USC v Notre Dame

Irish A-to-Z: Romeo Okwara

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After spending two seasons in a reserve role at outside linebacker, junior Romeo Okwara moves into the starting lineup at defensive end. The position change puts added pressure on a player who is already halfway through his college career, the product of depth-chart difficulties and Okwara’s surprising versatility.

Capable of playing in space at the dog linebacker position, Okwara will now put a hand on the ground and chase quarterbacks, simplifying his role in the defense with hopes that he’ll be a quick study in Brian VanGorder’s new system and under the tutelage of Mike Elston.

Coming to Notre Dame from the same high school as Prince Shembo, let’s take a closer look at the North Carolina native.

ROMEO OKWARA
6’4″ 260 lbs.
Junior, No. 45

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Okwara committed to Notre Dame the summer before his senior season, an incredibly young player who had size and speed that Notre Dame coveted. The Irish beat out programs like Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech and the major in-state programs for the three-star prospect, who filled one very specific model for the Irish defense, even if his position was still in flux.

“When you look at players that have not reached their potential yet, here is a young man just started playing the game just a few years ago,” Kelly said of Okwara on Signing Day. “He’s extremely athletic, love his size, almost 6‑4, 240 pounds, and he’s going to continue to get bigger.  He’s our one, big‑skill player in this group.”

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, credited with seven tackles, mostly on special teams. Had a key tackle for loss against Oklahoma, credited with a forced fumble as well. Added a half-tackle for loss against Wake Forest.

Sophomore Season (2013): Played in all 13 games, with a start against Navy. Made 19 tackles, with 1.5 TFLs. Had five tackles against both Navy and Stanford.

 

UPSIDE POTENTIAL

Okwara is still incredibly young for his age — he’s just shy of his 19th birthday — which gives you an idea why many fans hoped to put a redshirt on Okwara in his freshman season. But there was just too little depth on the edges of the Irish defense, and Okwara’s skills demanded he be on the field, even if he was stuck behind starters at both the cat and dog position.

Now a defensive end, we’ll get an look at how natural Okwara is rushing the passer. Physically, he looks the part of a defensive end, and he’s got the right length and size that VanGorder can use to both hold the point of attack and crash off the edge. He spent the spring learning on the job, placed into the starting lineup, practically the best evaluation of his upside, if there ever was one.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

At a position that still lacks depth and pure pass rushers, Okwara is one of the keys to the Irish defense, part of a group that looks talented on paper, but needs to translate projection to production. With just about every sack on the roster departed after Prince Shembo and Stephon Tuitt headed to the NFL, Okwara will have every opportunity to start fast and make a name for himself.

If we’re trying to learn something from the spring, Okwara was all over the field in the Blue-Gold game, notching three sacks under rules that should give stats like that zero relevance. But that’s all we have to cling to until we see Okwara take the field against Rice, where he’ll have the first opportunity to put up numbers in VanGorder’s stat-friendly defense.

The coaches believe Okwara can get after the quarterback. If he can’t, there’ll be others getting the opportunity to do it. But after two seasons as a member of the supporting cast, expect Okwara to do a nice job as he steps into the limelight.

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The Irish A-to-Z
Josh Atkinson
Nicky Baratti
Alex Bars
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Justin Brent
Kyle Brindza
Chris Brown
Jalen Brown
Greg Bryant
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Amir Carlisle
Austin Collinsworth
Ben Councell
Scott Daly
Sheldon Day
Michael Deeb
Steve Elmer
Matthias Farley
Tarean Folston
Will Fuller
Everett Golson
Jarrett Grace
Conor Hanratty
Eilar Hardy
Mark Harrell
Jay Hayes
Matt Hegarty
Mike Heuerman
Kolin Hill
Corey Holmes
Chase Hounshell
Torii Hunter Jr.
Jarron Jones
DeShone Kizer
Ben Koyack
Christian Lombard
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Nick Martin
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Cam McDaniel
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
Kendall Moore
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.