Notre Dame's Julian Okwara starts strong at the NFL Combine on his road to redemption

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Julian Okwara’s road to redemption featured little more than a pit stop in Indianapolis, but it was an impressive start, nonetheless.

The Notre Dame defensive end Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium put up 27 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press, the only one of the six key physical tests that he didn’t defer to ND’s April 1 Pro Day.

That was good enough for a tie for 10th-best among the 38 defensive linemen at the combine who performed in the bench press on Friday, and fifth among defensive ends. He also won family bragging rights with four more reps that older brother Romeo hoisted at the 2016 NFL Combine.

Ohio State defensive tackle Davon Hamilton led all D-linemen with 33 reps.

Okwara, one of nine Irish players invited to the NFL’s annual mass audition, began his senior season as his team’s consensus top NFL Draft prospect and a probable first-rounder. He’s banking that his performances in the physical testing will help him trend back in that direction.

When Okwara was healthy, his statistics (18 tackles in nine games, including six tackles for loss with four sacks) didn't match up to his projected potential or ambition. Then a broken left fibula, suffered Nov. 9 in a 38-7 rout at Duke, ended his 2019 season and complicated his draft prep. He was only cleared to run a little more than two weeks ago.

“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-4, 252-pound Okwara told the Tribune earlier this month.

“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.”

That’s why the 40-yard dash and other tests will come a little more than a month from now. Same goes for fellow Irish defensive end Khalid Kareem, who played the final five games of the season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder before undergoing surgery Jan. 21.

The actual draft will be held April 23-25 in Las Vegas.

The position groups are staggered at the NFL Combine in terms of testing, interviews, medical checks, etc., and Friday was running back Tony Jones’ turn to do most of his physical testing and position drills.

The 5-10 ½, 220-pounder and ND’s leading rusher this past season struggled to put up numbers that could help him get drafted. He followed up his 13 bench press reps Thursday, with a time of 4.68 seconds in the 40-yard dash Friday.

That ranked 27th among the 28 running backs who took part in that test.

His 32.5-inch vertical leap that placed him 23rd of the 28, and his 9-foot-11 standing broad jump was a foot shorter than position group champ AJ Dillon of Boston College.

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Notre Dame defensive end Julian Okwara put up 27 reps in the bench press testing, Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.