Time, talent and legacy help latest Okwara shine for Irish
His on-field response in a 31-21 win at Northwestern suggests he had a point to prove.
With 17 quarterback hurries, 10 more than any other Irish defender, Okwara has been a pass-rushing menace for the Irish this season. Heading into the Northwestern game, Okwara had parlayed all of those hurries into only 2.5 sacks through the first eight games. Kareem, who at the time was second on the team with 4.5 sacks, didn’t miss a chance for some friendly ribbing.
When Kareem was asked if Okwara could use those quarterback hurries for bragging rights, “Oh no, no, no,” he said with a belly laugh, “those don’t count.”
Okwara answered the indirect challenge with 2.5 sacks against Northwestern, moving him to second on the team this season with 5.0, one-half sack ahead of Kareem.
“He harasses the quarterback,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of Okwara. “He gets quarterbacks uncomfortable. They move their feet. They change their launch point. Their eyes drop.”
Okwara also leads Notre Dame with 9.5 tackles for loss and he has an interception and a forced fumble, too.
“He’s a great player,” Kareem added of Okwara. “Sacks, they’re nice on the stat book but pressures, him deflecting balls, we’ll take whatever he gives us.”
And what Okwara has given the No. 3 Irish (9-0) as they prepare for a home game Saturday against Florida State (4-5) is pure production
“His ceiling is not tapped,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy that with another year, puts on some weight, he’s a guy that can do some great things.”
Undersized upon his arrival on campus in 2016, Okwara joined the Irish as a skinny, 6-foot-5, 215-pound freshman. He still appeared in 23 games during his first two seasons. Now, at 240 pounds — and hoping to pack on 10 more — Okwara is enjoying his breakout junior season.
“I definitely take pride in wanting to be the best defensive end in the country,” Okwara said. “I definitely have some ways to go, but I’m going to get there some day.”
Never one to sit still, Okwara as a youngster juggled an unorthodox athletic lineup of tennis, soccer, swimming and football, admitting today that he didn’t particularly enjoy any of the four.
“I didn’t like watching it, really,” Okwara said of football, a sport he didn’t play until the eighth grade.
Okwara’s interest switch flipped for football in 2014 during his junior year at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, North Carolina., when the premier scholarship offers started rolling in, including ones from Clemson, Georgia, Ole Miss, Michigan, among others.
Ultimately, Okwara chose Notre Dame, in part because of the familiarity he gained from when his older brother, Romeo, was an Irish defensive end. Romeo Okwara, who led the Irish in 2015 with nine sacks, was a heavy and strong player, a powerful edge rusher.
His younger brother takes a more finesse approach, which provides the Irish coaches the rare luxury of dropping one of their best pass rushers into pass coverage when needed.
“Nobody throws my way anymore, so I don’t know,” joked Julian Okwara, who has two career interceptions, including one this season against Michigan. “I think they’re kind of scared.”
As with most sibling rivalries, Romeo Okwara suggests anything little bro can do older bro can do better.
“We were definitely competitive athletically, but not just at sports,” Romeo said. “That definitely carries over to everything we do.”
Both brothers insist that when they interact by phone, text or in person, the subject of football rarely comes up, and that’s by design.
“It’s nice to get your mind off football at times,” Julian Okwara said, “because you can get too carried away with the game, and I would honestly go crazy if I couldn’t step away.”