Former NFL QB Michael Vick dishes on connection with Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

During an offseason defined by short-term uncertainty, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah connected with someone who offered long-term guidance.

Michael Vick.

Spending 13 seasons as a quarterback in the NFL, Vick has plenty to share about his football experience. So a mutual friend brought Vick into contact with Owusu-Koramoah. The Notre Dame senior rover took advantage of the opportunity.

Not until 2019 did Owusu-Koramoah record his first career tackle with the Irish. Then he broke out that season, tying for the team lead in tackles with 80. Following his impressive junior campaign, Owusu-Koramoah began to see his name everywhere. On social media. On college football preseason award watch lists. On NFL Draft boards.

Becoming an overnight success meant Owusu-Koramoah needed to adjust. He sought advice from Vick, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft via the Atlanta Falcons.

“Him going through this process of deciding if he’s going to the NFL Draft, he was curious and wanted to talk,” Vick told the Tribune in a phone interview. “He wanted to pick my brain, and we developed a friendship. It’s been really cool.”

Led by Owusu-Koramoah, No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) will play No. 1 Alabama (11-0) on Friday (4 p.m. EST on ESPN). After another strong season from Owusu-Koramoah, the College Football Playoff semifinal in Arlington, Texas, could be his last game in an Irish uniform.

Owusu-Koramoah is eligible to declare early for the 2021 NFL Draft and projects to be a first-round selection. Vick said he plans to help Owusu-Koramoah with that process. The four-time Pro Bowler spoke with him again earlier this month.

“For me, it’s about the relationship,” said Vick, now an NFL analyst for Fox Sports. “Helping him as a player. Helping him with what he’s about to go through, the next-level National Football League, if that’s what he’s set out to do after this season. I look at it as an opportunity to help a young man who is about to enter some good fortune.”

Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick was on the coaching staff of the Atlanta Legends, a team in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football.

Good fortune already came Owusu-Koramoah’s way this month. Last week, he claimed the Butkus Award and earned first-team All-ACC honors. This week, he received first-team All-America recognition from The Associated Press (Monday), The Sporting News (Tuesday) and the Football Writers Association of America (Wednesday).

By landing on those three teams, Owusu-Koramoah clinched consensus All-American status. If he’s named a first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association and the Walter Camp Football Foundation, Owusu-Koramoah will capture unanimous honors.

Vick watched as Owusu-Koramoah recorded 56 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries, three pass breakups, one interception, three forced fumbles and two fumbles recoveries across 11 games this season.

“He kind of put the team on his back at certain times,” Vick said. “That energy. And that’s what you have to do at linebacker, is bring that energy. You’ve got to be vocal. You’ve got to be very enthused about playing that position. He has shown that.”

Owusu-Koramoah and Vick share a connection as products of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area on the Eastern shore of Virginia. Owusu-Koramoah played for Bethel High in Hampton. Vick played for Warwick High in Newport News prior to signing with Virginia Tech.

From Vick to NBA legend Allen Iverson, Owusu-Koramoah had plenty of inspirations from the 757 area code throughout his childhood. His life has come full circle.

“We always were looking up to those guys and looking to compete to find the next person,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “Am I going to be the next guy to rise above that loop? Am I going to be the next guy to rise above that standard?

“When you come into a place the word is compete. The word is attitude. You just always wanted to excel those — you want to go past the sky, past the stars. You want to go past anything that’s set in your way.

“And in high school that was always the goal, to find something to separate myself from those that came after me and ultimately leave the place better than I found it.”

NFL potential

Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and the Notre Dame defense face the nation’s No. 4 offense Friday in North Carolina.

Notre Dame added Owusu-Koramoah via the 2017 class as its first player specifically recruited to be a rover in former defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s 4-2-5 scheme.

Until his senior season at Bethel Owusu-Koramoah primarily played defensive back in high school. Then, his coaching staff created a new position for him called “joker.” That multi-faceted role worked a lot like rover on the Irish, which is still used under current coordinator Clark Lea.

“As a kid you don’t really think about defense,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “You think about offense, because that’s the person who is getting all the praise and touchdowns. All throughout high school, I thought I was a safety. I thought I was a corner. I thought I was everything but a linebacker."

One reason why Owusu-Koramoah’s linebacker-safety hybrid position exists is because of dual-threat quarterbacks like Vick.

When Vick entered the league, linebackers were bigger, imposing specimens. He terrorized those type of linebackers with his shiftiness. In 2006, Vick became the first NFL quarterback to run for at least 1,000 yards in a season. He holds the record for the most career rushing yards by an NFL quarterback (6,109).

