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November 8, 2013

Okwara's on-the-job training

Romeo Okwara moved from Nigeria to the United States as a sixth-grader. One would think such a cultural shift would require numerous adjustments, if not a complete change of lifestyle. Not for Okwara.

“It was a little different, but I kind of got used to it, it didn’t take too long,” the sophomore linebacker said Wednesday. “It wasn’t that big of a transition.”

Something must have tripped up the 12-year-old Okwara, though, right? Some part of Americana must have been more different than Nigeria than anything else.

“I guess football,” Okwara allowed. “I used to play soccer back then.”

Suddenly, Brian Kelly’s comments regarding Okwara make more sense. Okwara has bounced around the field for Notre Dame’s defense, filling in where needed, be it at the Dog linebacker position -- dropping into coverage; the Cat linebacker position - coming off the edge; or even as an undersized five-technique filling in for any of a number of injured Irish. Wherever Okwara has lined-up, Kelly has offered the same faint praise.

“He needs to play football more,” Kelly said this week. “He needs to get more playing time. When he plays more football, he’s going to be fine.

“The game is new to him. He wasn’t brought up as a young man that played a lot of football, so each time he steps on the field, it’s new to him.”

Not only did Okwara not grow up playing football -- but rather fútbol -- he didn’t even take the field his second year chasing a pigskin. Okwara said it took him two years to learn the general rules and nuances of America’s most popular sport, and that second year was spent in the stands after failing to make the team in eighth grade.

A growth spurt during his freshman year helped with the transition.

“I thought everyone made the team, so that’s probably why they picked me,” he said. “Eighth grade I was about (5-foot-7). Freshman year I think I was about six-foot, so I grew a little bit.”

Okwara has now grown to 6-foot-4, with a listed-weight of 258 pounds, though Kelly has described him as “flailing away in there at 245 pounds playing defensive end.” Whatever the weight, Okwara’s growth spurt six years ago marked a change. He hasn’t been cut from a team since, and thanks to the playing time, his football IQ has continued to develop.

“Definitely playing more helps you become a better player,” Okwara said, following special teams action in all 13 games last season with consistent defensive appearances in every game this season. “You get to see things you wouldn’t see in practice. The game’s a lot faster.

“(The speed did) not necessarily surprise me, but it’s hard to get prepared for the speed of the games.”

As Okwara bounces from position-to-position -- “wherever they put me” -- Kelly’s confidence in the 18-year-old sophomore continues to rise.

“He’s learning about the game every day and he’s making great progress every day. You can see him growing as a player,” Kelly said. “It’s less about the technical stuff for me with Romeo. Every time he steps on that field -- whether it’s on a special teams assignment or as a five-technique or in the nickel package, he just keeps growing.

“And I don’t mean physically. I mean mentally as a football player. That’s what he needs the most, and as long as he continues to do that, he’s going to be fine.”

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