Chasing His Dreams: A rising star on the defensive line, junior Julian Okwara continually strives for individual and team excellence
Elizabeth Greason | Friday, November 23, 2018
It took defensive lineman Julian Okwara a bit more time than the average football player to realize he loves the game. But now, as a football-loving junior at Notre Dame, Okwara has made a name for himself, this season in particular — his breakout season — as a leader on the Irish defense, both on and off the field.
Okwara has followed in his older brother Romeo’s footsteps at Notre Dame. Romeo is a 2015 graduate of the University and a member of the football team as well, a two-year starter and a current starter for the Detroit Lions — a team Okwara said is “definitely building up” — after originally signing with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent.
“It definitely was a tough day, a rough day for him and for me just watching him,” Okwara said of Romeo’s Draft day. “ … I definitely think he shaped himself to be even another great player. I definitely look up to him and the way he carried and went about his career in football and in school, and he was always about business, and I think that he’s probably the biggest role model [I] looked at growing up and playing football and being in the kind of same age range.”
Okwara said his family — especially his competitive spirit with his brothers — has “definitely helped” shape him as a player and as a man.
“My brothers definitely played a huge role to get me to this point because we were always competing siblings and competing in everything we did,” he said. “Just watching my brothers play football and what they did in high school, Romeo coming into college and having the career he had and the success he had, going into the NFL from Notre Dame, I think that helped me out. So I always want to do better than them and be able to play harder than them and beat them in everything, no matter what it was.”
Okwara’s start in football was a slow one. He was born in Nigeria, but moved with his parents and Romeo to Charlotte, North Carolina, as a third grader, to reunite with his older brother and sister. The then-8-year-old had “never really played football or knew anything about football” before moving to the U.S., he said, and was more focused on other sports before eventually falling hard for football in high school.
“I really started picking up the game and really started watching it, — and I really didn’t [watch] it before — and it just kinda [got to the] point where I was getting looked at for my school and I was like, I mean, maybe I really could do this thing, go out to college,” Okwara said. “And it became a dream of mine to play the highest level, and right now I’m playing at one of the best schools in the nation. And there’s nothing better than playing for Notre Dame and getting the best academic education, I mean, my parents always preached that to me. … It just kind of worked out that I’m here now and trying to go ahead and win it all.”
This season as a member of the Irish squad, Okwara has been making highlight-reel plays left and right. He leads the team in tackles for losses with 10.5 for 51 yards and is second in sacks with six. But where he has really excelled is in becoming the king of quarterback hurries (QBH), tallying 21 with one game remaining in the season. For comparison, the player with the second-most QBHs is junior Khalid Kareem with eight.
When it comes to his game, though, Okwara feels there is always room for improvement. After primarily playing as “a special teams guy” during his freshman season, Okwara said, he took advantage of making it onto the defensive depth chart during his sophomore season, when he was “playing with a little bit more pace.”
“Now, I’m starting for the Notre Dame football team and I’ve definitely seen a growth, especially in the run game and my pass game,” he said. “I’ve definitely tried to increase my strength and be the best defensive end in the country, and I definitely pride myself on that and work to be the best out there.”
Notre Dame’s shutdown defense has been one of the major keys to its success this season. Okwara attributes much of that to the defensive line’s close-knit sense of community that he and his teammates have worked to build.
“I think you definitely need to have pride in each other and have trust in each other and a bond — a brotherhood that nobody can break — and I definitely feel like the defensive line has grown and been able to work on that in the offseason,” Okwara said. “ … I think we’ve definitely taken it upon ourselves to be able to be able to talk to each other, communicate with each other and just know that we have each other’s backs.”
Okwara was modest in discussing his breakout season — he noted that many of the juniors have really found their groove and increased their roles this year, and that it is an honor to know that Irish head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea can count on him as a go-to player.
“It’s just great seeing them have the success they have — especially on the O-line, who are finally getting their … turn to start and be able to show what they got and showcase their abilities,” Okwara said. “It’s definitely different. I mean just more — more of an impact being more of a role, increased-role guy and being able to go out there and have trust and know that my coach is going to trust me, being able to do my job and go out there and be able to compete at the highest level and get the dub for Notre Dame.”
But no matter the growth Okwara and the Irish have made, he knows his work is not finished yet and is keeping his eye on a national championship.
“I definitely think we can still grow to be the best defense and offense and best team in the nation,” he said.