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Nerves aren’t an option: Owusu-Koramoah leads Irish defense against toughest test yet

| Friday, November 6, 2020

Last Monday, the Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears faced off in a defensive showdown. When the players took the field for the first drive of the game, the cameras did not follow Bears quarterback Nick Foles to his huddle, but instead followed Aaron Donald out to the defensive side of the ball.

If NBC were to break from the norm and follow a defender out on the field this weekend instead of Clemson’s freshman quarterback, it would probably follow out team captain Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The anchor — or one of the anchors — of Notre Dame’s defense is no joke. Filling in at the rover position, there are few-to-no plays he doesn’t directly impact. He is selfless, humble and feeds off the energy provided from his teammates. 

Notre Dame’s defense has been picking up the slack while the offense has just recently established themselves this season with a pair of road wins over mediocre ACC competition in Pitt and Georgia Tech. If Notre Dame wants to beat the top-ranked team in the country, their defense must show up once again. 

“You feed off of the ones that are around you,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “You feed off the leaders on the team. Everybody is an anchor on our defense, everybody is an anchor on this team.” 

Allison Thornton | The Observer

Irish senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah breaks up a pass during Notre Dame’s 21-20 win over Virginia Tech on Nov. 2, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Owusu-Koramoah had his breakout season last year as he racked up a team high 80 tackles on the year and tied Khalid Kareem for the most sacks with 5.5. Now in his senior campaign, he is not only impressing NFL scouts, but is also looking at an opportunity to avenge his teammate with a win over a No. 1-ranked Clemson squad that got the better of his team while he watched from the sideline. Sitting out of that 2018 Cotton Bowl game that saw his team cough up a 30-3 loss still looms large on Owusu-Koramoah’s mind.

“Back where I’m from there’s a saying, ‘If they got a problem with you they got a problem with me,’” he said.

Owusu-Koramoah was forced to watch from the sidelines in the CFP Playoff loss due to a foot injury. And even though he had seldom played for the team outside of his role on the scout squad at the time, he still mulls over the loss.

“It hurt because I actually suited up for that game…,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “I think I might have been hurt more than some of the people that were playing in the game [after the loss] because I’m a competitor, an extreme competitor, and it was always for the brotherhood.”

Owusu-Koramoah is heading into this game with a chip on his shoulder, and he is wishing for more than just a win for himself, but a payback win in honor of those teammates that competed in 2018 but have since moved on to bigger and better things. 

“You think about those guys that don’t get to play them again,” he said. “You carry that on your back as well. You want to do it for them as well. So I think that this is a great opportunity for that.” 

One major obstacle that Owusu-Koramoah will be forced to help contain this weekend is star Clemson running back Travis Etienne. This will undoubtedly be the main priority for Clark Lea’s defense: slowing down the future college football Hall of Famer. Irish head coach Brian Kelly called him the best back in the country, and JOK didn’t stiff him on praise either.

“He’s like a rover on offense,” Owusu-Koramoah said of him. “We were watching film [Monday] and we saw him out there as the No. 1 wide receiver on a go-route. He’s all over the place.”

Stopping or at least slowing down Etienne is essential for a Notre Dame victory. So as exciting as offensive points are, all eyes should be focused on Notre Dame’s defense this weekend. 

Although Owusu-Koramoah likes to say that everybody plays an integral role on his team, he named some specific players in the defensive room that can lift the spirits of the group. 

“You’ve got [graduate student defensive lineman] Daelin Hayes, Juiceman. You’ve got [graduate transfer safety] Nick McCloud, you’ve got [sixth-year safety] Shaun Crawford. Shaun Crawford is not a one to speak all up in the crowd, but he’ll get you one-on-one and it gets you gassed up,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “Man, you have coaches — [director of football strength and conditioning] Coach [Jacob] Flint. Guys on the sideline, [graduate assistant] Coach [Chris] O’Leary, you know, just key guys within our defensive staff and even strength staff as well. Kyle Hamilton, a funny guy, always gets you when you’re in a bad mood or a play didn’t go right; he’ll always get you.”

The only thing that might be more important for Owusu-Koramoah and this defensive squad than stopping Ettiene is to eliminate silly errors.

“To be nervous isn’t an option,” Owusu-Koramoah said. 

“When you’re talking to young guys, you’re talking to freshmen, and you’re talking to people who have just started playing, you got to let them know that nervousness is not an option. You have to understand that this is a game that can potentially change your life and potentially change the program. And you know, when talking about playing Clemson, you have nerves and you slip up and you have a mistake, and mistakes towards a good team, they’ll take advantage of those mistakes.”

The best way to eliminate these potential game-changing errors, according to Owusu-Koramoah, is to play free and with a clear mind. But he also reiterated the importance of playing without nerves. That’s what is important for this Notre Dame defense this weekend against a top ranked team: playing with freedom of mind.

“We want to take the nervousness out and just be free and play,” he said. “I think [defensive coordinator Clark] Lea has done a great job with that, putting together a scheme that doesn’t allow for young players or players who are inexperienced to be thinking constantly on the field. Rather, they can open their minds and be free to play.”

Perhaps the fact that only one-fifth of seats will be open at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday for the final home game the class of 2021 will be able to attend will work out in favor of this defense as they attempt to play with freedom and tune out all the distractions.

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