Pass rush the main focus for Notre Dame DE Okwara

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Romeo Okwara is more than willing to be “the guy.”

As Notre Dame’s defense continues its search for sacks, someone will need to step up to lead the pass rush.

The current roster accounted for only three sacks as a part of last season’s mediocre pass rush that ranked No. 96 in the FBS. A measly half of a sack was credited to Okwara, but he’s ready to take ownership in making those numbers increase.

“I’d love that,” Okwara said. “There’s no problem with that if it helps the team win. I’d definitely like to be that guy.”

The 6-foot-4, 260-pound junior knows pass rush production will provide him with ample playing time in 2014. He’s well aware the Irish averaged fewer than two sacks per game last season. He knows the departures of Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix have left the defensive line as one of the biggest question marks on the team.

“Pass rush is definitely something important to me,” Okwara said. “I’m working on it every day with the D-line and Sheldon (Day) and all those guys.”

The distance left for Okwara to become a difference-maker was illuminated Wednesday when head coach Brian Kelly listed senior Ishaq Williams and freshman Andrew Trumbetti as starting defense ends.

Okwara entered camp ahead of Trumbetti, who enrolled early and joined

the team in January.

Okwara’s ability to track down the quarterback should keep him in a steady rotation if he can’t reclaim the starting role. He flashed potential in March’s Blue-Gold Game when he tallied three sacks. He’s become more comfortable at the defensive end position as he continues to tweak his technique.

“I’ve definitely taken a bigger jump, but I still have a lot of things to work on,” Okwara said.

Okwara’s to-do list lengthened with the transition from a 3-4 defense to defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme. Okwara played outside linebacker for much of his first two years at Notre Dame. Now he’s been asked to refine his pass rush skills and push back against offensive tackles.

“Everyone is focused on their different skills and using them to their advantage,” Okwara said. “If you’re a power guy, use your power. If you have speed, use your speed. Everybody is just refining their specific skills.”

Okwara wants to be a combination of power and speed on the edge. Next to his work ethic, he lists power as his greatest attribute on the field.

“I think I have a lot of power and I definitely have to use that to my advantage,” Okwara said.

His speed starts with a quick reaction to the snap of the ball. Okwara has found time to work on his starts, much like a sprinter in track would. The movement of the football replaces the crack of a gun.

“I’m working on getting off the ball faster,” Okwara sound. Getting that down — getting off the ball faster and attacking.”

Reps against a live offensive line, especially one as talented as Notre Dame’s, lends the most help in preparing Okwara and his fellow defensive linemen. Okwara tries to match up with left tackle Ronnie Stanley in pass rush drills to find the best challenge.

“The offensive line is a great line,” Okwara said. “It starts with a great coach, (offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand. He’s definitely done a great job of getting those guys prepared every day.”

It’s a standard worth striving toward. If the defensive line can mimic the consistency of the Irish offensive line, a playoff push suddenly becomes more realistic.

Notre Dame’s production from the defensive line in the 2012 run to the BCS Championship game provides an example of what line of scrimmage dominance on both sides of the ball can produce.

“Everyone’s been working harder,” Okwara said. “We all know what we need to work on. Everyone’s been working their specific traits in order to get ready for the season.”

TJames1@SBTinfo.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Junior defensive end Romeo Okwara will be asked to try to push Notre Dame's pass rush beyond mediocre in 2014. (SBT File Photo)