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Former UB Bull Kristjan Sokoli makes Seahawks’ 53-man roster

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Kristjan Sokoli will never forget Sept. 5, 2015.

He was vicariously celebrating his cousin’s wedding through the rest of his family, all of whom were in Michigan. He wasn’t able to make it due to a commitment in Seattle.

Sokoli, a former UB defensive lineman, had just completed the final stages of his first NFL preseason and was anxiously awaiting a phone call from his agent to find out news he had been hoping to hear for more than four months.

Finally, around 12:30 p.m. on the West Coast, the inevitable phone call came through. It was his agent.

Sokoli had made the 53-man roster.

“That was my dream to make the NFL’s 53-man roster,” Sokoli said. “I had flashbacks of all of the work I put in. It was a great moment for me and my family.”

Sokoli was selected in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks, who had lost the Super Bowl just three months prior. He was the only player from Buffalo to be drafted this year, but prolonged a three-year stretch of Bulls that were drafted as he joined Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack (2014) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ former defensive back Steven Means (2013).

Sokoli did not have stand out numbers during his senior season, as he only accumulated 32 tackles and only three tackles for losses. He did not record a sack.

But the Seattle Seahawks saw something in him that no one else saw. Most NFL teams would overlook a player because of poor senior year numbers at a Mid-Major program. Yet, Seattle took the gamble. And it seems to be paying off.

Hours after Sokoli was drafted, he was told he would be switching to the offensive line from his natural position on the opposite side of the ball. Why? Because his 6-foot-5 and 302-pound frame allowed for it.

Seattle uses a formula created by Nike, which uses metric results in order to determine late-round draft picks. Nike’s Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction and Quickness (SPARQ) score determines talent and explosiveness on both sides of the ball. Sokoli finished with a 4.84 40-yard dash, 38 inches in the vertical leap and 31 reps on the bench press.

The franchise didn’t see him as much of a threat on defense, but it was looking for a quick offensive lineman. Enter Sokoli.

“He’s built for the offensive line,” said Bulls senior quarterback Joe Licata, Sokoli’s former teammate. “He’s a super athletic guy and he’s smart and he loves football. When you really love football, it’s a challenge. But with that love comes a want to be great. And he has that drive.”

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was the first person who saw the potential in the former defensive tackle. Within the first couple of days of training camp, Sokoli was snapping the ball for the first time in his career. He was still learning the ropes of a foreign position. He still had much to learn if he wanted to make the final roster.

It was Seattle’s offensive line coach Tom Cable who settled him into the position of offensive line and into the Seahawks’ culture. Sokoli said he believes the Seahawks are so successful because of the unique coaching style they offer.

“These coaches not only teach you well, but the good ones create a good environment,” Sokoli said. “They make players feel comfortable. There’s such a balance here in Seattle. They’re not too uptight, but they understand what their job is. And when that bell rings, guys understand what their job is.”

During the middle of training camp, it was Cable who suggested moving Sokoli out of the center position to utilize his sabermetric-like numbers. His 40-yard dash stood out the most, which is fairly impressive for a 300-pound lineman. Cable decided to move him to left guard, which is usually reserved for the fastest lineman on the field.

“Tom Cable is big on guys who can move and move with efficiency,” Sokoli said. “In the run game and in the outside zone, that’s huge.”

On the field, Sokoli was still in the midst of transitioning, but off the field, he was finally coming into his own on a personal level. He didn’t want to be the loudmouth that everyone resented. He needed to learn his place on the team before he could show his true self.

It only took a couple of days. His star-struck attitude toward seeing Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch roaming the locker room faded fairly quickly. He slowly became friends with the people he used to watch every Sunday. He would even sing Albanian tunes to his fellow offensive linemen. He was finally comfortable. He could finally be Kristjan.

During the fourth and final game of the Seahawks’ preseason, Sokoli was given the nod to play left guard to fight for a roster spot. In the back of his head, he knew there were going to be 22 less players on the team than there were.

“It’s stressful,” Sokoli said of the final round of cuts. “As you’ve gone through five weeks of camp and getting ready for the last week, the young guys play the most. I needed as much attention to detail during practice to get ready for that fourth game.”

He had to make his final game count. And so he did.

Sokoli played his new position of left guard during that game and shined. The Seahawks held a 10-point lead with less than six minutes to play on Sept. 3 against the Oakland Raiders, but Sokoli didn’t care about the score. He cared about his roster spot.

And he was about to punch his ticket to the NFL.

With 5:29 remaining, running back Thomas Rawls ran it in for six yards for another Seattle score, with Sokoli trailing the entire time. The touchdown capped a nine-play, 60-yard drive to officially end Oakland’s chances of a comeback.

Sokoli calls it his favorite moment of the preseason. And it only came two days before he found out he made the squad while watching Buffalo play Albany on ESPN3.

“It’s been a wild transition,” Sokoli said. “It hasn’t been easy at all. There have definitely been challenges mentally and physically. But I always knew that I’d come out on top. I always believed in my ability and I knew that it was just a matter of time. It feels great to finally be settling in and just play football.”

Currently, Sokoli is not slotted to start, but Licata said his former captain could get to that point this season.

“Anything’s possible,” Licata said. “If he keeps working hard, like I know he will, he’s got that athleticism and that size.”

For now, he’s ready to become a staple in the league. He’s the first Albanian-born player to be drafted into the league, which he takes great pride in. But that doesn’t satisfy him. He wants to be the first of his kind to play in the league as well.

He’s ready to prove to everyone he is more than just a converted Mid-Major defensive lineman. He wants to be the person who blocks for “Beast Mode” rather than admire over his talent. There’s only one way he’ll ever be satisfied in the NFL, and that’s to consistently play for years to come.

Sunday starts his journey.

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman.


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