JOK of all trades: Notre Dame rover Owusu-Koramoah embracing variety on and off the field

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

One spectator settled along the visitors sideline at Wallace Wade Stadium brought such a distinct aura that some of Notre Dame’s football players even succumbed to intermittently peeking his direction.

That can’t be him. He went to Georgetown, not Notre Dame.

Why would he attend a college football game?

Are we sure that’s Allen Iverson?

It was.

The peculiarity of the former NBA Most Valuable Player and 11-time All-Star being in attendance excused those glimpses of distraction. So did Notre Dame’s performance on that brisk Saturday night last November, a 38-7 thrashing of Duke.

Joined by his longtime agent, Gary Moore, Iverson made the trip expressly so he could watch Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The burgeoning Irish rover tallied eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss and two pass breakups while helping hold the Blue Devils to only 197 yards.

Owusu-Koramoah attended Bethel, Iverson’s high school alma mater in Hampton, Va. His prowess as a basketball star earned him Division I scholarship offers from Maryland Eastern Shore and Virginia Military Institute. It also earned him relationships with Iverson and Moore.

Moore also graduated from Bethel (‘73) approximately a decade before meeting and subsequently mentoring 9-year-old Iverson. The two remain involved with Bethel’s basketball program, offering support through Iverson’s resources and Reebok sponsorship.

Iverson heard the talk surrounding Owusu-Koramoah last season. He wanted to verify the hype. Observing his linebacker-safety hybrid role and overall performance left a lasting impression on Iverson. He no longer wants to just know Owusu-Koramoah from a distance.

“I was simply fascinated by how good he was as a player. Quick, smart and a great tackler, as well as a very disciplined player,” Iverson wrote in an email. “JOK has a future in the NFL, and I believe that he should have a very productive career.

“I cannot wait to see him play this coming season at Notre Dame."

Former NBA MVP Allen Iverson (right) attended Notre Dame’s 38-7 win at Duke last November to see Irish rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (left) play.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Owusu-Koramoah tied linebacker Drew White for a team-high 80 tackles and led the Irish with 13.5 tackles for a loss last season. He also recorded 5.5 sacks, four pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Owusu-Koramoah endured a slow start to his college career. He did not record a tackle in his first two seasons. Following his breakout third season, Owusu-Koramoah figures to be on an upward trajectory. He’s young for his class after testing a year early into kindergarten. He won’t turn 21 until Nov. 4.

Another impressive season could cement him as a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

“He’s just as special as Allen Iverson was,” Moore said. “Or maybe even more special, because he’s younger, he’s able to articulate, learn more and to adapt more. ... I think Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will probably be the best college football player in America this year.”

Owusu-Koramoah found his name on preseason award watch lists (Bednarik, Butkus and Nagurski) and NFL mock drafts this offseason. Adversity and self-discovery shaped the winding path that led him to that acclaim.

A Renaissance man of sorts, Owusu-Koramoah’s hybrid ability at rover compares to his variety of talents off the field. Iverson took the time to learn more about him. He now expects Owusu-Koramoah to leave his mark after football.

“His intellect and concern for mankind will go a long way in building a brand that will live long after his playing days are over,” Iverson said. “He is the type of individual who has the potential to impact this generation and the generation that follows.”

Moore believes Owusu-Koramoah may someday radiate a mystique similar to the one emanating from Iverson that night on the sideline. So does Iverson, who advised Owusu-Koramoah to remember where he grew up.

Clearly he has.

“At that time, I was a Notre Dame guy,” said Owusu-Koramoah about his discussions with Iverson that weekend. “I was at Notre Dame and in South Bend, Ind. I wasn’t thinking about (area code) 757. I wasn’t thinking about Hampton, Va. And when you think about Hampton, you think about all the struggles. You think about all you had to go through and all those other guys who went to other colleges.

“Then just the nature of where you are from. So it allows you to tap back into something that’s authentic that drives you.”

A change of heart

Notre Dame senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah initially considered transferring from Hampton (Va.) Bethel High after the coaching staff approached him about playing a hybrid role.

Frustrated by Bethel’s coaching staff, who wanted to use him at multiple positions as a senior, Owusu-Koramoah intended to transfer. He had even selected his destination: a private, Catholic school in Virginia Beach called Bishop Sullivan.

Bishop Sullivan, renamed as Catholic High School last summer, seemed to offer more exposure. Its loaded schedule included national powerhouse Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy.

Prior to his junior season and since youth football, Owusu-Koramoah jumped around multiple positions. Focusing more on free safety as a junior helped launch his recruitment. Virginia, NC State and Wake Forest were among schools to offer him.

So now Owusu-Koramoah had to serve in a utility role again? He had enough.

“I was exhausted with this plan, playing all these different positions and not really mastering one,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “But (sticking to) it turned out to benefit me in the best way.”

The thought of Owusu-Koramoah transferring schools bothered his mother, Beverly. She required a compromise. Before officially withdrawing from Bethel, Jeremiah had to meet with principal Ralph Saunders. As Owusu-Koramoah’s former principal at Kraft Elementary School, Saunders knew him better than other administrators.