By the time Vick officially retired in 2017, traditional linebackers were essentially extinct. Dual-threat quarterbacks, spread offenses and the run-pass option exploited defenders who lacked lateral quickness.

Former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick (7) scrambles in the first quarter of a 2011 game against the Arizona Cardinals.

From Seattle Seahawks safety Jamal Adams to Arizona Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the NFL now features plenty of defenders with versatile skill sets. Owusu-Koramoah figures to benefit from this trend.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea used the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Owusu-Koramoah in various ways in his two seasons as a starter. He blitzed off the edge. He shadowed wide receivers in coverage. He offered run support.

“He’s all over the field, creates turnovers, causes fumbles, interceptions, all sorts of things,” Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones said. “He’s the pivotal piece in the defense.”

Vick said Owusu-Koramoah’s NFL success will depend on what type of coach and system inherits him.

“He will be fit to play the linebacker position on any level,” Vick said. “Whether it’s a hybrid position or a safety, linebacker position, it’s doable. He can do anything he puts his mind to. When you have that type of athleticism, you can make those changes.

“You see it more in the NFL, especially on second-and-long, third-down packages when you get your fast guys on the field.”

As he continued to show his versatility this season, Owusu-Koramoah climbed draft boards.

Mel Kiper, ESPN’s NFL Draft analyst, ranked Owusu-Koramoah as his top outside linebacker and No. 9 overall prospect earlier this month. ESPN’s other NFL Draft analyst, Todd McShay, pegged Owusu-Koramoah at No. 12 overall on Wednesday.

“They trust him covering slot receivers,” McShay said on Wednesday’s edition of the Pod of Gold podcast. “They trust him covering tight ends and guys like (Alabama TE) Jhaleel Billingsley, who he’s going to go up against in this game. You could see him against DeVonta Smith, who is the best wide receiver in the country this year for Alabama, at times in one-on-one (coverage).

“That’s how much they trust him in coverage. Plus the pressure. And then the effort that he brings from sideline to sideline.

“It seems like he’s always on the field and he’s always running to the football. I love that about him.”

Art of words

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea is expected to be named the next head coach at Vanderbilt, according to multiple reports.

The NFL Draft is scheduled to begin on April 29. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL has yet to announce a deadline date for college players declaring early.

Owusu-Koramoah may talk more with Vick before publicizing his decision. But to Owusu-Koramoah, he still has at least one more game to play.

“I’m all appreciative and I’m thankful,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “But even to that extent, my due diligence is what’s in front of me. My due diligence is to handle what is at stake right now. What is at stake is the National Championship, is the playoff game.

“So it’s just been about blocking the noise out. I know it’s a cliché saying, ‘blocking the noise out.’ But it’s really an extensive process of having to turn your phone off some days, having to limit your social media use some days, having to focus on certain things, focus on film and stuff like that."

Owusu-Koramoah understands the upcoming challenge. He will have to defend Jones, the nation’s leader in passer-efficiency rating (202.3) and completion percentage (76.5). He may have to cover Smith, who ranks No. 1 in receiving yards (1,511), No. 2 in receptions per game (8.9) and No. 2 in receiving touchdowns (17).

Alabama running back Najee Harris, who leads the country with 27 total touchdowns, also will be a responsibility for Owusu-Koramoah. And Harris runs behind a Crimson Tide offensive line that was named as three finalists for the Joe Moore Award.

The pressure will be on Owusu-Koramoah to show he’s deserving of all the recent recognition.

“I think those are the two key things that I take away from coach Lea, is the art of words and how it can distract you,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “And how you have to focus on yourself and not let the compliments get to your head. Not let the compliments overshadow who you are.

“Because ultimately what matters is the performance. So you have all the words, and then you have leaving a place better than you found it.”

Owusu-Koramoah will leave Notre Dame better than he found it, no matter how Friday’s game unfolds. And if it’s his last time wearing the gold helmet, Owusu-Koramoah will have a new mentor in his corner as he moves forward.

“I told him that we have a ton of talent always coming out of our area consistently, and he’s another one of those guys,” Vick said. “He has a lot to be proud about. We want to always continue to keep that tradition going and make those from our area proud.

“I tried to let him know, ‘You represent us. We represent one another. Get your opportunity, take advantage of it and we will all be there to help you every step of the way in terms of guidance.’”

Notre Dame rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah tackles Syracuse’s Sean Tucker on Dec. 5.