Notre Dame DE Julian Okwara chased away doubts to put himself in line to chase down history
Mike Elston didn’t plan on watching Julian Okwara play when he made a recruiting trip to Charlotte, N.C., back in October of 2014. In fact, Okwara wasn’t even the backup plan.
During Notre Dame’s bye week that season, the Irish defensive line coach traveled to one of his top recruiting areas with plans to watch North Stanly High running back Antonio Williams, a four-star recruit in the 2016 class. But the day of the game, Elston received word that Williams, who eventually signed with Ohio State, was dealing with an ankle injury.
In search of another game to attend, Elston settled on Ardrey Kell vs. Berry Tech. The Irish successfully recruited outside linebacker Prince Shembo (2010) and defensive end Romeo Okwara (2012) from Ardrey Kell previously, and Elston wanted to return to check out sophomore wide receiver Ryan Jones.
Julian, a junior defensive end and Romeo’s younger brother, was a bit of an afterthought at that point.
“I’m watching this wide receiver and all I see is sack by Julian Okwara, sack by Julian Okwara, blocked punt for a touchdown by Julian Okwara, run down the field on a kickoff, tackle Julian Okwara,” Elston recalled. “I’m like, ‘Why am I not recruiting this kid?’”
Elston was already familiar with the younger Okwara, but he had no idea Julian would have a chance to become the most prolific pass rusher in Notre Dame football history when he first met him as an eighth-grader while recruiting Romeo.
“Julian was just a baby,” Elston said. “He was skinny and little.”
The little Okwara brother has become a big reason why the Irish have confidence in a return to the College Football Playoff in 2019. When Julian and fellow defensive end Khalid Kareem decided to pass on the NFL Draft and come back for their senior years, Notre Dame retained what could be the best defensive end duo in the country this coming season.
Together they combined for 12.5 of the team’s 34 sacks and 29 of the team’s 62 quarterback hurries in 2018. Though Elston describes Kareem as the team’s best pure pass rusher, Okwara outpaced Kareem statistically. Julian finished tied for the team high with eight sacks and led the team with 21 quarterback hurries.
Fortunately for Elston, he ended up in the right place in 2014 to see Julian shine.
The Irish eventually offered Julian a scholarship in February of 2015, and he verbally committed two months later. By the time Julian signed with the Irish a year later, both Rivals and 247Sports pegged him as a four-star recruit but outside the top 250 nationally.
Rivals ranked him as the No. 18 weakside defensive end in the 2016 class. 247Sports slated him as the No. 25 weakside defensive end.
Julian, who was listed on Notre Dame’s 2016 roster as a 6-foot-3, 228-pound freshman, still had some filling out left to do.
“Even when he signed here, he was 208 pounds,” Elston said. “He was never really that big. The twitch, the speed, the aggressiveness was always there, which is what he sold me on.”
The questions about Julian’s size have never really subsided. Julian has learned to be prepared to be asked about it by reporters.
“I get asked about it every single time,” said Julian, who was up to 6-5 and 245 pounds in June.
But no one can question Elston’s decision to pursue Julian — even if it required a bit of dumb luck.
The paths of Julian and Romeo Okwara are so similar that comparisons are hard to avoid.
They emigrated with their family from Nigeria to Charlotte together in the spring of 2006. They eventually picked up football after their older brother, Jimel, played it first at Ardrey Kell. Romeo and Julian both signed with Notre Dame and became defensive ends for the Irish.
But when Julian enrolled at Notre Dame, he made it clear that he didn’t want to live in his older brother’s shadow.
Because Romeo graduated from Notre Dame the spring before Julian joined the Irish, Julian was offered the opportunity to wear No. 45, like his older brother. He passed and settled on No. 42.
When some coaches started calling him Romeo, Julian stopped talking to them. He didn’t like the comparison.
“I wanted to create my own legacy and create my own name,” Julian said. “Nothing against Romeo, obviously. He did great things. I just wanted to be my own person and not be compared to him all the time.”
