Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the Class of 2018 signees. Land of 10 Penn State reporter Tyler Donohue is traveling to visit members of the Nittany Lions’ incoming freshman class. Leading up to their arrival, Land of 10 will introduce fans to these newest Penn State players. Today, we feature defensive end Jayson Oweh.
BLAIRSTOWN, N.J. — Sitting alongside his parents in the Blair Academy office lounge, awaiting an admissions interview, Jayson Oweh had plenty to ponder. Just not football.
Halfway through high school, he intended to transfer 50 miles northwest from Rutgers Prep in pursuit of academic and athletic endeavors. Before the interview, Oweh was approached by Jim Saylor.
“Are you here as a parent?” the Blair football coach asked Oweh, who couldn’t quite tell whether Saylor was joking.
Oweh, standing nearly 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, smirked and shook his hand.
“Tell me you’re here for football,” Saylor said.
Oweh then broke the bad news. He’d established himself as an emerging prep basketball player and planned to continue that course.
“Let’s try that again,” Saylor said, asking Oweh to sit down, then stand up and repeat their introduction.
“Tell me you’re here for football,” Saylor repeated.
In a state of perplexity and intrigue, Oweh proceeded to nod his head slightly.
Saylor’s impromptu recruitment paid off. More than five years after walking away from football, Oweh was compelled to reassess the sport.
Months later, he put on pads and prepared for the 2016 season. Within one year, college football scholarship offers began to arrive in bunches.
Oweh, now 6-foot-5, 244 pounds and considered a premier defensive end prospect, enrolls at Penn State this week. He is a marquee member of the Nittany Lions’ all-time top-rated recruiting class according to the 247Sports composite rankings.
Based on a limited sample size — about one dozen high school games — Oweh’s rapid development encourages imagination.
“His upside is just tremendous,” Saylor said. “When he gets to a college program and has 3 hours each day just to focus on defensive end, it’s going to be special. He’s like a flower that hasn’t even bloomed yet.”
‘Intellectual hunger’ empowered Jayson Oweh before sports
Henry and Tania Oweh, natives of Nigeria’s Delta State, raised Jayson to be academically inclined and spiritually grounded. Years before athletics presented a bridge toward his bright future, the Owehs made it clear studies take priority.
“What is thought to be high [academics] here, is considered like the norm in Nigeria,” Tania said. “Jayson has understood right from the get-go that he comes from a family of professionals — engineers, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers — and he has followed in that footprint.”
Henry and Tania initially met while living in London. After losing touch, career opportunities led each to the U.S., and a reunion eventually resulted in marriage and life in New Jersey — Jayson was born in Hackensack but has spent most of his life in Howell Township.
Work ethic wasn’t something they needed to force on him. Tania describes “an intellectual hunger” that drives her son. Scholarship offers from Ivy League universities such as Dartmouth, Harvard and Princeton provide further evidence.
He took an early interest in engineering and efforts to fulfill that academic ambition played a central role in his search for the right collegiate landing spot, even as widespread attention centered on physical measurements and on-field test results.
“Instead of academics and best fit, some coaches were talking about five, six years down the road and the money he could potentially make,” Saylor said. “That’s when things got a little crazy — when you’re comparing him to guys who have gone No. 1 and talking about where he could be picked in the draft. Those comparisons are great, but education was the main focus Jayson and his parents always wanted.”
Built differently, Jayson Oweh blossoms on the field
Oweh was the kind of kid you picked first for games during recess, regardless of the sport.
“Ever since Jayson was very young, he’s always been built different,” Tania said. “He’s always been bigger than his peers. He’s always looked stronger. Athletically, things have always seemed to come easier for Jayson.”
However, that advanced physical build made it difficult for Oweh to stay below the weight cutoff for youth football. At the start of middle school, a local basketball coach told Oweh’s parents there might be a better fit on the court. So the transition began.
At Rutgers Prep, there was no decision to make. The school has no football program. Oweh joined the basketball team as a freshman in 2014.
A 2016 transfer to Blair provided him a chance to play football, even if that wasn’t initially on his mind. As Oweh examined the opportunity, he came to a realization that his athleticism could make him a special player and decided to sign up for Saylor’s squad.
Of course, there is far more to football than speed and strength.
“His early days on the field were like if you went to a foreign country and tried to order a meal in a language you’ve never spoke,” Saylor said. “The concepts were completely new to him. I think it took about half of a season for the light bulb to really go off.”