Saunders played devil’s advocate. He peppered Owusu-Koramoah with questions. He brought up worst-case scenarios. He named multiple NFL players who came from humble beginnings.

“I talked to him like he was my son,” Saunders said.

Owusu-Koramoah said he left that meeting wanting to choose loyalty over exposure. Any second-guessing likely would have stopped after game one.

Bethel’s season opener against vaunted Chesapeake (Va.) Indian River showcased Owusu-Koramoah in his new multi-purpose position. Dubbed the “joker,” Owusu-Koramoah played defensive end, linebacker and safety. His responsibilities depended on the opponent and situation. He also contributed at wide receiver and long snapper.

Bruins head football coach William Beverley remembers Owusu-Koramoah wreaking havoc on defense. He also tallied eight catches for 177 yards and a score, including a game-winning 75-yard touchdown to cap the 20-19 victory.

“Once that happened,” Beverley said, “more colleges started realizing that he was a sleeper and that he had so much potential.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea had long considered Owusu-Koramoah a top recruiting target while coaching linebackers at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons reportedly offered him the April before his senior season.

The Irish poached Lea in January of 2017 and former defensive coordinator Mike Elko from Wake Forest a few weeks earlier, just before Christmas 2016. Head coach Brian Kelly hoped to rebuild Notre Dame’s defense and overall identity following a 4-8 campaign in 2016.

The first phase of the rebuild required a sense of urgency. For starters, Elko and Lea were hired late in the recruiting cycle ahead of National Signing Day for the 2017 class. They also needed to add a utility player to enhance their 4-2-5 scheme. Owusu-Koramoah verbally committed to Virginia in October of 2016 and finished the cycle as a three-star recruit.

Those circumstances and elevated recruiting expectations didn’t deter Elko and Lea from still considering Owusu-Koramoah as their top option. Kelly hardly needed convincing, Lea said. Owusu-Koramoah had accumulated enough impressive film at joker.

Flipping Owusu-Koramoah required Notre Dame to host him for a Jan. 26 official visit.

“He was such a dynamic player on offense and defense, and he did so much. You saw the possibilities there,” Lea said. “I think it was in the little areas — balance, body control and short-space acceleration — and it translated. It could be 7-on-7 at the school. It could be a basketball game. It could be watching a football game. He just flashed.”

Had Owusu-Koramoah transferred to Bishop Sullivan or never committed to playing joker, maybe he would never become Notre Dame’s first signee recruited specifically to play rover. The Irish having scholarship space and hiring Lea and Elko proved to be critical, too.

“I think the relationship part of it allowed us to recruit him to a different place, a different campus, without feeling that we were starting from square one,” Lea said.

Life beyond football

(From left to right) Enoch Osei-Owusu, Andrews Owusu-Koramoah, Joshua Owusu-Koramoah, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Yaw Boadi, Genevieve Boateng, Esther Boateng, Helena Boateng and Salome Owusu (squatting) pose for a picture at a funeral in Ghana early last summer.

Visiting Ghana early last summer accomplished more for Owusu-Koramoah than just an introduction to more than a dozen relatives, including his grandfather Ernest.

Jeremiah and older brother Joshua had never trekked to the African country. Their Ghanaian father, Andrews, grew up in his homeland before meeting the boys’ mother, Beverly, in England and moving to Virginia in 1998.

For approximately three weeks, Andrews explored Ghana’s main attractions with his sons to better acquaint them with their roots and culture. The trip had an impact.

“He loves where he comes from, his background. He wants that background and culture to be part of his life,” Andrews said about Jeremiah’s biggest takeaway. “He doesn’t want to deviate or separate himself from that culture.”

Embracing his culture. Introspection. Enlightenment. Those and self-reflection were critical in pushing Jeremiah through his difficult first two years at Notre Dame. Following a redshirt season in 2017, Owusu-Koramoah secured a place on special teams as a sophomore. That role lasted two games, truncated by the season-ending broken foot he suffered in practice.

How Owusu-Koramoah spent those several months following that injury helped stage his successful junior season.

“He grew tremendously as far as his maturity as a young man,” Joshua said. “He began to seek out different things. He really invested into the different gifts he has.”

Video editing ranks among Jeremiah’s favorite hobbies. Owusu-Koramoah even created his own highlight tape this offseason, posting the video that lasts more than three minutes on social media in May. He pieced together numerous clips from his junior season and intermingled them with distinct visual and audio effects.

“Yeah, it took me like nine hours to do,” Owusu-Koramoah said.

But Owusu-Koramoah considers the visual arts to be secondary to the written arts. He finds poetry to be cathartic during times of struggle.

“It’s something that can really capture your feelings, emotions and thoughts,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “It’s a different area for me, just because I’m such a Biblical reader. Look at Songs of Solomon. Look at some apocryphal texts. All these different things. Poetry is key to me.”

Notre Dame senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah enjoys photography and brought his camera with him while in Ghana early last summer.