The two brothers are close. Even with Romeo playing for the Detroit Lions, the two communicate almost daily. Romeo makes time to watch Notre Dame play on Saturdays even if he’s in a hotel on the road for an NFL game the next day.
“It’s cool being able to watch him in the same uniform I wore when I was in college and seeing some success on the field,” Romeo said. “It’s good to watch him grow.”
But those that know Julian and Romeo describe them as complete opposites. Romeo’s the quiet, artistic one. Julian’s the outgoing jokester.
“Julian is a talker,” their mother, Melda, said. “He talks so much. He has so many friends. Romeo can be in the room and you wouldn’t know Romeo is in the room. He would just be doing something crafty, like putting stuff together quietly. But Julian, when he comes home, all of Charlotte is in my living room.”
When Julian was a senior in high school, he convinced his mother to chaperone a group of his friends for a spring break trip. To her surprise, the group ended up being 18 boys. That’s a lot even for an experienced traveler like Melda.
In 2002, Melda and her husband, Julius, decided they wanted to start raising their kids in the United States. Julius, who graduated from Texas Southern University, and his siblings all received an education in the U.S. And he wanted that for his children, too.
But the whole family didn’t move at once. Melda brought her oldest son, Jimel, and her only daughter, Adaeze, the youngest child, with her to Charlotte. That’s where Julius’ brother worked as a doctor. It also happened to be the city where Jimel was born.
Melda had a habit of traveling while pregnant. Julian was born in London while she was visiting her sister for Christmas.
“I love traveling,” Melda said with a laugh.
Romeo and Julian stayed with their father in Lagos, Nigeria, until the spring of 2006. By then, Melda and Julius had decided to fully commit to moving their family to the U.S. Still, Julius would maintain a home in Lagos so he could continue to run his businesses.
The transition for Romeo and Julian went smoothly, Melda said. Romeo was placed in the sixth grade as a 10-year-old. Julian, at 8, was placed in second grade. Though they were raised speaking English in their home in Nigeria, where English is the official language, Julian struggled a bit with his accent. Melda wanted him to be placed in third grade.
“I was very against it when they suggested it,” Melda said. “I said, ‘No.’ But then I said, ‘OK.’ He was doing wonderfully well academically in math and other subjects.”
That decision has paid off for Julian in the long run. He ended up on a more traditional track than Romeo. By the time Romeo graduated from Notre Dame, he was only 20. Julian will play his senior season at 21 and turn 22 in December.
“It definitely worked out for me, because I was pretty immature back in the day,” Julian said. “Romeo is definitely way ahead of his time. He was pretty mature for his age. He was always the one telling me right from wrong. Everything worked out for him and worked out for me.
“Being set back that one grade helped me set myself up for success. It’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me. You never know if I would have gotten recruited if I was a grade ahead. I would have probably been out of the system and never have been here.”
The development of Romeo’s career may have prevented him from being an NFL Draft pick. His best season came as a senior when he recorded 48 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss and eight sacks, but because he played as a freshman he couldn’t return for a fifth year.
Romeo has already outperformed his undrafted status. After two seasons with the New York Giants, Romeo tallied 39 tackles and 7.5 sacks for the Detroit Lions last season. In March, Romeo signed a two-year contract extension reportedly worth up to $9 million.
“The biggest mistake we made for Romeo is that we played him as a true freshman,” Elston said. “I wish we would have had his redshirt year.”
Now Elston has one last season to work with the youngest Okwara brother.
Julian Okwara has the No. 18.5 on his bathroom mirror. That’s his stated goal for sacks in the 2019 season.
The number may sound a bit preposterous. But Julian finished 2018 with eight sacks while sharing playing time with Daelin Hayes.
If Julian hits 18.5 sacks this season, he would shatter Notre Dame’s single-season record of 13.5, set by Justin Tuck in 2003.
That would also give Julian enough career sacks to break Tuck’s school record of 24.5. A total of 18.5 sacks would have led college football in 2018, too. Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson finished with 17.5 sacks for the FBS crown.
