Getting the last laugh, Julian Okwara growing into key role on Notre Dame's defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In his very first game at Notre Dame Stadium last September, Irish defensive end Julian Okwara heard a sound he wasn’t quite prepared for.

Snickering.

Along with that came the pointing — at him. Okwara, 6-foot-4 and generously listed at 228 pounds at the time, was being trolled by Nevada. A team that was in the midst of a 39-10 whipping from Okwara’s teammates.

“I just pushed forward and kept playing,” the now 6-5 sophomore, generously listed at 240 pounds, recalled earlier this week. “It’s not happening anymore.”

Actually quite the opposite.

When the Nigeria native and Charlotte, N.C., product returns to his home state this weekend for a clash between No. 21 ND (4-1) and one of the first schools that recruited Okwara, North Carolina (1-4), he’ll come to Kenan Memorial Stadium as a key figure in an improved Irish defense. Kickoff is 3:30 p.m. EDT, and ABC has the telecast.

The pass-rush specialist is second on the team in sacks (1.5), to nose guard Jerry Tillery (3.0), and has been credited with a couple of quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.

“I think what he’s done that’s surprised us more than anything else has been that he continues to show really good improvement in the weight room,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s surprisingly strong. And I think that kind of shows in the way he plays.”

The tangible measure of Okwara’s strength gains look like this: In the spring, Okwara maxed out at seven bench press reps at 225 pounds, the football standard test of upper-body strength. In the days leading up to ND’s season opener at Temple on Sept. 2, he put up 21.

“I was never a big fan of the 225 test,” he said. “We came in and I just had a really good lift, and (ND strength) coach Matt Balis and the energy in the room was hyped up. Everybody was screaming. I got up to 21, and it’s like, whoa. It surprised me.”

Okwara’s older brother, Romeo, ND’s sack leader in both 2014 and 2015, had a thicker build and more natural strength when he arrived at Notre Dame in June of 2012 as one of the youngest freshman on the entire campus (he turned 17 that June).

And he didn’t always restrict that strength to football.

“We kind of fought a lot growing up, and he obviously won,” said Julian of the now second-year pro with the New York Giants. “There was a time he threw me and I was stuck in a wall by our front door. My mom was pretty mad. He always won, but I was always up for the fight.”

Julian, 18 when he enrolled at ND, was actually the more highly recruited of the two out of Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte. Romeo, even though he was bigger and stronger, was a three-star prospect and the No. 35 weakside defensive end prospect nationally in the 2012 class, per Rivals.com.

Julian was a four-star prospect with a deeper, more impressive offer list and was the No. 18 weakside defensive end in the 2016 class.

He chose ND over finalists Clemson, Georgia, Ole Miss and Michigan, and admitted Romeo’s positive experience had a lot to do with that.

And even though the two never got to play together at Ardrey Kell or Notre Dame, Romeo keeps close tabs on his younger brother’s progress, even attending the opener with Temple.

“He’ll tell me sometimes I’m late off the ball just a little bit,” Julian said. “He won’t critique me too much, but he always texts me before and after the game, so it’s really good. He mostly congratulates me and we move on.”

Romeo, incidentally, played in all 16 regular-season games last season for the Giants. And when starting end Jason Pierre-Paul suffered an injury late in the season, the older Okwara became the first rookie free agent defensive linemen to start for the Giants since 2005.

Then he started three more regular-season games and the Wild Card Playoff game. He finished the season with 21 tackles, including four sacks. With Pierre-Paul healthy, the 6-5, 275-pound Romeo is back in a reserve role this season.

The next step for the younger Okwara is to evolve into an every-down player like close friend and classmate Daelin Hayes has and close friend and classmate Khalid Kareem is developing toward.

“Whatever the coaches say, I’m just doing it,” he said. “Just seeing what they see in the game, and if I improve, maybe a bigger role.”

Notre Dame’s regime change at defensive coordinator, from Brian VanGorder to Mike Elko has accelerated the process.

“Coming in with a new playbook, that’s when more things started to click for me,” he said. “I was able to understand the playbook more, so I was able to play faster and just kind of work hard in the spring and in the summer camp and stuff, just kind of working to get better.

“When the season came around, things fell into place.”

North Carolina will try to disrupt the comfort zone for Okwara and the Irish defense. The Tar Heels began the season as an uptempo team, running 89 offensive plays in their season-opening, 35-30 loss to Cal.

But they’ve been all over the place since, and got off only 58 plays in a 33-7 loss last Saturday to ball-hogging Georgia Tech.

Still, Larry Fedora is one of just 12 active coaches averaging 35 points per game in his career. Carolina has scored 30 or more points in 46 of Fedora’s 70 games at UNC, and 40 or more points in 27.

And the Tar Heels have gained at least 400 yards or more in 52 of Fedora’s games as head coach.

“I know a lot about their team,” said Okwara, whose family lives roughly two hours away from the UNC campus. “I have friends and former high school teammates on their team. And I’m going to have a lot of family coming to the game.”

And there may even be some pointing. But no laughing.

“I feel people kind of see my play,” he said, “and come back the next snap and say, ‘Hey you’re kind of fast.’ ”

Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara (42) celebrates making a tackle during the Temple- Notre Dame game on Sept. 2. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)