wisconsin to commit to Illinois since Austin Roberts in the Class of 2014. He’s pumped about going to play for Bielema, a coach he watched win three straight Big Ten titles at Wisconsin while he was a kid.
He can envision the ground-and-pound brand of football Bielema deployed in Madison, and how he can be a part of it at Illinois. He watched it up close last Saturday as Chase Brown rushed for 257 yards against Charlotte, with Okla in Memorial Stadium to take in the Illini’s 24-14 win.
“Growing up watching Bielema with Wisconsin, I was definitely a fan,” Okla said. “When you think about Illinois football, you think about running the ball.”
Okla has been vocal on social media about sticking with Illinois, unbothered by a sluggish start to the season.
“I know they’re going to improve, and they are,” Okla said. “It’s going to take some time, and I know that. I’m excited for when I can control what I can control when I get there.”
Okla is working in his own pitch to prospective teammates, including four-star athlete Kody Jones and Miami native Elijah Mc-Cantos, who both visited the UI campus last weekend.
“Guys like Cody Jones and Elijah Mc-Cantos, they were at the game on Saturday,” Okla said. “Conversing with those guys, it was super important. We have a high chance at both of those guys, so those would be huge, huge additions to this class.”
And he’s forging strong bonds already with a couple of his future teammates, like New Prairie offensive lineman Hunter Whitenack out of Indiana. The Class of 2022 commits have their own Snapchat group that Okla said is frequently buzzing.
“Me and (Whitenack) became really close friends,” Okla said. “I’d say he’s one of my best friends right now, and I think we’re going to room together, which is awesome.”
Okla, who is the No. 9-ranked player in Wisconsin in 247Sports’ Class of 2022, knows he’s just one piece in the big picture if Illinois football is to turn its fortune around. But he’s rock-solid in his commitment, he says, and is fully bought into Bielema’s program.
“I know they had a few tough losses in the beginning, and then the past couple of weeks, but it hasn’t changed anything in my eyes at all,” Okla said. “I have full trust in the staff, full trust in the guys, full trust in the nutrition staff. They have all my trust.”