Lack of sacks not slowing down Notre Dame DE Julian Okwara's pursuit of quarterbacks

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Bragging rights are on the line every time a quarterback drops back for a pass against Notre Dame’s defense.

The chase to record the most sacks doesn’t supersede all responsibilities, but it definitely exists among Notre Dame’s defensive linemen.

Defensive end Julian Okwara didn’t want to go so far as to call it a competition, but he knows his team-high 16 quarterback hurries don’t count as currency.

“No. No. No,” Okwara said. “I can’t brag about that. It’s more about actually getting the sacks than the hurries.”

The 6-foot-5, 241-pound junior has caused plenty of commotion in opposing backfields this season, but has managed only 2.5 sacks in eight games.

Fellow defensive end Khalid Kareem, who has 4.5 sacks, said he likes to give Okwara a hard time about not converting his hurries into sacks. But there’s no doubting Okwara’s impact.

“He’s a great player,” Kareem said. “We’ve known it since he got here. Since high school, we knew what he brought to the table.

“Sacks, they’re nice on the stat book but pressures, him deflecting balls, those cause interceptions. We’ll take whatever he gives us. We know he’ll give his all every play.”

Many defensive statistics have some degree of interpretation involved. The quarterback hurry may be the most subjective. The official NCAA Football Statisticians’ Manual doesn’t even include a mention of the word hurry.

One thing is certain: only one player can receive a hurry on a specific play. Most of the rest is up for debate.

Regardless, Notre Dame’s defense has been credited with 43 quarterback hurries this season. Okwara has notched 37.2 percent of them. Kareem has the second-most hurries with seven.

Okwara would much rather have that kind of lead in the sack column.

“Yeah, it’s definitely frustrating,” Okwara said of coming up short on sacks. “We’re doing our job. As long as we’re going out there and somebody’s getting some pressure, some sacks, we’re doing our job.”

But watching a quarterback throw a bad pass or make a bad decision because of the pressure?

“I definitely enjoy that,” Okwara said.

Growing to love the game

Football hasn’t been a passion of Okwara’s very long.

He started playing the sport in eighth grade.

Okwara’s father, Julius, insisted his children be involved with sports. The oldest son, Jimel, gravitated to football. So did Romeo, who played four years at Notre Dame before embarking on an NFL career. Romeo Okwara, also a defensive end, currently plays for the Detroit Lions.

It seemed natural for Julian Okwara to fall in love with football too. But he only joined the team in eighth grade because he wasn’t having much fun at tennis, swimming or soccer.

“I didn’t like watching it really,” Julian Okwara said of football. “I didn’t like ‘SportsCenter,’ ESPN. I just kind of learned to like it.”

Even on Tuesday night, Julian Okwara said, he fell asleep watching “SpongeBob SquarePants” rather than turning on ESPN for the reveal of the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season.

The appreciation for football eventually came when Julian Okwara found his fit on the field. In eighth grade, he played safety. Then he thought he’d play tight end in high school, but the coaches at Charlotte (N.C.) Ardrey Kell made sure he played defensive end like his older brothers.

“I had really great coaches in high school that taught me the game and cared for me and did everything they could to make sure I was always good,” Julian Okwara said. “I had great friends. Going out there and playing football together. It was just nice. I kind of learned on my own.”

Julian Okwara said he didn’t rely on Romeo Okwara as a mentor in football. Their relationship rarely includes football conversation.

“The only time we talk about football is when our games are on,” Julian Okwara said. “Other than that, it’s rare. It’s just ‘How is life going, how are you doing,’ trying to hang out doing things other than football. It’s nice to get your mind off football at times.”

By his junior season in high school, Julian Okwara finally started to better understand and appreciate football. Scholarship offers came his way. and of course, Julian Okwara ended up following his brother’s path to Notre Dame.

The brothers are different. Romeo Okwara eats more, his younger brother quickly points out. But they’re also different personality types and players.

“They are different,” said ND head coach Brian Kelly. “As a person, they’re different personalities. They are both very intense competitors. Off the field, they’re a little bit different. I think that as players, Romeo was a big end, where obviously (Julian) plays our drop (end). He’s much more of a speed player for us.”

Julian Okwara, apparently, is also a bigger joker.

“Romeo was a little bit quiet,” said Providence Day head coach Adam Hastings, who coached both at Ardrey Kell. “Julian was not quiet at all. Julian was the guy I had to be like, ‘Julian, come here. You have to slow down.’”

The younger Okwara accepts that description.

“I like deviating from things,” Julian Okwara said. “I like breaking the rules a little bit. I would go around talking. I was always kind of loud, and I would always talk back.”

An emerging star

Julian Okwara doesn’t love to speak publicly.

He’s been known to elude media availability at Notre Dame. If a reporter wants to know details about specific plays or schemes, he’s unlikely to give many details.

Asked earlier this season about his interception against Michigan, Okwara didn’t want to take credit for baiting quarterback Shea Patterson into a throw his way.

“Honestly, it was all a surprise,” Okwara said in September. “I really don’t know. I guess I was just in the right spot at the right time.”

But now, Okwara has a little bit more confidence in his pass coverage ability.

“Hopefully I can get some more (interceptions),” Okwara said this week. “Nobody throws my way anymore, so I don’t know. I think they’re kind of scared.”

Okwara’s been put in an interesting position with Notre Dame’s defensive scheme. He’s one of the best pass rushers for the Irish, but he also is asked to drop in coverage at times.

“I honestly don’t mind it,” Okwara said. “I somewhat like being in coverage. I like getting picks. That’s one of my motivations.”

He may not be Notre Dame’s sack leader, but he does have all the Irish defensive linemen beat in the interception column.

Okwara credits working against former Irish offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson last year for his surge this season. The confidence he gained in practice with them at the end of last season helped him flip a switch during the offseason.

“Going into my spring this past year, I definitely started to take football more seriously and knowing that I need to be able to be that playmaker that everybody wants me to be,” Okwara said. “I’m going out there, doing my job and making plays so we can have this great defense.

“I definitely take pride in wanting to be the best defensive end in the country. I definitely have some ways to go, but I’m going to get there some day. I’m just going to keep working for it.”

Okwara, who weighed somewhere between 215 and 220 pounds when he enrolled as a freshman, has worked to gain weight. He’s set a long-term goal of 250 pounds. Even the 240 pounds he’s playing at now has made a difference.

“I definitely feel a change,” Okwara said. “I definitely feel myself getting stronger in the weight room, being able to squat and bench more. It definitely accumulates going onto the field and being able to go out there and push guys around and do my job.”

That weight’s not preventing him from finishing with more sacks. He remains fearless in a race to the quarterback.

“I don’t get slow,” Okwara said. “I just stay fast.”

Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara (42) celebrates stopping Navy QB Garret Lewis (7) during the ND's 44-22 victory, Saturday at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego.
Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara chases down NC State’s Reggie Gallaspy II (25) during the Oct. 28, 2017 game at Notre Dame Stadium.