While junior nickel/cornerback Shaun Crawford has been establishing himself as the playmaking figure in Notre Dame’s nickel packages, sophomore end Julian Okwara is not too far behind.
The 6-4 ½, 240-pound pass-rush specialist has excelled in his role with his pressures, forcing two quarterback hurries, recording 2.5 tackles for loss (1.5 sacks) and wreaking general havoc in his role.
Crawford has taken 157 total snaps through five games in the sub-package role as the nickel, but he also can take reps at corner. Okwara is inserted at end in the nickel or in third-down passing situations and has been in for 115 snaps, or 23 per contest.
As he returns to his home state North Carolina this weekend, Okwara has helped the defense become more impactful up front. After finishing 117th last year in sacks with 14 in 12 games (only three by the linemen), the Irish already have 11 through five games (7.5 by linemen), and generated a much better push up front overall.
Like older brother and Notre Dame graduate Romeo, now with the NFL’s New York Giants after recording nine sacks as a senior in 2015 (and 25 tackles as a rookie last season), Okwara is projected to be a dynamic rusher off the edge in the years ahead.
And speaking of being years ahead, that’s where the younger Okwara is in relation to his college career compared to his brother, who reportedly began school at age 3 in Nigeria before immigrating with his family to the United States when Julian was in the third grade and Romeo in the sixth.
Romeo was 16 years old when he enrolled at Notre Dame in the summer of 2012. Because he was not redshirted, the older Okwara was only 20 after graduating in 2016 and needed his parents to co-sign his first NFL contract (and likewise with his agent).
Conversely, Julian already will turn 20 this December when he finishes up his sophomore campaign at Notre Dame, with the best ahead of him while he combines with prospering classmates at end, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Ade Ogundeji.
“It feels good because every day, especially on third-down stuff — and I keep working on that, my first step — …knowing what I needed to do and using my strengths and take that into the game,” Okwara said of his role.
Listed at 216 pounds on Signing Day 2016, Okwara did earn a monogram as a freshman while playing on special teams, but took only 18 snaps on defense, the debut there coming in game 2 against Nevada.
“They were laughing at me,” Okwara recalled when the Nevada players saw the beanpole figure of Okwara enter the lineup late. "I feel like over the off-season and this summer and from spring ball, I’m working on stuff and getting stronger with Coach [Matt] Balis.”
Who’s laughing now? Under the new strength and conditioning staff, Okwara said he improved his 225-pound bench press reps from seven to 21.
“We’re pleased with what he is giving us in our sub-packages,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “The fight with Julian has been body weight and maintaining that body weight for first and second down. I think what’s surprised us more than anything else is he continues to show really good improvement in the weight room. He’s surprisingly strong — that kind of shows that trait in the way he plays.
“He can get his hands on you now … he’s not just a guy that’s going to bend. He’ll be able to punch you in the chest too and push you back. So, he plays with some physicality and his numbers show that … Even though he’s not in that 250-255 range, he’s got some real strength. Really pleased with what he’s doing.”
While growing his body into his role, Okwara also has correlated that to getting a better first step off the rush, which is where Romeo reminds him in texts to keep developing.
“He’ll tell me I’m kind of late off he ball just a little bit, but he doesn’t critique me too much,” Okwara said. “He just congratulates me and I move on.”
Mainly toward opposing quarterbacks.