The first time someone suggested to Kristjan Sokoli that he play offensive line came four months ahead of the 2015 NFL Draft. Sokoli, who played defensive tackle for the University at Buffalo, was open to the idea if it meant a chance at an opportunity to play in the NFL.
It was Seahawks area scout Todd Brunner who originally approached Sokoli with the O-line intention, and as time passed, Sokoli found himself face-to-face with Seattle's assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable for a personal workout and official pre-draft visit. Cable and the Seahawks liked what they saw, selecting Sokoli in the sixth round (No. 214 overall) of the draft this past May.
"Every day I feel a little bit better," Sokoli said of his defense-to-offense transition following Seahawks training camp practice this past week. "I feel like I'm working on something different every day and feeling some improvement every day. And that's key, to feel every day like you've worked on something and to do something better than you did the day before."
Seattle was attracted to Sokoli for his unique combination of size and athleticism. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 302 pounds, Sokoli ran 4.84- and 4.88-second 40-yard dashes at Buffalo's pro day. Those times would have put Sokoli at the top of his class at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, where Ali Marpet paced all offensive linemen with a 4.98-second mark. Sokoli's 38-inch vertical leap would have beat out the combine's top O-line performers by nearly five inches, and his 9-11 broad jump and 7.25-second time in the three-cone drill also would have ranked at the top of the position group.
Even though Sokoli hasn't played offensive line since high school, his makeup made him a target for Cable, who has said he's looked to stockpile more athletic linemen to combat defense's that are starting to employ more speed off the edge.
"It's a pleasure working with him," Sokoli said of Cable. "He's a great coach and he's good at motivating us and pushing us. I think I'm definitely in the right place."
Part of Sokoli's comfort level with his new coach has to come from Cable's history of taking on project players. In 2012, the Seahawks used a seventh round pick on North Carolina State defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy with the goal of moving him to offensive guard. Sweezy saw snaps at the spot during his rookie season and matured into the team's starting right guard, where he's excelled, particularly in the run game, over the past two seasons.
"I really respect the way he plays the game," Sokoli said of Sweezy. "So looking up to a guy like that is awesome. We've definitely had our side conversations and it's a good person to look up to for me, for sure."
Sokoli said the most challenging aspect of his position switch has been with the mentality he maintains on the football field, one that has him operating in "a whole new world."
"It's kind of like controlled aggression," Sokoli said of his experience on the O-line. "Whereas D-line was all about being explosive and attacking. Now it's like, 'Can you control your aggression and use it at the right time?' It's definitely been a challenge for me."
Sokoli has been battling for playing time at center and left guard through the early stages of training camp, going up against one of the better defensive lines in the League on a daily basis. His 'Welcome to the NFL' moment came at practice when he was forced to take on a bull-rush from some of the game's top defenders. But Sokoli said he's enjoyed the competition.
"It's so great to know that you're going against one of the best D-lines in the NFL," Sokoli said. "Guys like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, Jordan Hill. These are guys that I've seen make big time plays on T.V., so to be able to work against them and practice this new position against these guys is a blessing for me."
This Friday, when the Seahawks take on the Denver Broncos in the team's first preseason game of the year, the Albanian-born rookie is expected to become the first player from his country to appear in an NFL game. Sokoli immigrated to the United States when he was nine years old, joining his mother and father who had come to the country a few years prior.
"It's pretty cool, man," Sokoli said. "It's pretty unreal. Fifteen years ago I was in Albania. I'm just blessed and I thank God every day. It's been a long process from the work that my family's put into it, to the work I've put into it. I'm just blessed to have the opportunity and trying to take it day by day."