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Influenced by a former Bucs coach, Olakunle Fatukasi wins over the current ones

The Rutgers linebacker was the only undrafted rookie to make the Tampa Bay roster.
Bucs inside linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi (53), who led the team in tackles during the preseason, was the only undrafted rookie to make the 53-man roster.
Bucs inside linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi (53), who led the team in tackles during the preseason, was the only undrafted rookie to make the 53-man roster. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 1, 2022

TAMPA — Surreal as it seems, Greg Schiano has returned to Bucs headquarters.

Not in body, perhaps not even in spirit, but certainly in terms of forensics. His fingerprints are all over the lone undrafted rookie to make the team’s 53-man roster.

“He was one of the biggest mentors to help me throughout this process and throughout life,” said inside linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, who played his last two seasons at Rutgers for the beleaguered former Bucs coach. “He’s very detail-specific about his craft. Anything you do, he wants everything in specific details.”

That precision, developed at the foot of one of the least-popular coaches in bay area sports lore, parlayed into one of the most improbable stories of the 2022 training camp.

The undrafted rookie free agents the Bucs brought in for a look-see included the most statistically prolific college receiver of 2021 (Jerreth Sterns), a 1,700-yard receiver last fall (Deven Thompkins) and a heady Clemson safety with an NFL pedigree (Nolan Turner).

Fatukasi — universally known as “O3″ — initially seemed destined to be submerged in the expanded preseason depth charts. Only a year before, the Bucs had drafted a pair of inside linebackers (K.J. Britt, Grant Stuard) to back up Lavonte David and Devin White, and both sparkled on special teams as rookies.

No roster spot seemed to exist for Fatukasi, the middle of three brothers who all played Division I-A football. But he simply couldn’t be ignored.

The Bucs traded Stuard to the Colts on Tuesday.

“He forced himself on this team,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “He made us take notice, and he was consistent.”

The son of Nigerian-born parents, Fatukasi — whose first name means “wealthy in Christ” — finished the preseason with a team-high 19 tackles. The night before his best performance, in a 13-3 loss to the Titans, he observed his pregame ritual of downing a sundae with vanilla-bean ice cream, three snickerdoodle cookies and assorted toppings.

Then he sacked Titans rookie dual threat Malik Willis in the first quarter, assisted on another sack of Willis in the third, and finished with a team-best nine tackles.

“Instinctive, toughness, athletic,” David, an All-Prro entering his 11th season, said of his newest peer. “Everything he does, he just does it well, does it smooth, and he knows where he’s supposed to be on the field every time.”

Fatukasi’s story started on the streets. Or more specifically, street football in Far Rockaway — the Queens neighborhood that spawned him. He said he excelled at age 8 for his first organized team, the Far Rockaway Ravens, and knew he wanted to pursue football as a craft.

In time, all three Fatukasi boys flourished. Older brother Folorunso (“Foley”) was an honorable-mention All-American Athletic Conference defensive tackle at Connecticut in 2015 and was drafted in the sixth round by the Jets the following spring. Younger brother Tunde, an offensive lineman, is playing at Bowling Green after spending the previous two seasons at Rutgers.

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Olakunle (pronounced Oh-la-koon-lay) evolved into a two-time Butkus Award semifinalist and two-year captain at Rutgers, where he played last season with Bowles’ oldest son, Todd Jr., a freshman defensive back. He led the Big Ten in tackles (101) during the COVID-shortened 2020 season and ranked fourth nationally in tackles per game (9.9) last season.

His production seemed to spike with the level of competition. He had 15 tackles and two sacks in a triple-overtime loss to Michigan in 2020 and recorded 10 tackles and a pass breakup in a loss to Ohio State last fall.

“His brother (Foley) was a heck of a player; he still is,” Bowles said a few days before the roster was whittled for the final time.

“‘O3′ has made a name for himself out of his brother’s shadow. I knew the person because I met him at Rutgers one time when I went to see my son. But he’s made a name for himself despite his brother, and he’s put himself in the mix and in a good position.”

A position that few unfamiliar with the Fatukasi name might have envisioned when the summer commenced.

“Every time he got the opportunity,” David said, “he took advantage of it.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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