Notre Dame DE Julian Okwara comfortable, confident heading into senior season

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Julian Okwara offered to do his interview at the podium.

After Notre Dame’s first preseason camp practice at the Culver Academies on Sunday, Okwara was selected as one of eight Irish football players available for interviews with the media.

The senior defensive end didn’t get the top billing, though. That belonged to quarterback Ian Book, who stood behind the podium after head coach Brian Kelly finished taking questions from reporters. The other seven players scattered around the sideline of Oliver Field in Culver, Ind.

A couple of years ago, Okwara wouldn’t have even joked about doing a podium interview. He would have been more likely to try to find a way out of a scheduled press availability.

“At first, I didn’t like interviews,” Okwara said in June. “I do like talking a lot, but sometimes I feel like there’s a lot of pressure in interviews. I’m definitely getting better at it the more I do them. It was more of an experience thing. Once I got to do them, I was pretty comfortable with them.”

Okwara looked plenty comfortable Sunday. The 6-foot-5, 248-pound Okwara also looked ready for a starring role in 2019. There was plenty of chiseled definition in Okwara’s upper body on display, with Okwara wearing a sleeveless shirt. That’s what future NFL defensive ends look like.

Okwara has been saying since early this year that he wants to be the best defensive end in the country. In June, he told the Tribune he set a goal of 18.5 sacks for the 2019 season, which would be a Notre Dame program record and would have led all of college football in 2018.

But on Sunday, Okwara declined to offer many big declarations about himself.

“I’m really focused right now on camp and the team overall,” Okwara said when asked how good of a season he can have. “I’m definitely excited for the future. I’m really focused on camp right now and making sure the defense is where it needs to be. Hopefully, if everything goes right, I don’t know. Hopefully, it works out.”

The high end of “it works out” could land Okwara in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. In July, The Athletic’s Dane Brugler ranked Okwara the fourth-best edge rusher in college football and the top senior edge rusher going into the 2019 season.

Defensive line coach Mike Elston said Okwara’s production can be off the charts this season.

“He’s as twitchy and as fast and as athletic as probably anybody in the country,” Elston said in June. “So there are a lot of things production-wise that he can clean up and be better on.

“The run stuff, the first and second down, the pad level, the consistency of block destruction — things that he and I have talked about. He wants to be a first-round draft pick. Block destruction on first and second down, physically more consistent and then his pass rush, the finish.”

Elston and Okwara have worked specifically on all of those things. When it comes to finishing on his pass rush, they estimate he missed 15 sacks last season. He finished the year with eight sacks and 21 quarterback hurries.

Preseason camp offers Okwara the first opportunity to test his new techniques against Notre Dame’s offensive line. The real tests will start Thursday, when the Irish put on full pads for the first time.

“We got some work in (Sunday) to get the kinks out,” Okwara said. “We’re looking forward to day two or day three, and when we get pads on to really get things clicking.”

Before Okwara returned to Notre Dame and headed off to Culver, he went back home to Charlotte, N.C., to spend some time with his family before his younger sister, Adaeze, heads off to college later this month. During a break in May, Okwara made his first trip back to Nigeria, where he lived for the first eight years of his life. He moved with his family to Charlotte in 2006.

While in Nigeria, Okwara was unable to keep up with the final season of Game of Thrones. He had to censor his social media to make sure he didn’t encounter any spoilers.

“I muted every single thing that had to do with ‘Game of Thrones,’” Okwara said in June. “The minute I landed in America, I watched it.”

Okwara may have to do more social media muting if he wants to avoid chatter about his bright future. A successful junior season gave Okwara a lot of confidence, but it also showed him how much more he can improve.

If Okwara reaches his potential, he won’t have to ask for podium interviews.

“I know what I need to do to make those plays or be the best defensive end in the country like I’ve been saying,” Okwara said in June. “It’s honestly based on confidence and motivation. I have a lot of goals — personal goals and team goals — that keep me going.

“Waking up every day, coming to this program, working toward a national championship, working toward games — everything day by day motivates me to keep going harder.”

Notre Dame defensive end Julian Okwara (42), pictured in pursuit of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in last season’s Cotton Bowl loss, wants to eliminate his high number of missed sack opportunities.