Notre Dame DE Okwara sees surge in sacks in recent games
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame defensive end Romeo Okwara believes his hard work is finally paying off — and it’s the opposing quarterbacks who are paying the price.
The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Okwara has eight sacks in the past five games, giving him nine for the season as the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish (9-1, No. 4 CFP) prepare to face Boston College (3-7) at Fenway Park in Boston. That places him eighth in the nation and ties him for sixth best in Notre Dame history for sacks in a season. He needs five more to break the school record of 13.5 set by Justin Tuck in 2003.
Not bad for a guy who had one sack through the first four games.
“Each and every day since I got here I’ve been working hard to get to where I am now. It’s always a constant grind,” he said.
Okwara’s most memorable sack of the year came against Wake Forest on Saturday when he leaped over running back Tyler Bell and came down on quarterback John Wolford, pulling him down for a seven-yard loss. A personal foul penalty pushed the Demon Deacons back even further, leading to a missed 51-yard field goal attempt. Okwara finished the game with a career-high three sacks and could have had another but he was called for a facemask.
Coach Brian Kelly attributes Okwara’s improved play to confidence.
“He jumps over a back, launches himself. I mean, he’s playing with some of that reckless abandon that at times he was kind of feeling his way through his role in his play, where now he’s really confident in what he’s doing and how he’s doing it,” Kelly said.
Okwara arrived on campus shortly before his 17th birthday and played outside linebacker in his first two seasons at Notre Dame, playing primarily on special teams as a freshman and as a backup as a sophomore, starting once. He became a starter last season and led the team with 4.5 sacks, finishing with 39 tackles.
Okwara has five sacks in the past two games and attributes some of the success to a suggestion by defensive line coach Keith Gilmore that he stop trying to do a wide variety of moves to beat offensive linemen and instead focus on what he what he does best by powering his way through.
“We both know what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at right now. I guess I’ve been using things that are working,” he said. “As long as they keep working, I’ll just keep doing them.”
Okwara, who has a brother named Julian who has committed to the Irish for next season, said many people assume he is named for the tragic Shakespeare character. But he said he is named for singer Lenny Kravitz, who went by the name Romeo Blue when he was younger.
“It’s pretty cool. I love Lenny Kravitz. He’s a great musician,” he said.
Okwara is a bit of musician himself, learning to play the ukulele from teammate Corey Robinson, buying one for himself while on spring break in Hawaii.
“I’m nowhere close to Corey. But I’m decent. I can play something that sounds good,” he said.
Okwara, who will graduate with a business degree in December, agrees with Kelly that he’s playing more confidence. He said it’s especially helpful playing for the second season under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s system.
“I’m definitely feeling more comfortable. I bounced around a lot since I’ve gotten here. This defense for the second year, just knowing the defense a lot better, it kind of gives you a sense of freedom,” he said. “Just knowing what to do lets you play a lot faster.”