Owusu-Koramoah majors in film, television and theatre at ND, with an emphasis on film and a minor in studio arts. His other interests seem to be endless: photography, singing, drawing, ministry, fashion design, public speaking and more.

What will Owusu-Koramoah do after football? Those close to him struggled to answer that question. His skills and hobbies are too wide-ranging. Movie director, preacher/minister, politician and motivational speaker were the popular picks among their extensive predictions.

The prevailing consensus? Owusu-Koramoah should use his creative talents to impact groups of people.

“His identity is not complete with or without football,” Joshua said. “Football is something he’s gifted in and that God has given him. But it’s so much bigger than that. I think that was the beauty about that sophomore year for him.”

How Jeremiah’s mother raised him played a role in why he’s a hybrid off the field, too. Perhaps Beverly’s 20-year stint in the Air Force factored into how she accentuated Christianity and academics as her biggest priorities for him. Incentivized rewards were common.

And not just for her own children.

Jeremiah’s family owned one of the few trampolines in their neighborhood when he was growing up. Any kid who wanted to jump had to complete a quiz. Defining words from a dictionary or completing multiplication tables were among Beverly’s favorite testing methods.

William Beverley remembers her intervening when Jeremiah struggled academically. She nearly prevented Jeremiah from playing against crosstown rival Hampton during his senior football season. She had issues with his latest progress report.

They eventually discovered the progress report to be faulty because of a miscommunication. Crisis averted.

“She definitely made it clear that Jeremiah is more than a football player,” the head football coach said. “If I had a lot more parents like that, things would be a lot better.”

Beverly’s children know not to leave the house or end a phone conversation before she prays for them. Joshua said the walls of their home featured Bible verses and motivational phrases — not for decor, but as a reminder.

Jeremiah’s time away from football also served as a reminder to embrace who he is off the field. And to embrace his other hobbies, therapeutically.

“I thank God for my mom,” Jeremiah said. “I kind of had this fear in me, but it was a fear in a respectful way. It wasn’t like I was scared or anything, but it was fear in a way that if I did something wrong, I would be chastised.

“It was a good experience, because that really made me who I am today.”

Motivation tactics are still used by Beverly, even with football.

“Last year I enjoyed telling him, ‘Get the quarterback, and I’m going to Cash App (transfer) you $100. You are working for me.’” Beverly said.

Embracing the rover

Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah keeps his distance after making a tackle against Duke Nov. 9, 2019, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C.

Clark Lea does not plan to move Owusu-Koramoah inside to buck linebacker, even if recent history suggests that position switch may improve the Irish defense.

Notre Dame’s two starting rovers before Owusu-Koramoah — Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal — transitioned to buck and benefited. The Los Angeles Chargers selected Tranquill in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Bilal only trailed White and Owusu-Koramoah on the Irish by one tackle (79) last season.

Buck also looks to be the only linebacker position without definitive answers heading into training camp. Still, Lea touted the don’t-fix-what-ain’t-broke line. Owusu-Koramoah’s skills playing in space and in coverage translated better at rover, Lea said.

“He’s got a ton of value there,” Lea said, “and so it’s less of — to me anytime you move a position, independent of rover to buck or whatever, you’re always looking at where is the highest potential impact? Where is the highest potential ceiling for a player? So we feel like we have him in a pretty good spot that way.”

Owusu-Koramoah will look to not fall in the trap that plagues certain multi-purpose players. Utility players hope to be a jack of all trades. Not developing at one position, however, risks them becoming a master of none.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges, but Owusu-Koramoah assures he won’t regress and stayed in top shape. Extensive film study helped him identify ways to improve.

“What I saw a lot in my game was that I just needed to slow down,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “I will always try to react to the play. Not exactly slow down, but to process the game faster. So once I see something in post- and pre-snap, I think was big for me. Before the snap, look at formations. Just being a student of the game I think was important for me.”

From dismissing to embracing his hybrid ability, from unknown to revelation, Owusu-Koramoah has come a long way. ESPN analyst Todd McShay ranked Owusu-Koramoah as the No. 2 linebacker and 17 overall prospect in his 2021 NFL mock draft in May.

“I think the game matriculates up,” Lea said. So we’re defending the RPOs that high school offenses came up with and adapted over the years. The NFL is starting to dip their toe in that water, too. And I would imagine with the effectiveness of offenses that you see in college, that that’ll continue to happen.

“The beauty of Jeremiah is there’s this athleticism, twitch, burst, short-space explosiveness and coverage ability that’s all over his film. But he’s also a physical player.”

Owusu-Koramoah’s high school football coach knows how he started to tap into his seemingly limitless potential. He first decided against transferring from Bethel. Then Owusu-Koramoah learned how to cope with the adversity he faced in his first couple seasons at Notre Dame.

Someday soon, maybe he will be the sideline observer being gawked at by players.

“Being a jack of all trades or a master of none,” Beverley said, “I really think he’s going to be the master of being a jack of all trades.”

Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah tied linebacker Drew White for a team-high 80 tackles and led the Irish with 13.5 tackles for a loss last season.