Notre Dame DE Romeo Okwara starting to find the quarterback

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Indelibly etched into the fabric of last week’s win over Wake Forest were two plays by the Notre Dame football team.

• Josh Adams’ 98-yard touchdown run.

And…

• Romeo Okwara’s imitation of Superman as he flew over a blocker to smoosh quarterback John Wolford.

Even Okwara, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound senior who has finally gotten comfortable at defensive end, thought that was pretty cool — when he finally had a chance to see the video.

“I didn’t think (the flying sack) was cool at the moment,” Okwara said. “Guys were telling me it was pretty cool. I didn’t know until I saw the video that it looked pretty decent. I’d say that one (was a favorite).”

That was one of three… well, almost four… sacks for Okwara against the Demon Deacons. That gives him nine for the season (ranking him eighth in the country) and eight in the last five games. Sack No. 4 was negated when Okwara came up with a handful of facemask while driving Wolford to the turf.

Why the sudden uptick? What’s the difference between this guy, who Boston College will have to figure a way to shut down Saturday night, and the guy who had just six regular tackles through the first five games of this season?

“Confidence is a great thing for many people,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “He’s just playing right now with… he jumps over a back. Launches himself. I mean, he’s playing with some of that reckless abandon that at times he was kind of feeling his way through his role in his play, where now he’s really confident in what he’s doing and how he’s doing it.”

“The mentality to really let it loose each and every play (is what confidence does),” said junior linebacker Jaylon Smith. “That’s something that he’s grown into, being a senior and a leader of our defense.”

“I’m definitely feeling more comfortable,” Okwara said. “I bounced around (between linebacker and end) a lot since I’ve gotten here. (Having) this defense for the second year, just knowing the defense a lot better, it kind of gives you a sense of freedom. Just knowing what to do lets you play a lot faster.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you (what has led to his recent surge of production). I’m doing the same things I’ve been doing since the season started. I guess it’s paying off now.”

Okwara, who came to Notre Dame from Charlotte, N.C., is one of the more unique players on the Irish roster. He moved to the United States from Nigeria as a sixth grader. He was just 17 years old when he played for the first time, mostly on special teams, as a freshman in 2012.

He’s one of the more quiet guys in the locker room, and one of the tougher interviews for the media, but there are times when his personality shines through.

“He’s a funny guy,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said of Okwara. “He’s quieter, until you get to know him, and then he’s kinda like … he’s just … he doesn’t … he’s not like a super gregarious, you know; like an always-out-there extroverted guy, but he’s funny.”

See, told ya he was unique.

“How would I describe him?” said Schmidt. “Kinda hard. I mean, he’s someone that’s really well-liked by everyone in the locker room. He’s respected for his work ethic and his leadership skills. Really, he’s a vital, vital cog of that defensive line, so those are the things I would say about him.”

Then, there’s this … But Schmidt refused to elaborate.

“Romeo used to give me a hard time because he would take the jokes that (former linebackers) Carlo (Calabrese) and Prince (Shembo) would use and use them against me,” Schmidt said. “That was kinda fun, and I still give Romeo a hard time too, so we have a great time with it.”

And the jokes were …? Nobody’s talkin’.

“Me and Romeo bonded early,” said fellow defensive lineman Sheldon Day. “We came in together, so we’re the youngest guys in our class. We just kind of bonded through that and our experiences.

“It’s crazy how much we’ve grown over the years, especially starting off young.

“(He has a) passion for pretty much the things that don’t involve football, whether that’s the ukulele or just hanging out and watching movies. I would definitely say that on the field — he’s definitely a different guy on the field than off.”

Wait a minute … Movies? Ukulele?

Then, there’s the origin of the name Romeo. Shakespeare? Well, with a father named Julius and a brother, who has committed to play football at Notre Dame next year, named Julian, maybe…

“I was actually named after Lenny Kravitz, because my dad was a huge fan of his,” Okwara said. “His nickname was Romeo Blue. So my dad named me after him. It’s pretty cool. I love Lenny Kravitz. He’s a great musician.

“It’s really funny because everyone’s like ‘Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou ‘ ... I’m like, ‘You can say it again, but it’s not about that.’”

He laughs at the connection as if he’s never heard it before.

But, then again … The ukulele?

He gives all the credit to receiver/close friend Corey Robinson and Corey’s dad, former NBA great David Robinson.

Okwara said that last spring break he tagged along with Robinson and his family for spring break in Hawaii. When in Hawaii, what else would a musical family play?

“His family is really big into music and his dad plays a couple of instruments and Corey plays a lot of instruments,” Okwara said. “I’ve hung out with him a lot and he plays instruments, so I guess I just picked it up.”

By his own admission, Okwara is nowhere near the level of Corey or David, though. But he can carry a tune.

Don’t pigeon-hole Okwara as the next Don Ho. He’s a complex, diverse young man who just happens to like to clobber quarterbacks.

“I play the guitar sometimes,” he said. “I longboard. I love longboarding. I don’t know. I watch a lot of movies.

“I had a skateboard when I was really young and then I stopped skateboarding because I got a lot bigger and it didn’t really fit well. So I got a bigger board and I’ve been longboarding since then.”

What sort of attention would a chiseled 6-4, 270-pounder draw on a longboard at the local skatepark?

Scary… Just the thought…

Once he graduates in December with a degree in accounting, Okwara will definitely have options. His interest in finance and investment banking will give him security. But the confidence he’s gained in the second half of this season could give him the impetus to make an impact at the next level.

“(Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and I) both know what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at right now,” Okwara said. “I guess I’ve been using things that are working. As long as they keep working, I’ll just keep doing them.

“(I’m best at) my power.

“From when (Gilmore) got here in the spring, he’s been focused on the pass rush and different aspects of our game. We’ve been working at what he tells us to do and it’s been working.”

Once he found a comfort level at a position in which he could be productive, Okwara’s development has been significant. Besides being a key part of what the Irish defense is able to accomplish from game to game, he’s an example to younger players of what can happen with a proper attitude and approach.

“It’s very important, as an older guy, to be that role model for the younger guys,” Okwara said. “When they see you work hard, they want to work hard and get to the point that you’re at. It’s very important for us to do that.”

Saturday, he’ll be licking his chops — though he won’t admit it publicly. Not only will the Irish be facing the worst offense in FBS, but Boston College has yielded 21 sacks with two freshmen and a sophomore starting on the offensive line.

“(Boston College is) a really good team,” Okwara said, being very politically correct. “They play great defense (No. 1 in the country), also. We have to match the great defensive performance that they do. We have to try to shut them down.”

It’s another chance to grow the resume and add to the highlight reel.

For a really unique sort of guy.

Notre Dame's Romeo Okwara (45) tries to run past the Wake Forest offensive line toward quarterback John Wolford (10) Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in South Bend. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)