Perhaps Ferguson’s total played a factor in Julian’s goal, but he didn’t admit to that. He liked the idea of increasing his sack total by more than 10 sacks.
“That’s the minimum that I want,” Julian said. “I don’t want to set myself up for anything less. I want to be the best defensive end in the country. I want to lead the country in sacks. I want to be the best. That’s everything I’m working toward right now.”
Julian could have left Notre Dame following his breakout 2018 season, but he decided to return to pursue those big goals. He also has to graduate. That’s of the utmost importance in the Okwara household.
“My boys have always known that academics come first,” said Melda Okwara, who works for Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte. “Just because you’re playing well and everything, you must graduate, bottom line, before anything else happens.”
It was an easy decision, Julian said. He believed that returning would not only benefit him, but it would also benefit Notre Dame. He didn’t want the Irish defensive line to lose its depth when the defense was already losing starters at defensive tackle, linebacker and cornerback.
“It really wasn’t that serious of a decision,” Julian said. “There were way more pros of coming back than leaving.”
Elston said convincing Julian, who is majoring in management consulting in the Mendoza College of Business, to return didn’t require a hard sell. After Elston showed he could help defensive tackle Jerry Tillery become a first-round pick (No. 28, Los Angeles Chargers) by returning for his senior season in 2018, the proof was already there.
It didn’t hurt that Tillery and Julian were roommates last year, either.
Before Tillery, the Irish hadn’t had a defensive tackle selected in the first round since Bryant Young in 1994. A Notre Dame defensive end hasn’t been a first-round pick since Renaldo Wynn in 1997.
“I think Julian realized that he left a lot on the table,” Elston said. “There are a lot of things that he can improve on. I believe that in his heart, he knew without me even having to say much that it would be a mistake for him to leave at this juncture of his career.”
Elston put together film of all the opportunities for sacks Julian missed last season. They reviewed it in June and counted at least 15 pressures that could have turned into sacks if he finished the right way.
Julian would be in position and sometimes even touch the quarterback, but he didn’t break down to make the play.
“There was nobody that hounded the quarterback more than Julian Okwara last year probably in the country,” Elston said. “But we need to have him finish on the quarterback more. So that’s what he’s focused on doing.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Okwara won 23.9 percent of his pass-rush attempts last season, which qualified fourth nationally in college football among returning edge players.
The adjustments Julian needs to make to turn those wins into sacks are nuanced. He has to better anticipate what the quarterback will do. He has to change how he’s pursuing the quarterback when he gets to a certain depth in the pocket.
Elston has spent part of the offseason developing drills that will allow Julian and the rest of the defensive line to get a better feel for how quarterbacks will try to avoid them.
No one on Notre Dame’s roster should be better equipped to handle an elusive quarterback than Julian if he has prepared and executed properly. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea said hecould probably play Julian at linebacker in his defensive scheme — and he has in certain short-yardage packages.
“I don’t know that I’ve been around (a defensive end) that quite has his twitch, explosion, ability to run and change direction,” Lea said. “He is a special, special talent. You’re trying to recruit as many of him as you can, but there just aren’t a ton that are out there.”
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Mama love me so I can do no wrong
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Julian Okwara didn’t always have the confidence that he could become the best defensive end in the country. On multiple occasions, he questioned whether Notre Dame was even the right choice before arriving there — and after doing so.
When he was a recruit, Julian considered dropping his commitment to Notre Dame and flipping to Clemson. The school was closer to home, and it felt like an easier decision.
“It was just me being immature and not really looking for the big picture,” Julian said.
Then, early in his Notre Dame career, Julian started to doubt his decision again. He considered leaving. But he leaned on Romeo and his parents in both situations. They told him everything would work out if he kept devoting himself to his goals. He needed to be patient.
“Thank God I stayed here,” Julian said. “Once I got to understand that, everything worked out. I got to live my own dream and do my own thing.”
In May, Julian returned to Nigeria for the first time since he left in 2006. He was unable to make the trip with his family in January when Romeo returned for the first time. The four-day visit gave him a chance to rediscover the places he remembered from his early childhood.
