One of the more intriguing facets of college football recruiting concerns the science of projection. College coaches assess a player, quite often a high school junior, and try to envision what he’ll become two or three years down the road. Sometimes that requires a healthy imagination.
University at Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn remembers the first time he met up with Kristjan Sokoli, a two-way lineman at Bloomfield High School in New Jersey. Sokoli stood 6-foot-5. He weighed just 220 pounds. That wasn’t going to cut it in the Mid-American Conference.
But an intuition sharpened by a couple of decades on the recruiting trail told Quinn that he might be on to something. Sokoli had an affinity for the weight room and Quinn knew that UB’s strength and conditioning coach, Zach Duval, worked wonders with guys who possess an appetite for iron. Sokoli’s build suggested he could pack on a load of weight without compromising his athletic ability. And then there was the matter of the one-on-one introduction.
“I remember the first time I shook his hand and said, ‘He’s got a lot of growth potential,’ ” Quinn said. “Simple as that. I look at his frame. And I do rely upon my coaching staff, especially Zach Duval.”
Sokoli arrived at UB and was slotted at defensive end before defensive line coach Jappy Oliver had another idea. UB needed to develop nose tackles. Oliver pitched the position switch to Sokoli, who said he was open to anything intended to better the team. And thus began Sokoli’s transformation from a 220-pound true freshman to a 300-pound junior nose tackle at the hub of a defense that’s conceded all of three touchdowns the last four games and none over the last two.
“He’s really stepped into that role and responsibility very well and that’s a big reason why our defense has really been able to step up and keep offenses off the scoreboard,” Quinn said.
Transformational journeys are nothing new to Sokoli. He was born in Armenia and emigrated with his family to New Jersey when he was 9. Soccer was his sport but football made gradual inroads and grabbed his full attention by his sophomore year at Bloomfield. He played a variety of positions in high school, even punted and kicked. That adventurous nature and willingness to acclimate were characteristics that provided the foundation for Sokoli’s transition to nose tackle.
How’d he do it? He ate. Then he ate some more. And he ate some more after that. And when he wasn’t eating he was in the workout room, transforming all those calories into beneficial body weight. How many calories?
“I know every day I used to write into my phone every single thing I ate,” Sokoli said. “Long story short, you average about 7,000 calories a day.”
If 7,000 was the average that means some days he ate more, some days a little less. For the high-end dining experience we zero in on the summer of 2012.
“I remember one day in the summer, me and Colby Way were trying to set a record and see how many calories we could eat in one day,” Sokoli said. “We had a 5 a.m. workout, came back at 6:30 a.m., had a huge breakfast, then had this big jar of peanuts and while we were playing Xbox ate peanuts all day. I remember my calorie count was up to like 9,000 on that day.
“You want to eat healthy, but when you want to gain that much weight you also have to sacrifice,” he said. “I didn’t eat horrible, but I had to eat a lot of different things so I could get my calorie count to where I needed to be.”
Duval took care of the rest. Sokoli benches more than 400 pounds. He squats more than 600. His long frame allows him to carry the weight without any signs of bodily duress.
Sokoli is a disruptive force on a defense loaded with playmakers. He leads the Bulls in quarterback hurries with five heading into Saturday’s game at Kent State. He’s tied for fifth in sacks with two.
“We know that the way you win in this business is to bring in the right kind of people with the work ethic necessary, but also to have a plan and develop them,” Quinn said. “We lean very heavily on him.”