Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2017

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

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Page 50 of 55 FEBRUARY 2017 51 IRISH IN THE PROS BY MATT JONES N otre Dame had seven players se- lected in the 2016 NFL Draft, but perhaps the most important Irish rookie this season was one that went undrafted. Former Irish defensive end Romeo Okwara came on late in the season in place of the injured Jason Pierre-Paul and thrived for the New York Giants, finishing his rookie season with 25 total tackles and a sack. Okwara (2012-15) added a tackle and a sack in the Giants' 38-13 wild card playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers Jan. 8. In his first start, a 10-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in week 14, Ok- wara had a sack and a team-high eight tackles. "The New York Giants may have a bit of a breakout star here in Romeo Okwara," NBC analyst Cris Collins- worth said during the broadcast. Okwara — who went undrafted but was signed by the Giants as a rookie free agent — impressed the most among the reserves and was able to capture more playing time after Pierre-Paul went down with a sports hernia. "Romeo is a young guy that was kind of a surprise when he came here," Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo told reporters. "He has got some length, he is a smart football player, high-effort guy. I think he will give us some productive snaps." Okwara finished his final season at Notre Dame with eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. And though many draft prognosticators expected the 6-5, 275-pounder to be taken in the later rounds of the draft, he did not hear his name called. He discussed his thoughts on that with NJ Advance Media. "It was obviously really disappoint- ing," said Okwara, whose younger brother, Julian, is a rising sophomore for the Irish. "It was a goal I definitely had for myself throughout college. It's something as a kid you always dreamed of: Getting your name called. "It was really disappointing for me to go through that. But I moved on and made the best out of my situa- tion." ✦ Romeo Okwara Goes From Undrafted To Impact Player Okwara came on late during his rookie season with the New York Giants and had a sack in the team's playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. PHOTO COURTESY NEW YORK GIANTS NFL NOTES Through Jan. 8 • It appears Jaylon Smith's fortunes are finally looking up. The second-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys told reporters in early January that the nerve in his surgically repaired left leg has started to regenerate, and it appears that the linebacker will be back participating in off- season drills with the Cowboys. Smith suffered a devastating knee injury in last year's Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. He had surgery to reconstruct his left ACL. During Smith's recovery he also dealt with a drop foot condition that has required him to wear a brace. "Yeah, it's regenerating," Smith said. "It's just a thing that you have to have patience. I'm go- ing to continue to do everything I'm asked and controlling what I can control, and we're going to take our time with it." Smith (2009-15) also said he could have played at an "elite level" in the playoffs. The Cowboys, the NFC's top seed, had a first-round bye. He was put on injured reserve last month. Smith told reporters that he recently ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, a sign that the speed has returned to the linebacker. "He's made tremendous progress," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett told reporters. "It doesn't surprise us one bit." • Cowboys offensive guard Zack Martin (2009- 13) was again recognized as one of the best at his position. Martin, a third-year pro out of Notre Dame, was voted to the Pro Bowl, while Pro Football Focus and the Associated Press named him a first-team All-Pro right guard. He blocked for league-leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott (1,631 yards) and allowed a total of only 16 quarterback pressures over the season. • Former Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd seems to be making the most out of his second chance with the New England Patriots. Floyd was cut by the Arizona Cardinals after a Dec. 12 DUI arrest and was picked up by the Pa- triots several days later. Floyd (2008-11) caught three passes for 36 yards and a touchdown in a 35-14 win at Miami Jan. 1, and overall he had 37 catches for 488 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season. New England (14-2) earned the AFC's top seed and has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. • Fifth-year Vikings safety Harrison Smith was voted to his first-career Pro Bowl. The former Irish star (2007-11) came back in week 17 after missing three games with an ankle injury. Smith finished the season with 69 total tack- les, two sacks and two passes defended.

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