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Captains, Okwara discuss team development, first road game

| Thursday, September 20, 2018

As Notre Dame prepares to head to Wake Forest, junior defensive lineman Julian Okwara, graduate student linebacker Drue Tranquill and graduate student offensive lineman Sam Mustipher talked about how the team has improved through the first three games and how they prepare to manage the Demon Deacons fast paced tempo during Wednesday’s press conference.

A quarter of the way through the regular season, Notre Dame (3-0) has managed to maintain their perfect record thanks to strong offensive starts and consistent defensive performance. However, they’ve struggled to dominate all four quarters against any opponents, with all three wins coming within eight points.

The Demon Deacons (2-1, 0-1 ACC), who boast an average 93 snaps per game, compared to the Notre Dame’s 71, are on par with Ball State’s 97 snaps they forced the Irish defense to play two weeks ago. Head coach Brian Kelly’s players understands the importance of maintaining time of possession to give the defense a break against these fast paced offensive schemes. 

For Mustipher, it’s an easy solution — don’t get behind the chains on first and second downs and convert third downs, keeping the plays alive.

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish graduate student offensive lineman Sam Mustipher blocks a Vanderbilt lineman during Notre Dame’s 22-17 win over the Commodores at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 15.

“We obviously don’t want to keep our defense out on the field for too long,” Mustipher said. “This week especially is important, especially for our defense … It’s definitely important to us and we take pride keeping them off the field.”

Mustipher said he feels like the team’s physicality has them prepared for their first road test.

“It’s really just honing in on [those] fundamentals and technique necessary to finish out those drives,” he said. “And not put [senior kicker Justin] Yoon out there — even though I love him — but our goal is to punch it in the end zone and we didn’t do that enough last week.”

Although the Irish are still looking for their breakout offensive performance, Mustipher said he feels like they took a step in the right direction against Vanderbilt, focusing on doing the little things better. He also said the pass and run game has improved.

“Nothing really, it’s just a different guy back there,” he said on the difference between junior backup quarterback Ian Book from senior starter Brandon Wimbush. “Same focus, same energy, same attention to detail that.”

Mustipher also noted the shift in junior running back Tony Jones Jr.’s play style against the Commodores.

“He just had confidence last week and he ran with that confidence, as you could see through his performance,” he said. “He was just trusting his offensive line and trusting the holes were made for him. you know, him running hard … He takes pride in lowering his shoulder and making guys pay for hitting him.”

Mustipher said the offensive line is focusing on seeing through one set of eyes.

“Clear, concise communication on each and every snap,” he said.

Just like Mustipher is sure in the offenses capability to control the pace of the game, Okwara said everyone on the defense is ready to step up and make plays when called on. 

“We have a great strength and conditioning staff so I think we’ll be fine when we go out there with tempo,” he said “I think we can definitely handle it. We always do it in practice and I think we’ll be fine out there. Depth obviously helps … [being] able to rotate guys in and keep guys fresh out there on the field.”

Okwara, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, said he’s looking forward to returning to family and friend in the Tar Heel state .

“I knew before I came up to Notre Dame, a lot of my friends wouldn’t get to see me so I feel like going home is a great chance to see my friends come back and see me play because I know it’s a 12 hour drive from home,” he said. “Going back is like a homecoming for me.”

Although there’s some familiarity there, the veteran understands the difference in an away environment but said it doesn’t bother him.

“It’s obviously not a home environment, where you have all your fans,” Okwara said. “It’s gonna be a majority of the away teams fans. It’s not different for us, you barely even recognize who’s in the crowd so it really doesn’t even matter to us.”

Okwara said he thinks the team is ready to go out and handle the Demon Deacons.

“We’re treating everybody like a new opponent, going out there and doing our job and sticking to the gameplay,” he said.

Despite having full confidence in his team, Tranquill is not willing to overlook Wake Forest as he said they pose many different threats.

“You got to defend a lot of different elements,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of weapons outside, you know [redshirt sophomore wide receiver] Greg Dortch coming back for them, another weapon for them.”

Tranquill also said this weekend’s matchup will be a true test of Notre Dame’s ability to stick with the game plan, regardless of what Wake Forest throws at them.

“You can’t schematically have a guy in every gap when they run the quarterback like that so when they’re darting the quarterback with a lead blocker, someone’s just got to make a play,” he said. “When they get going a 10, 15 play drive, fatigue factor comes in so it’s just going to come down to guys executing their assignments and making plays and getting them off the field.”

Along with Mustipher, Tranquill serves as a captain, and said although this will be a first time experience for the younger guys, he thinks the team is excited to get on the road after playing three home games.

With less focus on the being the first road game, Mustipher said the greater concern for the team is the noon kickoff time.

“It’s a different routine,” he said. “You’re waking up right away and you’ve got to be ready to go for a noon game … it’s just accelerating the process. As soon as you wake up you got to be ready to go, no question marks.”

In his fifth year of eligibility, Tranquill said he and senior Te’von Coney both chose to return with one goal in mind — winning a national championship — and don’t mind the potential fatigue that may come with facing Wake’s offense.

“We’ve got a lot of younger guys behind us and if that means carrying the snap ball unit for now while they learn, we’d rather be out there 100 plays than lose a football game so at the end of the day that’s what it come down to,” Tranquill said. “Obviously if you play that many plays throughout the season you’re going to feel some wear and tear but it’s football, everyone out there’s gonna be sore in November.”

Tranquill also reflected on the breakdown of last season — losing two pivotal games down the road, which eliminating Notre Dame from playoff contention.

“I like to think it was probably guys just losing focus, watching too much of the college football playoff primetime show and seeing us in the top four and losing focus on the process and the things that have gotten us to where we’re at.” he said. “That lack of focus and lack of humility, to be quite frank, lent itself to underperformance and to not playing well on the road against Miami and against Stanford. It’s just a matter of locking in for 12 weeks and not just 7 or 8. Everyone’s sore in November, Miami was sore, Stanford was sore. Everyone’s got the cumulation effect, I like to think that’s an even playing field.”

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