Notre Dame's Julian Okwara Primed To Hit The Sacks
For the second year in a row, a top Notre Dame defenseman named Julian has had to adjust to not necessarily define his effectiveness merely by numbers.
Last year it was consensus All-American cornerback Julian Love, and this year it is senior drop end Julian Okwara.
As a sophomore in 2017, Love shattered Notre Dame single season record in passes broken up (20) and defensed (23), and tied the standard of returning interceptions for touchdowns (two).
Consequently, for an encore in 2018, Love originally had it in his mind that he had to eclipse those marks to display “improvement.” It negatively affected his game that spring before the staff had to rein him in and have him recognize that playing for individual stats can often be a detriment to team play and goals.
Love’s 2018 stats did drop some, including only one interception, but the team defense was even better, and his overall impact still earned him consensus All-America notice.
Enter Okwara in 2018.
Projected in some 2020 NFL mock drafts with first-round skills, Okwara last year set an unofficial school record (kept mainly in the last decade) with 21 quarterback pressures, surpassing the previous mark of 14 set by 2011 Freshman All-American Aaron Lynch, who would transfer to USF. Okwara’s 8.0 sacks also tied for the third most in one season in the nine-year Brian Kelly era, with Stephon Tuitt’s 12 in 2012 the most.
Who was ahead of Okwara in second place?
Naturally, older brother Romeo Okwara, who was credited with nine for the 10-3 Fighting Irish in 2015. This spring with the Detroit Lions he inked a two-year contract that includes a $2.705 million signing bonus and guaranteed salary of $720,000 for 2019 — all after arriving in the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
The ceiling is projected as much higher for the younger Okwara, who has some individual numbers in the back of his mind, but does not want that to consume his approach in 2019.
“All that stuff will come as long as long as we do our job and everybody’s bought into what we need to do,” emphasized Okwara, named one of the eight Notre Dame SWAT leaders this January. “I definitely have some personal goals, but it’s camp right now and I’m just really focused on that and make sure everybody’s on the [same] page. Everybody has to execute the game plan for that production to come.”
Objective No. 1 is to leave far fewer plays, especially sacks, on the field. Per Kelly, clips were assembled this off-season of Okwara missing 27 sack opportunities in 2018. Just finishing on 10 of them would have led the nation.
“There were sometimes where I would touch the quarterback and just either fall off, run by him, not re-trace my steps,” Okwara recounted of watching the tape.
Upon further review, improving his footwork in such situations has been a goal.
“If you see me on the ground, that probably happened a lot last year, slipping off tackles, missing sacks and running by the quarterback — all that is footwork,” Okwara said.
That is the physical aspect Okwara has worked on with line coach Mike Elston, but the 10th-year Irish assistant also has had extensive time with Okwara in the film room on studying and then anticipating where a quarterback is going to be two steps ahead of the play, and how to align himself properly to make the play .
Last year, Pro Football Focus, which tracks and grades every play of every game, had Okwara’s 61 total quarterback pressures (completely different from Notre Dame’s tracking system) fourth nationally in pass rush productivity, and his 11.8 percent pass rush success rate led the team.
However, Okwara was not a one-trick specialist. He made his second career interception dropping into coverage in the 24-17 victory versus Michigan in the opener, and his work against the run also helped him become the starter over classmate Daelin Hayes — who ranked 22nd nationally, per PFF, among Power 5 defensive ends as a run stopper last season.
“I think I did better than what I did my sophomore year, but I’m focused on what I need to do now,” said Okwara of his performance versus the run. “ … Just be more violent and hone my technique.”
Kentucky’s Josh Allen was the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL draft this past spring as an edge rusher after recording 17 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and a 15.2 percent pass rush productivity (per PFF) that led the nation.
A year earlier his numbers were seven sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, 41 quarterback pressures and an 8.7 percent pass rush productivity rate — all behind Okwara’s in his junior year.
A senior surge rivaling Allen's in 2019 would go a long way toward Okwara likewise fulfilling numerous goals, individual and otherwise.