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Versatile Okwara shifts around ND defense

Matthew DeFranks | Wednesday, November 6, 2013

When asked about his transition from Nigeria to the United States as a sixth-grader, Romeo Okwara has a simple answer.

“It was a little different but I kind of got used to it,” he said.

When asked about his transition from defensive line to the drop linebacker as a college sophomore, Okwara has a simple answer.

“It was a little different but I kind of got used to it,” he said.

Now, Irish fans need to get used to Okwara, who made his first career start against Navy and tallied five tackles and 0.5 sack. Coming into the game against the Midshipmen, Okwara had just five tackles on the season but doubled his total in the 38-34 victory.

“I guess they ran my way more,” Okwara said.

Irish coach Brian Kelly said Okwara just needs more playing time to improve as a player.

“When he plays more football, he’s going to be fine,” he said. “The game is new to him.”

Growing up in Nigeria, Okwara said he played soccer and it took two years for him to learn the game of football. Okwara did not even make his eighth grade football team as a 5-foot-7 youngster, but made the team as a 6-foot high school freshman.

“He wasn’t brought up as a young man that played a lot of football,” Kelly said. “So each time that he steps on the field, it’s new to him. … He wasn’t blessed with the football instincts. He’s learning about the game every day and he’s making great progress every day. You can see him growing as a player.”

Okwara has been shifted around the Irish front seven due not only to Notre Dame’s injuries up front but also his versatile athleticism. He has played defensive end, cat linebacker behind senior Prince Shembo and drop linebacker behind Jaylon Smith.

“It’s definitely difficult but I think I’m very confident in the fact that they can move me everywhere and next man in, you just have to do your job and I’m comfortable wherever they put me,” Okwara said.

The 6-foot-4, 258-pound native of Charlotte, N.C., said he did not drop into coverage often in high school. But with junior linebacker Ben Councell out for the season with an ACL injury, Okwara was listed as Smith’s backup at the position on the depth chart this week.

“It’s less about the technical stuff from me with Romeo, just every time he steps on that field, whether it’s on the special teams assignment or whether it’s play option as a five technique or in the nickel package, he just keeps growing,” Kelly said. “And I don’t mean physically, I mean mentally as a football player. That’s what he needs the most, and as long as he continues to do that, he’s going to be fine.”

Okwara was ranked as the No. 35 weakside defensive end as a senior at Ardrey Kell High School – the same high school as Shembo – and has been in a three-point stance at times this season. Kelly said Okwara’s ability and size allow him to be able to bang with 300-pound offensive linemen.

“He can get his hands on the ground, he has some athleticism and he can play in space,” Kelly said.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu