RECRUITING

2016 DE Julian Okwara follows brother to Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Julian Okwara’s right hand made an immediate impression.

More than three years ago, Romeo Okwara – not his younger brother – was the promising defensive end garnering interest from Notre Dame. Romeo hosted Irish assistant coach Mike Elston for an in-house visit at the family’s home in Charlotte, N.C., where Elston accidentally stumbled upon two prospects instead of one.

When Elston outstretched his hand, Julian’s engulfed it, teasing what would eventually morph into an athletic 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame.

“My hand totally wrapped around his,” Julian recalled with a chuckle after verbally committing to Notre Dame on Tuesday.

Of course, Romeo Okwara would go on to verbally commit to the Irish, where he has since collected 65 tackles with 4.5 sacks in his three seasons in South Bend.

But ever since the handshake, Romeo wasn’t the only Okwara on Elston’s radar.

“He told me, ‘We’re going to keep an eye on you. We’re coming to one of your games to watch you play.’ He ended up doing that,” Julian said. “He kept his word.”

Last month, Julian Okwara – who collected 90 tackles and 10 sacks as a junior at Ardrey Kell High School in 2014 – narrowed his list of potential landing spots to five: Notre Dame, Clemson, Georgia, Michigan and Ole Miss.

But after Notre Dame offered in February, there was really only one.

“I already knew that it was the school for me, but I just wanted to go up there and see everything for myself,” Okwara said.

Despite having made numerous trips to Notre Dame to watch his brother play, Julian made his first visit as a potential recruit in March, touring a campus that already felt like home. And in his most recent visit, just like all of those that repeated it, Elston repeated a familiar theme.

“He would always tell me, ‘You’re already part of the team.’”

Now, when Romeo departs from South Bend after the 2015 season, his brother will take his place at Notre Dame the following fall. His brother is adamant, however, that Romeo’s path never overwhelmingly influenced his own.

“He (Romeo) texted me one day and just told me, “Keep calm, get your mind right and know what you’re doing. You have to go somewhere you feel comfortable,’” Julian said. “He didn’t pressure me to go wherever he wants me to go. I did everything on my own, talked to my parents and did my research.

“Going through what I want to study and what Notre Dame has to offer, everything just felt right.”

The common threads between the Okwara brothers, it seems, extend beyond just college choice or position.

“He’s similar to his brother,” said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “He’s probably going to follow the same path, where he’s going to redshirt and sit for a while, play behind some guys. He’s a good, solid team player – a guy that could play down the line.”

Okwara, Notre Dame’s fifth verbal commit in the 2016 class and a consensus four-star prospect, aims to contribute sooner rather than later. And while his athleticism has always been there, the rising defensive end acknowledges that there’s still room to grow.

“I think I’m really physical and really fast,” Okwara said. “They always talk about my first step. I’m quick off the ball, getting to the quarterback and past the o-linemen.

“But I just want to gain some weight and get bigger and stronger so I can be ready for the next part of my life.”

That part, the one Romeo is already experiencing, was made possible by of a handshake, followed by a lot of work.

“It just felt like everybody there was family,” Julian Okwara said, “and I was already a part of the team.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Julian Okwara, a 2016 defensive end prospect, received an offer from Notre Dame in February. His older brother, Romeo, plays defensive end for the Irish. (Photo courtesy of Student Sports)