Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 19, 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 16 of 55 NOV. 19, 2018 17 Okwara was so disinterested in football — a sport he didn't even play until the eighth grade — that he never watched a game or knew the rules while at the same time his two older brothers, Jimel and Romeo, were becoming gifted young players. Romeo Okwara, in fact, parlayed his career as a defensive end at Notre Dame from 2012-15 into a NFL career where he ranks among the sack leaders so far this season for the Detroit Lions. "I didn't like watching it," Julian said of football. "I just kind of learned to like it. I learned on my own." The interest switch flipped for Ok- wara in 2014 during his junior year at Ardrey Kell High School in Char- lotte, N.C. "I had really great coaches in high school that taught me the game and cared for me, and did everything they could to make sure I was al- ways good," said Julian, who moved to the United States from Nigeria as a third-grader. "I had great friends, going out there and playing football together. It was just nice." Sharing a similar career path at Notre Dame as older brother Ro- meo, Okwara did not experience success overnight. Undersized, over- whelmed and only 18 years old, Julian joined the Irish in 2016 as a skinny, 6-5, 215-pound freshman and tallied 21 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, and countless hours in the weight room through his freshman and sopho- more seasons. Now up to 240 pounds — and hop- ing to pack on 10 more — Okwara is enjoying his breakout season. Heading into the game against Florida State Nov. 10, Okwara had 34 total stops and he led the team with 9.5 tackles for loss that included five sacks, half of those coming the previ- ous week against Northwestern. Okwara credits his ascent this season in part to working last year against two former standout Irish of- fensive linemen and NFL first-round draft picks — Mike McGlinchey and Quentin Nelson. "Knowing that I need to be able to be that playmaker that everybody wants me to be," Okwara said when asked about a more mature outlook this season. I definitely take pride in wanting to be the best defensive end in the country. "I definitely have some ways to go, but I'm going to get there some day." Sacks aside, perhaps the truest measure of Okwara's chaotic pass rushing prowess is found in the 17 quarterback hurries he had made through the Northwestern game, which was 10 more than any other Irish defender and almost 40 percent of the team's total (45). "He harasses the quarterback," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of his rising star. "He gets quar- terbacks uncomfortable. They move their feet. They change their launch point. Their eyes drop. "Things just make them uncom- fortable." BROTHERLY INSPIRATION They play the same position, their college choice was the same and their football careers are following a simi- lar path so far as well, but Romeo and Julian Okwara are by their own admission polar opposites in their styles and strengths. Romeo, who led the Irish with nine sacks in 2015, was a heavier, stronger player during his time at Notre Dame, even when he arrived in June 2012 as one of the youngest freshmen on the entire campus (he turned 17 that June). But what Julian gives up in size to his brother, for the time being — Ro- meo now lists at 6-4 and 274 pounds — younger brother makes up for with better speed and versatility. Julian's athleticism provides the Irish coaches the rare luxury of drop- ping one of their best pass rushers into pass coverage when needed. "Romeo was a big end," Kelly ex- plained. "Where Julian is much more of a speed player for us." Okwara has two career intercep- tions, including one this season against Michigan, and he's becoming antsy for another. "Nobody throws my way anymore, so I don't know," Julian said with a laugh. "I think they're kind of scared." Of course, as with most sibling rivalries, Romeo is remindful that anything little bro can do older bro can do better. "We were definitely competitive athletically, but not just at sports," said Romeo, who made his way to the NFL in 2016 as an undrafted free agent. "That definitely carries over to everything we do." What's interesting is both brothers insist that when they interact by phone, text or in person, the subject of football rarely comes up, and that's by design. "It's nice to get your mind off foot- ball at times," Julian said. "You can get too carried away with the game, and I would go crazy if I couldn't step away." Perhaps in the same way opposing quarterbacks go crazy trying to step out of the way of Okwara. ✦ "He harasses the quarterback. He gets quarterbacks uncomfortable. They move their feet. They change their launch point. Their eyes drop. Things just make them uncomfortable." HEAD COACH BRIAN KELLY ON OKWARA

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