NORMAN — Running out of the tunnel onto Owen Field for Oklahoma’s season opener was a surreal experience for LaRon Stokes, a Tulsa native who grew up a Sooners fan.

“That is literally like a dream come true, to start my first game after being homeschooled,” Stokes said. “It was a long journey (with) all kinds of twists and turns, but for it to actually happen was pretty nice.”

Stokes played high school football for the Northeast Oklahoma Association of Homeschools (NOAH) team and received several small-school scholarship offers. Because of the uncertainty of whether his homeschool credentials would meet the requirements of four-year colleges, he landed at Northeastern A&M, a junior college in Miami, Oklahoma.

At NEO, which annually produces transfers to FBS programs, Stokes learned proper technique and became a big-time player. Word traveled to Norman, and OU defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux made the trip up the Will Rogers Turnpike to see Stokes.

“Coaches say, ‘I got a guy that’s 6-3, 6-4,’ and you get there, and you know, I’m 6-1 and he’s telling me he’s 6-3, but he’s shorter than me,” Thibodeaux said. “But I was looking up to LaRon, and I was like, ‘Oh, snap.’ I got on the phone with coach (Lincoln) Riley and said, ‘Coach, we need to offer this guy.’

“The rest is history. I was really excited when I saw his frame.”

Stokes, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 267 pounds, also reeled in appealing offers from Oklahoma State and Oregon, but the offer from the Sooners was the one he coveted most. As a kid, he wanted to be an OU running back like his favorite player, Adrian Peterson.

“Everybody (at NEO) knew I wanted to go to OU and they were like, ‘Will you go there over this one?’ ” Stokes said. “I said, ‘If any school offers me, I will go to OU over any of them.’ ”

Qualifying immediately was significant because it allowed Stokes to transfer in January and participate in the football team’s spring practice, which gave him a jump-start on learning the Sooners’ system.

“I was shocked, to be honest, because I’m thinking I’m going to have to stay at NEO until May and graduate there,” he said. “Once we found out, it was like everything just kind of exploded from there.

“It was pretty exciting calling my mom, the first thing I did. We were happy and praising God and stuff like that. It was cool.”

At OU, the biggest transition for Stokes was making the long walks to class, not performing on the football field. When spring practice rolled around, he was ready to contribute.

“I could tell by the moment he walked in he was a guy that knew what he wanted,” fellow defensive lineman Neville Gallimore said. “He knew he wanted to be part of this team. You could tell by his work ethic. Really quiet guy (who) doesn’t say too much, but his work ethic speaks volumes.”

Whereas he relied on physical attributes to dominate at the high school and junior college levels, Stokes has been able to handle the learning curve at OU to make an early impact for a top-five team. Because of his versatility, he was moved from defensive end to tackle, the position he has played through two games.

“He has been as consistent as any guy on that defense literally from Day 1,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said last month. “He’s done a tremendous job from a mental standpoint. He plays hard. He plays physical. We’d take a LaRon Stokes every year if you can find one. He’s been impressive.”

Kelly Hines

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Kelly has been the University of Tulsa football and basketball beat writer since 2014. She grew up in Moore, was valedictorian at Christian Heritage Academy and graduated from Oklahoma State University. Phone: 918-581-8452