Aug 3, 2014, 12:39 PM EST
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.
6’4″ 260 lbs.
Junior, No. 45
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.”
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.
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.
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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