Notre Dame DE Julian Okwara rushing to turn hurries into sacks

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Julian Okwara doesn’t want quarterback hurries.

He’s already had enough of them. The Notre Dame defensive end finished last season with 21 quarterback hurries — more than a third of his team’s total of 62.

Now Okwara wants to turn those pressures into sacks in his senior season.

“Last year I know a lot of plays where I either ran by the quarterback or just missed not bringing him down,” Okwara said. “That’s another point of emphasis for me. I definitely need to finish on the quarterback and finish out my rushes and plays.”

If Okwara turned half of those 21 hurries into sacks, he would have finished as the FBS sack leader. Instead, Okwara ended the season with eight sacks, which tied him with defensive tackle Jerry Tillery for the team high.

With Tillery off to the NFL, it’s up to Okwara and his fellow defensive linemen to keep up the pressure. Both Okwara and defensive end Khalid Kareem weighed early entries in the NFL Draft, but decided to return to Notre Dame.

Okwara came back with a focus on improvement.

“I want to be an All-American,” Okwara said. “I have a lot of goals that I need to finish. I didn’t feel like I did that last year.

“I want to be the best defensive end in the country. I want to lead the nation in sacks. I have so many goals that I want to finish and actually achieve before I leave this place.”

Those goals go beyond just Okwara. He wants the entire defensive line group to make strides toward being consistently dominant. If the defensive line lives up to its potential, it could be the backbone of Notre Dame’s 2019 team.

That means the likes of Okwara and Kareem need to improve just as much as the lesser proven personnel.

“(Defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston always preaches we’re not all perfect. We all have stuff to work on,” Okwara said. “Nobody’s solid. Nobody’s the best out here. We all need something to work on. Even the pros have something to work on.”

Part of that development for Okwara will come by going against the same offensive tackles in practice each week. As Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey take their game to another level, it challenges Okwara even more. The offensive linemen have an added bonus of being familiar with all of Okwara’s moves.

“They’ve definitely gotten used to me a little bit,” Okwara said. “We’ll see. I have to switch some stuff up a little bit.”

Okwara also wants to take on a leadership role. The Irish have captain candidates in the secondary with safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman, but Okwara and Kareem were both given leadership positions during offseason workouts.

“I’m trying to be one of the leaders of the defense and be a guy people can count on and look to to make a play or being able to step up and get the energy up,” Okwara said. “I’ll do whatever I need to do to help this team out.”

That even means helping out the likes of sophomore defensive end Ovie Oghoufo. Earlier this spring, head coach Brian Kelly said Oghoufo is the next Julian Okwara. Oghoufo won’t get a chance to prove that until Okwara leaves, but Okwara has taken him under his wing.

“Yeah, he’s my son,” Okwara joked. “He’s like my little kid. He sits next to me in the meeting room, so I try to help him out the most I can.”

Okwara said Oghoufo will make a name for himself. That’s something Okwara knows about from experience. He followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Romeo, by coming to Notre Dame.

In March, Romeo Okwara signed a two-year contract extension with the Detroit Lions reportedly worth up to $9 million. It’s the first big contract for him after being signed by the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2016. But Romeo hasn’t splurged on any big gifts for Julian yet.

“He got me some water the other day,” Julian Okwara said. “Some water and some food. That’s about it. I don’t ask for much. I do my own thing.”

The younger Okwara needs only 2.5 sacks to surpass his older brother’s Notre Dame career total. But he’s not focused on being the best Okwara brother.

Okwara has lofty goals for himself and for the rest of the defensive line room. He’s in a hurry to prove it.

“We’ll be,” Okwara said, “the best defensive line in the country next year.”

Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara (42) rushes Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson (18) during the Notre Dame-Northwestern NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.
Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong, left, interviews Julian Okwara during the Cotton Bowl media day Dec. 27, 2018 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.