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Multi-faceted Romeo Okwara prospers on defensive line

| Thursday, November 12, 2015

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Where to start with Romeo Okwara?

With the fact that the 6-foot-4, 270-pound senior starter on the defensive line leads the team in sacks, racking up six already this season?

Or that he came to Notre Dame as a 17-year-old and will graduate with a degree in accounting from the Mendoza College of Business at the age of 20?

Or that he moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, from Nigeria when he was in middle school?

Or that he and junior receiver Corey Robinson were featured in an episode of Showtime’s “A Season with Notre Dame Football” for their ukulele playing?

The answer is that no matter where you start, Okwara is anything but average.

Heading into Senior Day against Wake Forest, he is coming off two of the most productive games of his career: a seven-tackle, one-sack performance against Temple and a four-tackle, two-sack showing against Pittsburgh.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday that Okwara is “playing his best football” right now. Kelly also said the lineman will only get better from here.

“When he stepped on campus, he was 17 years old,” Kelly said. “So as we continue to talk to NFL scouts, we tell them, “Look, you’re just getting a kid who is just learning how to play the game.

“[We’re seeing] the maturation of a kid that’s kept his weight for the first time. … [He is] understanding the game, the maturation of that, physically maturing, keeping his weight on.”

While Kelly was optimistic about the prospects of Okwara improving as an individual, Okwara focused on the line’s potential as a whole after the win over Pittsburgh.

“We had a solid performance, but there is always room to grow,” Okwara said. “We have to keep getting better each and every day and keep practicing hard.”

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Okwara has come a long way since he was cut from his eighth-grade football team just a few years after moving to the United States. The next year, he made the team at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, and never looked back.

“It was kind of surreal when I started getting offers. I got my first offer from Duke, and the coach called me, and I didn’t really know how to handle that,” Okwara said Sept. 23. “I wasn’t expecting it. I started practicing a lot harder, and knowing that, I had to be a lot better.”

Upon arrival at Notre Dame, Okwara was younger than the other freshmen, but said the veterans from his area and the leaders at the linebacker position — including Manti Te’o and Carlo Calabrese, among others — helped him adjust to the college environment.

“My freshman year here, we had [former linebacker] Prince [Shembo] here who’s from Charlotte, we had [graduate student safety] Matthias [Farley] here who’s from Charlotte and [offensive lineman] Mark Harrell was also from Charlotte,” Okwara said Sept. 23. “I had that base, and I knew some of the older guys who were here, so I always felt very comfortable being here.”

Following a freshman year that primarily consisted of special teams work, Okwara played wherever he was needed on the defense as a sophomore, ranging from defensive end to drop linebacker behind Jaylon Smith.

His junior year was a different story: He started 12 of 13 games on the defensive line, finishing the year with 39 tackles, two forced fumbles and a team-high four sacks.

Then as a senior, Okwara was suddenly one of the more experienced veterans on the line, as fellow senior lineman Jarron Jones went down with a torn MCL, leaving freshman Jerry Tillery and sophomore Daniel Cage to fill the hole.

“It’s very devastating when any of our teammates go down, but we knew the next guy had to step up,” Okwara said on Sept. 23. “We’ve all been that young guy coming in, so we know that being there for them is very important.”

Okwara credited senior Sheldon Day with filling the leadership role and helping the newer players know what was expected of them.

“Being a young guy, you see the older guys act a certain way, and you see them succeed, and that’s something you want to mimic,” he said.

Okwara also said he was glad to be right where he is: an integral part of Notre Dame’s defensive line.

“I love the D-line,” he said. “Put me anywhere, but I’m loving the D-line right now.”

Saturday may be the last time Romeo Okwara takes the field at Notre Dame Stadium, but it won’t be the last time an Okwara does so. His younger brother Julian, a four-star defensive end recruit according to Rivals.com, is committed to play at Notre Dame next fall.

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About Renee Griffin

Notre Dame senior, formerly of Farley Hall. Originally from Lake Zurich, IL, majoring in American Studies with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Enjoys talkin' about practice.

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