Former Notre Dame DE Julian Okwara almost ready to put best foot forward for the NFL
It still feels like stepping into a dream for Julian Okwara, even though the former Notre Dame defensive end will largely be a bystander later this month at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
He’ll get weighed and measured. He’ll bench press. He’ll interview with interested NFL teams.
Then he’ll go back to the Exos Athletes’ Performance Center in Phoenix to continue rehabbing and training for a second chance to impress.
“I’ve wanted to do the Combine ever since I started playing football,” Okwara said Friday evening in a phone interview, hours after it was announced he was one of 337 college players — and on of nine from ND — selected to attend the invitation-only mass audition in front of NFL scouts and draft decision-makers.
A broken left fibula, suffered in a 38-7 rout at Duke on Nov. 9, ended his Irish football career and put him on a schedule in which he wore a regular shoe on his left foot for the first time since the injury on Christmas Day. He was cleared to run for the first time beginning next week and deferred most of the Combine’s physical testing by roughly a month.
So he’ll run the 40-yard dash, and do things like have his vertical jump measured, and perform position drills at Notre Dame’s Pro Day — a mini-combine of sorts open to all draft-eligible Notre Dame players pursuing the pro football dream and tentatively scheduled for April 1.
“With this being the biggest opportunity of my life, I think it’s best to take my time and not rush into anything,” the 6-foot-5, 248-pound Okwara said.
“Just make sure I’m fully healthy and being able to put my best foot forward. The way things are set up, I think it gives me the best chance to perform to my fullest potential.”
Joining Okwara from ND on the Combine invite list are fellow defensive end Khalid Kareem, safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, cornerback Troy Pride Jr., wide receivers Chris Finke and Chase Claypool, running back Tony Jones Jr., and the 18th true junior in school history to come out early — tight end Cole Kmet.
Only five teams will be represented by more former players than Notre Dame’s nine: national champ LSU (16), Michigan (11), Ohio State (11), Alabama (10) and Georgia (10).
Kmet could very well end up as the first player drafted among the Notre Dame contingent during the three-day, seven-round draft, staged April 23-25 in Las Vegas.
The former left-handed pitcher for the Irish baseball team pops up fairly regularly in the bottom third of the first round of NFL mock drafts, but his Combine testing will have to sync up with his impressive game tape for that to continue beyond the end of the month.
The 6-foot-6, 250-pounder had 43 catches for 515 yards last season, despite missing the first two games of the season with a broken collarbone. Both figures are ranked sixth in school history for tight ends in a single season.
His six TD receptions in 2019 tied the school record set by Heisman Trophy finalist Ken MacAfee in 1977.
“I think the question with him is: How good of an athlete is he?” said analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com. “Obviously, he was a two-sport player with baseball, but how fast is he going to run? How agile is he?
“I think he’s the top tight end in the draft, but you could make the case for 2-3-4 different guys. Workouts might be one of those areas that help separate that top tier. That will be important for him, and then just the medicals. The durability is a question mark.”
Okwara began the 2019 season as Notre Dame’s indisputable top pro prospect, and could end up that way at the end of the predraft process. In between, the injury and a season that wasn’t overly impressive statistically eroded his consensus status as a late-first-round pick and made falling all the way into the third round a reality.
He finished with 18 tackles in nine games, including six tackles for loss with four sacks — the latter constituting half his total from the 2018 season, in which he shared the team lead with 2019 first-round draft choice Jerry Tillery.
“Honestly, I don’t think I did that well,” Okwara said. “I had high expectations for myself that I didn’t live up to, but I think there’s a lot of room to grow in a lot of areas. I kind of look at myself and see things I can improve on for the next year.
“As far as the physical testing at Pro Day, I think I will excel greatly at that. And I’m used to the pressure.
“So putting together the strength staff that I had at Notre Dame and my athletic ability together gives me a lot of confidence that I can excel at any of the drills they put in front of me.”
Okwara’s position versatility — as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or an end in the familiar 4-3 — may help him regain some momentum in how he’s being evaluated. Analytics-based Pro Football Focus is one group that remains high on Okwara, rating him as the fourth-best edge player in the draft, based largely on his ability to pressure the passer.
Okwara was doing just that Nov. 9, to Duke’s Quentin Harris, when he felt his leg get hit from behind.
“I walked off the field thinking it was a sprained ankle,” he said. “I had no idea until they did the X-rays that it was that serious, that it was broken.
“It’s certainly not the way you envision your career ending, but I’m glad I came back for my senior year and didn’t go into the draft last year. I got my degree, and graduating fulfilled my dreams and my parents’ dreams.
“And I came back for my team, the guys who wanted to win a national championship. We fell short of that, but I have no regrets. There’s so many positives that came out of this year. And everything’s still on track for me to set myself up for a great future.’’
XFL kicks off
Five former Notre Dame players made opening day rosters for the reboot of the XFL, which rolls out its 10-game regular season this weekend with a less-gimmicky format than the original XFL, yet still loaded with intriguing and innovative rule tweaks.
Linebacker Nyles Morgan and the Seattle Dragons visit the DC Defenders Saturday at 2 p.m. (ABC-TV). On Sunday, running back Tarean Folston and the Tampa Bay Vipers visit the New York Guardians in a game with a 2 p.m. kickoff (FOX).
Former Irish defensive tackle Jarron Jones is an offensive lineman these days and plays for New York, as does long snapper Scott Daly.
The fifth former ND player, linebacker Greer Martini, made the Dallas Renegades roster. They host the St. Louis BattleHawks Sunday at 5 p.m., on ESPN.
All but Jones played in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football last winter and spring before the league suspended operations on April 2 and filed bankruptcy 15 days later.
Another AAF alum with Notre Dame ties, Max Redfield, turned down an XFL contract with the DC Defenders. Instead the former Irish safety who finished up at NCAA Div. II power Indiana (Pa.), is playing pro football for Firenze Guelfi and pursuing a modeling career in Italy.
Redfield hopes to play both wide receiver and safety for the Italy First Division League team based in Florence.
What: The NFL's annual invitation-only mass audition for NFL Draft prospects.
When: Feb. 24 through March 1 in Indianapolis.
Who: 337 prospects have been invited, including nine from Notre Dame — DE Julian Okwara, DE Khalid Kareem, S Jalen Elliott, S Alohi Gilman, CB Troy Pride Jr., TE Cole Kmet, WR Chase Claypool, WR Chris Finke and RB Tony Jones Jr.