Okwara beginning to produce results for Irish

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

Potential can have a negative connotation for a young college football player.

It conjures the notion of an athlete that should be playing much better than he is. Pressure comes with the label.

Right now, potential is the best word to define Romeo Okwara.

June 2012, when Okwara first stepped on the Notre Dame campus as a student, he was a 17-year-old manchild focused on finding his way far from his home in Charlotte, N.C.

At 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds, Okwara looked the part, but was hardly a good bet to be a significant contributor with the Irish.

The youngster, listed as an outside linebacker, was too much of a physical specimen to leave on the scout team to preserve a year of eligibility. He spent his freshman season as a regular on special teams and a bit player in mop-up roles on defense. He had seven tackles, and 1.5 tackles for loss, to show for his first year.

Increasing impact

This year, his impact is just starting to be felt.

Okwara is one of the few healthy bodies manning the Notre Dame defensive unit. While guys like linemen Kona Schwenke, Louis Nix and Sheldon Day, along with linebackers Ben Councell, Danny Spond and Jarrett Grace have battled an assortment of injuries, Okwara has been the wild card used to plug some of the holes that have opened.

For Saturday night’s game at Pitt, Okwara is listed as the backup to Jaylon Smith at drop linebacker.

This season, he has spent time operating in space while part of pass coverage (something quite new to him), and he has lined up with his hand on the ground as a pass rusher.

New position? Bring it on.

“He’s got some versatility,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Okwara. “His ability, his size — he’s right now playing in our nickel package as one of our ends (creating the pass rush). He can get his hands on the ground (on the defensive line), he has some athleticism, and he can play in space (in pass coverage). For the present, he has the versatility, like (offensive lineman) Steve Elmer, that can play a couple of different positions. I haven’t given much thought as to what that means moving down the line, but right now he serves a great role for us in that he has that flexibility.”

“(Playing various positions) has been difficult,” Okwara said. “I’ve become pretty comfortable that they could use me anywhere. You’ve just gotta do your job wherever they put me.

“I’ve (played on the defensive line) since I was in high school, so it wasn’t that big of a difference.

“Linebacker, on the line, it doesn’t matter.”

The last two weeks against Air Force and Navy, Okwara flourished. He has 10 tackles this season, seven of which have come against those unique offenses.

“Defending the option was a challenge, especially playing two great option teams (Air Force and Navy),” Okwara said. “They run it better than anyone in the country.

“I don’t really point to one game as being special. I guess they ran my way more.”

Learning football

That might be one way to look to his run of success. Another perspective might have a case being made for Okwara gaining experience every time out. The more experience, the better the results.

“I’ll be straight with you, on Romeo — and I don’t want to get too technical: He needs to play football more,” said Kelly. “He needs to get more playing time. When he plays more football, he’s going to be fine.

“The game is new to him. He wasn’t brought up as a young man that played a lot of football. So each time that he steps on the field, it’s new to him. He doesn’t... he wasn’t blessed with the football instincts. He’s learning about the game every day and he’s making great progress every day.

“You can see him growing as a player. It’s less about the technical stuff from me with Romeo; just every time he steps on that field, whether it’s on the special teams assignment or whether it’s play option as a (defensive end) or in the nickel package, he just keeps growing.

“I don’t mean physically, I mean mentally as a football player. That’s what he needs the most, and as long as he continues to do that, he’s going to be fine.”

“Playing more this year has allowed me to get used to the game and has made me a better player,” Okwara said. “Getting a ton of reps helps.

“Playing more definitely makes you a better player. You see things that you saw in practice. The game’s a lot faster. At first, the speed of the game was surprising, but the coaches got me ready for it.

“I’m getting a lot more reps (this season, compared to last year). It’s challenging, but I’ve been ready for it.”

Slow start

Okwara doesn’t have a long history in the game on which to rely. It’s not like he grew up with a football by his side.

Okwara came with his family to the United States from Nigeria when he was in sixth grade. All he knew during his early years was soccer.

“(Acclimating to the United States) was a little different, but I got used to it,” Okwara said. “It wasn’t that big of a transition.

“Football was new to me. It was a new sport. (Learning the game took) probably two years.”

Actually, it might have taken longer than those two years. The learning curve was interrupted just as it was beginning. After playing middle school football in seventh grade, a skinny 5-foot-7 Okwara was cut from the squad as an eighth grader.

“Eighth grade I was about 5-7,” Okwara remembered. “Freshman year, I was about 6-foot. I grew a little bit.”

It’s a wonder that he didn’t give up on the game after his first brush with failure. Adversity didn’t bother him that much.

“My older brother played football, so I stayed with it,” Okwara said.

Plus...

“Everyone made the team (freshman year),” Okwara said with a shy laugh.”

He got to be pretty good. While playing the defensive line, all the recruiting services had him among the top 20 prep players in North Carolina.

Role model

Irish outside linebacker Prince Shembo graduated from Ardrey Kell High in Charlotte and found his way to Notre Dame. Okwara followed that same path two years later. Shembo’s presence had an impact with his decision.

“Prince told me a lot about what Notre Dame was about,” Okwara said. “It definitely helped a lot for him to be here.

“Prince Shembo is definitely a great leader. He brings a lot to the table. He’s a great asset to our defense. He’s a leader on and off the field and has been a role model for me.”

A 17-year-old away from home didn’t feel out of place among older guys in a foreign setting.

“I didn’t really see a difference hanging around with the older guys,” Okwara said. “I see myself as a mature person, so I felt I could handle it.

“I always just happened to be the youngest hanging around in the crowd. I stood my ground.”

Next man in

He has handled it pretty well, so far. There have been plenty of twists and turns in the road, just 22 games into his career. Okwara’s amazing physique, speed, athletic talent, and ability to adapt to new positions and situations have made him invaluable to the Irish defense in a season defined by injuries and the “next man in.”

“The ‘next man in’ guys have to get a lot of mental reps in practice,” Okwara said. “You always have to be prepared because you never know when you have to step in.

“You have to be ready. Your first shift might be in the middle of a game playing USC. You never know.

“Every linebacker helps me. All my teammates are there for me.

“Coaches have done a good job conditioning all of us. It’s just a matter of stepping up to the plate and doing your job.”

Saturday’s challenge will most likely be unique. The Irish will be matched against a Pitt team that has struggled with injuries along the offensive line. In last week’s loss to Georgia Tech, the Panthers were limited to minus-5 yards rushing, while generating 233 through the air.

Pitt has yielded 29 sacks this year, which could give the guys along the Irish defensive line — Okwara included — reason to lick their chops, pin back their ears and cause some havoc.

“Pitt’s a great football team; three overtimes (before Notre Dame won) last year,” Okwara said. “They’re going to give us a great football game.

“Everyone has a lot of injuries this time of the season. No matter what, they’re going to give us their best game.”

One thing the last 22 games have taught the Irish: They’re going to get the best from Okwara.

“He’s so big, and one of the youngest, too,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said of Okwara. “He’s a great, tough player. He’s going to be a really good player for years to come.

“The way he practices every day, every week of the season; he’s getting better every week. He’s going to be a great asset on the defense and is going to help us win some games.”

Potential’s there. No one will question that.

Production’s just now starting to happen.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

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Notre Dame's Romeo Okwara (45) reacts after making a stop during the college football game between Notre Dame and USC on Saturday, October 19, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)