Julian Okwara helps lead strengthened defensive line to new heights
Joe Everett | Friday, November 2, 2018
For junior defensive end Julian Okwara and the entire Notre Dame defensive line, the last three years have been marked by tremendous effort and subsequent growth.
During the 2016 season, the Irish recorded just 13 sacks in 12 games. The pass rush was virtually non-existent and generally provided little-to-no pressure on the opposing quarterback, which in turn put added stress and responsibility on the Irish secondary, which would struggle to cover receivers for an extended period of time. One defensive weakness led to another.
Okwara and fellow juniors Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem were freshmen then. Now, the trio of defensive ends is a large part of Notre Dame’s defensive line renaissance. The Irish improved their sack total to 24 last year, and the team as a whole has recorded 17 sacks through eight games this season — its highest sacks-per-game average since 2012 (33 sacks, 2.54 sacks per game). For Julian Okwara — the younger brother of former Notre Dame defensive linemen and current Detroit Lion Romeo Okwara — the past few years have helped a once-inexperienced defensive line grow deeper and get better in all areas of the field, and now their overall impact is starting to show.
“As we’ve gotten older, I think we’ve matured and started understanding the game more, and we go out there and work to be the best defensive ends in the country,” Okwara said. “I think we all took it very seriously in the spring, and when it came our turn to be the leaders of this defense we took it to our advantage — bringing guys along, working hard and trying to be the best out there.”
Personally, Okwara believes that the challenge of going against Notre Dame’s top offensive linemen in practice has only accelerated his development, and he said it continues to sustain his goal of being the best player he can be.
“Towards the end of last season, especially playing against guys like [former offensive linemen] Mike [McGlinchey] and Quenton [Nelson] and being able to practice against them every day, and then going into spring this past year, I definitely started to feel like that playmaker that everybody wants me to be. Doing my job, making plays … I definitely take pride in wanting to be the best defensive end in the country — and I definitely have a ways to go — but I think I’m going to get there someday.”
The 6’5”, 240-pound athlete from Charlotte, North Carolina, has posted substantial stats this season, having recorded 27 tackles (seven for loss), two-and-a-half sacks and one interception this season. Okwara’s impact goes beyond that, however, as the junior leads the team with 16 quarterback hurries on the season, a stat that Okwara says is “frustrating” and won’t win him any points in the “sack race” amongst the defensive linemen, but still helps the team win.
“We’re doing our job, and as long as we’re going out there and getting some pressure, some sacks and doing our job to get the win, we’re pretty satisfied with that,” Okwara said about registering quarterback hurries instead of sacks. “ … I think it’s more of a bragging rights thing. I guess it’s somewhat of a competition.”
Kareem said Okwara makes important contributions each way, no matter the capacity in which he does so.
“Julian is a great player. We’ve known it since he’s gotten here and know what he’s brought to the table,” Kareem said of his fellow junior. “Sacks are nice on the stat book, but pressure, him deflecting balls — that causes interceptions — we’ll take what he gives us and he does it every play.”
Perhaps what Okwara does best for Clark Lea’s defense is the speed and athletic versatility he brings to the end position, meaning he can chase down a running back from the backside or can even drop into coverage and confuse the quarterback — exemplified by his interception of Shea Patterson during the season opener against Michigan on Sept. 1.
“I honestly like being on coverage,” Okwara said. “I like getting picks … hopefully I get some more, although nobody throws my way anymore — I think they’re getting scared.”
Opponents have reason to be scared of the entire defensive line. Senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery has seven sacks. Kareem has four-and-a-half. Hayes has 16 tackles and four quarterback hurries. There is depth across the board, which helps keep everyone fresh throughout the four quarters. On a deeper level, there is a brotherhood.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that,” Kareem said of the depth. “I count on everyone, but just looking down the line, I can count on my guys. We’ve been through so much and we’ve grown so close. I love each and every guy in that room, and I’m confident in what they’re going to bring to the table.”
As long as the defensive line keeps bringing the pressure to opposing quarterbacks and disrupting offenses, the Irish figure to be in pretty good shape the rest of the season. For Okwara, it’s all about solely concentrating on the opponent right ahead.
“I think we need to focus on taking the season one game at a time,” he said. “Right now, we’re focused on Northwestern, going in there and doing our job and coming back and focusing on what’s next … trusting the process, and I think we’re on the right track.”