Notre Dame DE Romeo Okwara displays pass rush against Wake

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A dose of common sense might have flipped the switch for Romeo Okwara.

After three years of trying to find his role in Notre Dame’s defense, the senior defensive end has developed into an effective pass rusher.

Okwara sacked the quarterback three times in Saturday’s 28-7 victory over Wake Forest and earned the game ball from head coach Brian Kelly. Okwara has pushed himself into the team lead with nine sacks this season — double his output in his first three seasons.

“In the past I’ve been trying a lot of different things,'' he said. "I knew I was good at certain things, but I was trying a lot of different things. I just realized that if I’m good at something, why not keep doing it? I’ve just been doing things that have been working.”

Enter defensive line coach Keith Gilmore. In his first season with Notre Dame, Gilmore has helped Okwara realize that his strength was more reliable than his speed.

“Instead of trying to do speed rushes outside, I guess my power works better for me,” Okwara said. “I’ve been sticking to that.”

There’s no reason to change now. Okwara has bullied his way to eight sacks in the last five games.

“He’s always been in the right position,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith, “but he’s taking that next step this year being at the next level and making those plays.”

Okwara arrived at Notre Dame as a 17-year-old freshman and was forced to play in the 2012 season. He was left trying to develop his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame on the fly. He’s switched back and forth from defensive end and outside linebacker to finally settle in on the defensive line in his senior season.

It’s been a long process of development for Okwara, now 265 pounds, to finally reach this level of productivity.

“He’s in a position to affect the quarterback more in a pass-rushing situation,'' head coach Brian Kelly said. "We’re much more of a four down (linemen) team. He was a bit of a drop (coverage) player. That contributes a little bit. It’s much more about his skill development at that position that we’re seeing come together.”

Okwara’s most impressive sack of the night came when he leaped over a Wake Forest blocker lunging at his legs before bringing down John Wolford. Okwara celebrated the sack by miming a fencing attack, a nod to his girlfriend, who was on the fencing team at Notre Dame.

In his last game in Notre Dame Stadium, Okwara earned his first game ball. Receiving the ball from Kelly marked another item on Okwara’s to-do list. He was sure to bring it to the postgame interview room.

“It’s pretty cool,” Okwara said while the ball sat near his feet. “It’s something I’ve always wanted. Getting it is pretty awesome.”

Now he has to figure out where he’s going to put it.

“I’m moving out in a month, so I have to get a new place first of all,” Okwara said. “I’m going to hold it until then.”

Okwara still has more to accomplish in his Notre Dame career. His preseason goal of more than 10 sacks is in reach and a postseason run could sit in the hands of Notre Dame’s defense. But he still has time to reflect on his career at Notre Dame. Saturday’s win put the senior class in a tie for the most career wins (21) at Notre Dame Stadium with the 1990 and 1991 classes.

“It’s one of those things that each and every player that goes through Notre Dame wants to create a legacy,'' Okwara said. "That’s something we can look back on and say, ‘Hey, that’s what we did. We did that.’ It’s always really cool getting those legacies.”

The next game played in Notre Dame Stadium — next September — will most likely feature another Okwara. Romeo's younger brother, Julian, has verbally committed to sign with the Irish in February. As his career ends, his brother’s will begin.

“It’s definitely special,” Okwara said. “Just continuing that Okwara legacy. There’s going to be eight years of Okwaras here at least. It’s definitely very cool to have my little brother coming here.”

The tunnel Romeo Okwara used to exit the Notre Dame Stadium will provide the entrance for Julian Okwara’s career.

“It’s definitely surreal,” Okwara said. “I had a great time playing in this stadium. There’s definitely some emotions walking out of the tunnel the last time.”

tjames@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame’s Romeo Okwara (45) sacks Wake Forest’s John Wolford (10) during the Notre Dame-Wake Forest NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN