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Following breakout season, Julian Okwara is blocking out the noise in pursuit of a championship

| Friday, November 22, 2019

Today’s college football landscape is defined by star quarterback play. Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields and Jake Fromm headline the talented group of quarterbacks featured in college football this season. Because of the increased importance of strong play under center, it is especially important for a modern defense to be able to put pressure on the quarterback. Fortunately for Notre Dame, that is something they are well-equipped to do.

Irish senior defensive end Julian Okwara and fellow captain and senior Khalid Kareem lead a Notre Dame pass rush group that is talented, experienced and deep. Okwara says he believes this defensive end group is as talented as — if not the most talented — group in the country.

“I definitely think we are [the best pass rushers]; definitely confident in our abilities, in our D-line,” Okwara said. “We are the best pass rushers in the country. Whatever people say doesn’t really matter. I think we’re just focused on us, and collectively, we’re just a great group of pass rushers.”

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish senior defensive tackle and captain Julian Okwara rises to block a field goal during Notre Dame‘s 30-3 loss to Clemson at the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29.

Among the defensive ends, Kareem led the position group with 42 total tackles, while Okwara recorded 39 on the season. However, a defensive end’s contributions are more accurately represented by tackles-for-loss and sacks. Okwara tied former Irish defensive tackle Jerry Tillery for the team lead with eight sacks last season while Kareem recorded 4.5. Okwara also led the Irish with 12.5 tackles-for-loss while Kareem came in second with 10.5.

While the group may have been successful last season, that success will now result in increased attention from opposing teams. However, Okwara sees it as an advantage for the rest of the defensive line that the opposing offensive line has to devote more effort to stopping the ends.

“Whatever attention I get, I think that’ll open up holes and pressures from the rest of the guys who aren’t getting those 1-on-1s,” Okwara said. “Like I said whatever happens to help the team win, I’m there for. I’ve got to win my blocks, whatever happens I got to play on and just keep going after the quarterback. They’re definitely gonna keep rushing and the other guys … will be able to put pressure on the quarterback and be able to help us win games.”

Despite the increased focus on the defensive ends, they will still be able to make plays thanks to their ability to wear down the opposition with their depth. Along with Okwara and Kareem, the pass rush is supplemented by senior ends Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji. Okwara spoke of the camaraderie and chemistry the defensive ends have built coming to Notre Dame together.

“We all came together. Coming in we had the want to be the best pass rushers and the best D-ends in the country, so I think we all just bought in, especially going into the year as we started getting more reps,” Okwara said. “I think that has helped the whole team, just helped our confidence overall. Just getting more playing time on the field I think we just built that bond. We hang out a lot, we talk a lot. We’re pretty close. I mean, we see each other every day so you’ve got to have that bond.”

For Okwara, he follows in the footsteps of his brother Romeo, a former Notre Dame defensive end and current member of the Detroit Lions. Julian said his brother played a role in recruiting him to the Irish, thanks in part to the experience the elder Okwara could pass on.

“It definitely did [play a role] in some way,” Okwara said. “I think he definitely talked me into it and just told me the pro is just coming, honestly. It was a no-brainer once I came up here, and I mean, I’m proud of my decision, glad I’m still here. … Notre Dame is home.”

Oddly enough, Okwara’s junior season numbers of eight sacks and 12.5 tackles-for-loss are both one short of his brother Romeo’s totals of nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss during his senior season with the Irish in 2015. The younger Okwara said that despite the statistical similarities with Romeo, there isn’t any one-upmanship on his mind.

“[It’s] not really a competitive thing,” Okwara said. “I think he’s happy for whatever I’m doing and I was always proud of him for whatever he did while he was here. … Some bragging a little bit, but it’s nothing really competitive.”

While the entire Irish defensive line is stacked with talent, Okwara stands out among the rest, at least in the national media’s perception. Okwara was named to both preseason Second-Team All-American and to the watchlist for the Bednarik Award, given annually to the best defensive player in college football. Despite the early accolades, Okwara has remained focused and doesn’t let any talk phase him.

“[It’s] not really [a factor],” he said. “Like I said we all come in with that approach to be the best every day, just to win the day overall. So I think just coming out here and working on what I need to focus on and not paying attention to the outside noise, I’m good with that. And just being able to stay focused and stay true to what I believe in and just the game plan. Just stay away from all that noise is the best thing for me.”

Part of Okwara’s ability to tune out the noise is in his approach to the game, which is a unique blend of fun-loving and intense focus.

“I definitely kick back, pregame. But once the clock hits 15, the ball snaps, I’m pretty locked in, I’m pretty focused,” he said. “I’m just really focused on the game. I have the confidence that I’m the best out there, so I just keep that confidence and tell myself that the whole game.”

While Okwara isn’t letting the hype get to him, he holds himself to a high standard, and he has set a lofty goal for himself as a result: 18.5 sacks on the season. While this target number is large, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that Okwara could achieve. This past spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly made a highlight tape for Okwara of 27 missed sack opportunities he had in the 2018 season. If he were to finish on half of those, he would have led the nation in sacks and broken the record comfortably.

However, that sack total becomes even more difficult now that teams are acutely aware of the threat Okwara poses. While he certainly wants to set the school record, that is hardly Okwara’s main objective. Regardless of whether or not he breaks the record, Okwara says his ultimate goal is for the team to achieve what it’s capable of, and if he fulfills his role, he believes good things will come his way.

“Whatever happens, happens,” Okwara said. “I think as long as I’m doing my job for the team to win, I think whatever the accolades that come after that, production will come as long as I’m doing my job — and I’m focused on that.”

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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