At a local swimming pool that the Okwaras used to frequent, a picture of Romeo playing football hangs on a wall. Now they’re working to get one of Julian there, too.
Julian had a chance to see what his father has been building. Julius, who owns a hotel and a car dealership, recently bought a new home in Nigeria.
“He just wanted us to go back and get familiar with the place and have something to go back to and know that we have a home back in Africa,” Julian said.
Last year was a particularly busy one for Julius. As a result, he only attended one of Julian’s games — the home finale against Florida State in November. But Melda insists that her husband will be making it to more games this season.
“This is Julian’s senior year for goodness sake, so definitely,” Melda said. “We’re ready. We’re prepared for that.”
She’s anxious to learn where Julian will end up after graduation, but she’s not in a hurry for the season to pass. Accompanying Julian for Senior Day against Boston College in the final home game of the season will certainly be a highlight. It’s just another perk of Julian returning to graduate.
“I want to walk on that field,” Melda said. “Senior moms walk on that field. That’s what I’m ready for. That’s awesome.”
And there’s still more left for Julian to accomplish, too.
“I obviously haven’t completed everything I want to do here, which is why I’m back here for another year,” Julian said. “I want to set myself up to be the best defensive end in the country. I want to help lead this team to a national championship.
“I want to help set an example for the younger guys who do think it’s a three-and-out program. It’s not that. There’s way more to this program than football and the NFL. All that stuff will come if you just work your ass off. I wanted to come here and do a lot of things. I want to be an All-American and feel like I set my own path.”
Even though both Julian and Romeo are tied for seventh all-time at Notre Dame with eight sacks in a single season, Julian has managed to shape his own legacy with the Irish. He has the full support of Romeo as well.
“I want him to beat every record ever made at Notre Dame,” Romeo said. “I want all the success for my brother.”
The pursuit of his own path has led Julian to the precipice of greatness. Everything he wants is standing in front of him. All he has to do is chase it down and finish.
The ND Insider 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview
Our annual season preview magazine can now be purchased online and in stores locally. You can order copies here to be shipped to you. If you'd like to pick up a copy, you can find them at these local stores.
But what exactly will you be getting in this year’s magazine?
• Our cover story is on senior defensive end Julian Okwara. When he first came to Notre Dame, he wanted to make his own name and not live in the shadow of his older brother, Romeo. Now he has his sights on setting the Irish single-season sack record.
• Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool is on track for a big season in a new role. Learn how a meal with offensive coordinator Chip Long changed their relationship and set the table for more success.
• Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton arrives at Notre Dame as a five-star talent with a three-star mindset. That combination made him the perfect match for the Irish in the pursuit of top prospects.
• Encore seasons haven’t been great for starting quarterbacks at Notre Dame in recent years. Quarterback Ian Book and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees plan to break that trend even if they weren’t aware of it at first. Get an inside look at how the two are preparing Book for an even better senior season.
• In his first months at Notre Dame, Lance Taylor had to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail. The new Irish running backs coach appears to be the right fit on Notre Dame’s coaching staff and in its offensive scheme. Hear from Taylor for the first time since he was hired in February.
• Mike Elston has created a culture of caring with his defensive linemen. The decision to connect so deeply with his players has positively impacted the product on the playing field. That’s just part of the reason the Irish defensive line coach has stayed so long in South Bend.
• Notre Dame’s quarterback recruiting has shifted, with accuracy taking top priority. The attributes of Ian Book can been seen in the quarterbacks the Irish have taken commitments from in the past two recruiting cycles.
• Brian Kelly goes one-on-one with Eric Hansen on a variety of topics, including retirement and karaoke.
The rest of the magazine includes our annual staples: predictions from our staff, an analysis and player feature for each position group, profiles on the freshman class, a recruiting roundtable with national analysts, breakdowns of all 12 opponents and much more.
Don’t miss out on this top-notch product from our award-winning staff. Click here to order your copy today.
The following story appears in the 2019 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. Copies of the magazine can be purchased here.