Notebook: DE Julian Okwara finally ready to throw his weight for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen I South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

It’s not just the new number. It’s the person Julian Okwara evolved into while making that number change significantly over the summer that, perhaps, matters even more. A 6-foot-5, 230-pound defensive end in the spring teeming with promise but without a defined role, Okwara arrives Friday in Culver, Ind., for Notre Dame’s first practice of training camp a muscled-up 241 pounds.

The weight change alone is enough to morph the junior from a third-down specialist to someone the coaching staff can trust on running downs as well.

The thrust behind it may eventually touch off a breakout season.

“I’m really proud of him,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday of Okwara, a big playmaker in a part-time role in 2017. “First of all, he’s got a high metabolism, and he’s extremely fit. Even at 230, obviously he was moving at a great rate. He was an impactful player at times for us.

“I think what you’ll see now with this new weight, he’s one of our stronger players. Extremely strong in the weight room. He now has added obviously some power behind that, if you will, and again, this was a decision that he made.”

Okwara finished the 2017 season with a modest 17 tackles, but 4½ of those were for losses, including 2½ sacks. His seven quarterback hurries were second on the team to Jerry Tillery’s 11. He also had an interception and forced a fumble.

His older brother, Romeo, was ND’s sack leader in both 2014 and 2015. The elder Okwara is in his third season with the New York Giants.

A more complete Julian Okwara would complement the strides projected starters and fellow junior ends Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem were purported to have made this summer, particularly when it comes to pass rush. The Irish improved by 10 sacks to 24 last season over 2016, but that still only put them at 83rd nationally among the 129 FBS teams.

“You know, certainly, our nutritionists have a lot to do with it and (director of football performance) Matt Balis has a lot to do with it,” Kelly said of Okwara’s surge. “But at the end of the day, he had to make a choice of putting on this kind of weight, and he did it the right way.

“I’m really excited about watching him in camp.”

More behind the numbers

• Sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath, who arrived as a safety in the summer of 2017 and moved to inside linebacker in the final week of this past spring’s practice sessions, is up 14 pounds — to 225, on his 6-1 frame. That’s the biggest weight gain by any ND player on the roster since spring.

• Another double-digit gainer, sophomore tight end Brock Wright is up 10 pounds to 6-5, 260 from spring.

• The biggest loser, so to speak, was senior nose guard Micah Dew-Treadway, down nine pounds to 6-4, 300. Next is sophomore wide receiver Michael Young, down seven pounds to 5-10, 185.

• With a five-pound gain, wide receiver/running back hybrid Jafar Armstrong — at 6-1, 218 — is ND’s second-biggest back behind junior Tony Jones Jr. (5-11, 220).

Kelly hinted Tuesday that Armstrong’s role is evolving more toward running back and less toward wide receiver.

• Early-enrolled freshman linebacker Bo Bauer is up nine pounds to 6-3, 225, following a summer that got him noticed by the coaching staff.

“Here is a guy that physically has transformed himself, his mentality, his work ethic, the way he attacks things in the classroom,” Kelly said. “He’s been extremely impressive.”

• Another early-enrolled freshman, 6-foot safety Houston Griffith, is up nine pounds to 205, and don’t be surprised if he challenges, if not wins, a starting spot opening night, Sept. 1 against Michigan.

“He could play corner. He has that kind of skill level,” Kelly said. “And then functional intelligence. He can diagnose. He can see things. He reacts quickly to things in front of him.

“So age really doesn’t become a disqualifier for him.”

Redshirt revisions

Because of the new NCAA rule that allows players to see action in up to four games without burning a redshirt year, Kelly wants to get a longer look at his entire 27-man freshman class.

And he’ll do so by restructuring his training camp practices.

“We are going to get an opportunity during the practice to scrimmage a lot of the young guys and answer some of the questions that we all probably have,” Kelly said. “I can tell that you there are some that are physically more prepared and that some are more mentally prepared.

“So you have to then put them in football situations, and I think that’s what we’ll do. and that’s why I’m eager to kind of give the freshmen much more of an opportunity to compete in preseason camp.”

A couple of freshmen to note:

• Quarterback Phil Jurkovec checked in at 6-5, 220, and the plan per Kelly is not to rush him into anything.

“There are going to be more opportunities for Phil to get in there and compete during camp with all eyes on him,” he said. “I really think it’s going to be great for him.”

• Cornerback Joe Wilkins Jr. is listed on the roster as a wide receiver/defensive back. Kelly said that doesn’t mean the 6-1, 185-pounder, recruited as a cornerback, will play both sides of the ball, but rather the coaching staff needs the month of August to figure out his best fit.

“He’s fast, but very raw, so right now the thing he does best is run straight down the field and catch the ball,” Kelly said. “Eventually we’ll see how well he can backpedal, turn and run and look for the ball.”

Making the grade, part 1

An impressive spring for rebounding No. 1 quarterback Brandon Wimbush was apparently followed up by a strong summer, per Kelly.

“I would say A-plus in the offseason for Brandon Wimbush,” Kelly said. “Now let’s go put the other pieces of our preparation together.”

Wimbush finished his first season as a starter on the bench, as backup Ian Book rallied the Irish to a 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory, Jan. 1 in Orlando, Fla. Wimbush regained No. 1 status in the spring, then strengthened it in the weeks that followed.

“I love the way he’s been leading,” Kelly said. “One of the things in developing the quarterback position is you go from a position where he came from, where he wasn’t a starter, to being immersed right into the middle of it and then being able to take a step back and look at his work and what he needs to do, and he attacked it in the offseason.

“He attacked his weaknesses. He continued to sharpen his strengths. and what I loved the most about him is that he’s a humble leader. He took the time to work on many of the things that he felt like he needed to work on, as well as he became much more of a vocal leader for us.”

Making the grade, part 2

While playing both football and baseball last spring as a freshman, tight end/left-handed pitcher Cole Kmet was also starring in the classroom.

“He had a 3.4, 3.5 GPA,” Kelly said. “Was able to help the baseball team, which was awesome, and still did all the things necessary to be the kind of impact player we believe he’s going to be as a tight end.”

Squibs

• Notre Dame landed in the preseason coaches poll precisely where it ended the 2017 season, at No. 11. Five 2018 opponents are in close proximity — Stanford at 13, Michigan at 14, USC at 15, Virginia Tech at 17 and Florida State at 19.

The AP preseason poll and preseason All-America team is set for an Aug. 20 release.

• For a player expected to be suspended the first four games of the season, senior running back Dexter Williams drew high praise from Kelly for his summer work ethic.

“The best summer that he’s had since he’s been here,” Kelly said. “He’s put on (12) pounds (5-11, 215). His volume is up in terms of his ability to sustain his cardiovascular at a high level. He can go.

“He struggled with that at times last year. He’s physically fit, in great shape. He’s in the best position that he’s been and he’s going to help our football team this year.”

Notre Dame defensive end Julian Okwara (42), here closing in on Stanford running back Bryce Love (20) last November, has muscled up 11 pounds over the summer.