SOUTH BEND — Maybe it was the rice.
Julian Okwara had a special request when his mother, Melda, came to South Bend last weekend for the Virginia game. The Notre Dame defensive end wanted his mother to cook jollof rice for him.
The traditional Nigerian dish — a rice made in part with tomatoes, peppers and onions — has long been one of Julian’s favorites. Melda woke up early Saturday morning, not many hours after she arrived in South Bend, to make jollof rice for her son.
Then Julian went out and recorded his first three sacks of the season and forced two fumbles in Notre Dame’s 35-20 victory over Virginia.
“There’s definitely some power to that rice,” Julian said.
The rice wasn’t the only thing different about Saturday’s game. Julian’s father, Julius, also made the trip from Nigeria to watch his son play. His mother, who lives in Charlotte N.C., and his father are rarely both in attendance at one of Julian’s games. Julian said it may have been just the second game of his Notre Dame career that Julius has attended.
“It was awesome,” Julian said. “Being able to play in front of my mom and my dad, it was definitely a great feeling knowing I had that performance.”
Julian didn’t record a sack in any of the three previous games this season before last Saturday. His best performance of the season coming with his parents in town seems like a bit more than a coincidence. But Julian’s not superstitious enough to ask his dad, who maintains multiple businesses including a hotel and car dealership in Lagos, Nigeria, to attend every game.
Melda told the Tribune this week that she and her husband will be back at Notre Dame Stadium for Senior Day, the final home game of the season against Boston College on Nov. 23. They’re working on plans to attend more games before then too.
If the confidence Julian gained in the Virginia game can carry into this Saturday’s matchup with Bowling Green and beyond, he won’t need to rely on his parents and jollof rice. That confidence, Julian said, was what changed for him and the rest of Notre Dame’s defensive line against Virginia.
“We knew the game plan. We knew the quarterback was a threat running,” Julian said. “The big issue was we knew we had to stay in our rush lanes and we had to keep the quarterback contained because he can run out and make plays. Being able to hone in on our job and knowing what our job was overall helped us pretty much dominate.”
The defensive line did exactly that in totaling eight sacks, forcing three fumbles, returning one for a touchdown and allowing Virginia to only rush for a net of 4 yards. Not bad for a unit that didn’t register any sacks in the two previous games.
“Every defensive line, every player wants to have a sack,” Julian said. “Especially being a defensive end, knowing your expectations for yourself, it definitely sucks going in knowing you haven’t really done much. Virginia came around and it kind of worked out for us. We were able to make some plays for our team.”
After preseason camp ended in August, Julian Okwara added another tattoo to his right arm.
The ink stained on the outside of his forearm depicts the head of an elephant and the African continent. It’s the latest in a collage forming on Okwara’s arm. On the inside of his forearm is a tattoo of the Big Ben tower clock in London, the city in which Okwara was born.
Higher up on the outside of his arm is a shamrock with his football number, 42, in the middle of it. Higher more is his favorite bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11 — “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
Then near his shoulder, Okwara has a tattoo of what he calls his family tree. He plans to get his siblings names tattooed around it.
Okwara’s latest tattoo — the one with the elephant — came only three months after his first trip back to Nigeria since 2006, when he and his older brother Romeo, emigrated from Nigeria to Charlotte to join his mother, youngest sister and oldest brother.
He spent four days in May with his father around Lagos and Lekki, where his father owns a home. When Julian returned to America, he rejoined a Notre Dame football team he needed to lead.
Julian served as one of the team’s eight SWAT team captains for offseason workouts. Then in August, he was named one of the team’s seven captains for the season.
“Oh, at this time last year if you mentioned captain I would’ve maybe publicly snickered at you,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Julian’s development as a leader. “He just did not have any of those traits developed, and he’s developed them because he’s wanted to put himself in that position.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s respected not only by his play, but he is demanding of his teammates as it relates to accountability. He’ll be the first one to step up in a meeting and tell somebody that they’re not living up to the standard. That really caught our eye and our attention this past spring.”
Kelly said Julian’s transformation as a leader has been one of the most impressive he’s seen in his nearly 10 years at Notre Dame. Julian agrees that he’s come a long way since joining the Irish in 2016. He previously let his play do the talking while most of his communication came in the form of jokes.
But he made a decision to help replace the leadership void left by former Irish captain Drue Tranquill, star defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and others.
“You have to sacrifice a lot of things to be that guy,” Julian said. “I was able to do that and know that I had to be a better person for my teammates and take on a better role.”
Striving for more
Notre Dame doesn’t need Julian Okwara to be superhuman.
His personal goal of 18.5 sacks this season doesn’t need to be reached for the Irish defense to be successful. The defensive line has talent in waves even if Okwara may be the most talented.
A first-round selection in next year’s NFL Draft still remains a possibility despite Okwara’s slow start to the season. He still has the impressive athletic skills to be one of the top pass rushers in the country.
He reminded everybody of that last Saturday.
“I love what Julian did,” Kelly said after Okwara’s three-sack performance against Virginia. “He got back to playing really physical football.
“I think Julian would tell you the whole sack thing was too much of a personal thing, and he got back to playing physical football and within the realm of the defense. ... And he’s going to take off from here.”
Okwara lost his weakside defensive end rotation partner Daelin Hayes last weekend with a torn labrum in his right shoulder that will sideline Hayes for the rest of the season. That resulted in fellow senior defensive end Jamir Jones being thrust into a more prominent role.
Okwara, Hayes and Jones were all part of the same 2016 recruiting class that also included defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Adetokunbo Ogundeji. Together they’ve helped revamp Notre Dame’s defensive line depth and become one of the top defensive end groups in the country.
Okwara was the first of those defensive ends to verbally commit to Notre Dame in April 2015. He chose to take the same path as his older brother Romeo. Two months later, Jones chose to follow the same path as his older brother, Jarron, and committed to the Irish. Both Romeo Okwara and Jarron Jones were senior defensive linemen on Notre Dame’s 2015 team.
Jamir Jones, who was originally recruited as a linebacker, showed he’s capable of making an impact with one sack, one forced fumble and pressure that resulted in an Alohi Gilman interception against Virginia.
“I’m excited for him and what he’s about to do for the rest of the year,” the younger Okwara said of the younger Jones. “The things he did on Saturday, going out there and making plays at such a time when he wasn’t getting that many reps, he came out there and he showed when we needed him. I expect that for the rest of the season in whatever game he’s playing in.”
The Irish can prove last Saturday’s pass rush onslaught wasn’t a fluke this week with Bowling Green coming to town. The previous games against New Mexico and Georgia, in which Notre Dame failed to record any sacks, left reason to doubt if the defensive line would be as dominant as advertised.
But Notre Dame hasn’t been the only team struggling to sack New Mexico and Georgia quarterbacks this season. The Lobos have only allowed two sacks in four games. The Bulldogs have only allowed one sack in four games.
Bowling Green’s passing attack ranks in the bottom sixth of the FBS with only 187.5 passing yards per game, but the Falcons are tied for 14th nationally in surrendering just one sack per game.
The opportunity for a letdown Saturday looms with rival USC coming to town a week later, but Okwara insists he never overlooks an opponent. He wants this defense to continue it’s domination.
Maybe it will help that Romeo Okwara, on a bye week with the Detroit Lions, will be in town this weekend.
“We can’t just stop,” Julian Okwara said. “It can’t be a roller coaster up and down. It has to be steady growth upward.”