In his first game, though, he was sent to the hospital at halftime with what Blair coaches thought might be broken ribs. It turned out to be a scare, but gave an early glimpse of Oweh’s dedication.
“That was an eye-opener for him about how physical football is, and it showed me a lot about him,” Saylor said. “A lot of kids in his position probably would’ve quit at that point and waited for basketball season. Instead, Jayson took it as a lesson learned. Having that happen in Game 1 may have actually accelerated his maturation as a football player.”
Why did Oweh stick with it?
“I thought about my teammates, and there were other guys who got banged up,” he said. “I couldn’t give up on them and couldn’t give up on myself.”
Oweh returned to action the following week and began to gain confidence.
“When I got my first big hit, it just felt right,” he said. “The whole crowd went crazy, my teammates were jumping on my back and that’s when I thought I could get used to this.”
Oweh returned to basketball soon after the 2016 football season, contributing as a front court presence. He was back in a familiar setting, but that autumn had changed the dynamics of his athletic outlook.
Blair basketball coach Joe Mantegna requested a brief meeting with Tania midway through the season. He said Oweh would have opportunities to play college basketball or football, so there would be a decision to make regarding which featured his greatest passion and potential.
Approximately a week later, on Jan. 29, 2017, Oweh received his first football scholarship offer, from Rutgers University.
“After that, they just kept coming,” Tania said. “It was amazing.”
Oweh remained a member of the Blair basketball program but it became apparent football was front-and-center to his future plans. That was never more clear than when coaches from Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State attended hoops games last winter during the final stretch of his recruitment.
Following the 2016-17 school year, Mantegna helped Oweh hook up with former Rutgers football standout Malik Jackson, who previously sent a pair of sons to Blair and trains athletes in Elizabeth, N.J.
“Malik saw his abilities,” Henry said, “and helped him understand, ‘You’ve got what it takes. If you commit to this game, you’re going to excel.’”
Oweh worked tirelessly under Jackson’s supervision throughout the offseason, and the results were progressively more noticeable during the course of camp circuit appearances.
“Everybody wants to talk about Jayson’s explosiveness or his size, but his ability to grasp things mentally gives him an edge,” Jackson said. “It takes some players years to understand some of the stuff he’s already figured out.”
Fully invested, Jayson Oweh has big goals for Penn State career
His first full offseason of football training paid off. Oweh totaled 4 sacks, 11 tackles and a touchdown reception in his senior season opener, stating afterward: “I would say I’m at less than 50 percent [of potential].”
He finished with 13 sacks in five games last fall. Oweh wrapped up his prep career at the 2018 Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando, Fla.
“Jayson really could’ve played anywhere on the field for us,” Saylor said. “He played some wide receiver and tight end. We could’ve put him at running back in our triple option. If we needed him at linebacker, he would’ve done that. We could’ve even played him at cornerback because he was probably the fastest kid on our team. He’s just a one-in-a-million athlete and he would’ve done whatever it took to help the team.”
During The Opening’s Northeast regional camp in April 2017, Oweh worked on offense and caught the attention of Ronny Torres, who coached tight ends at an event that featured four top-10 prospects at the position.
“That kid was probably the most impressive as far as what he could potentially become because of how raw he is right now,” said Torres, who compared Oweh to former Miami Hurricanes tight end David Njoku, a 2017 first-round NFL draft pick.
“We’ve heard first-round [NFL] draft pick, multimillion-dollar contracts,” Saylor said, reflecting on conversations during Oweh’s recruitment.
First, Oweh will join one of the most talented rosters Penn State has constructed, resulting in considerable competition for reps. Based on his early success in the sport, it’s no surprise the incoming freshman exudes confidence.
“This first year, I don’t want to redshirt,” he said. “I want to get some decent [playing] time so I know what to work on [next] offseason. I want to get some significant time.”
Many analysts view defensive end as a position of strength for Penn State this year. The Nittany Lions can go three tiers down the depth chart with players who have game experience.
Still, Oweh seems well-equipped to sustain his swift ascension in the sport.
“Before I got to college, I had played approximately 10 years of football. He’s been playing for two,” Jackson said. “His body isn’t as beat up from football compared to a normal freshman, but he has just as much love for the game as any of them. The sky is the limit for this guy. I think he can be one of the best that Penn State has had.”
“Down the road, I want to be one of the greats — be the best defensive end the school has had,” he said.