We continue to identify players who could breakout for Notre Dame in 2014 today by taking a look at a player who could potentially provide a huge boost to the Irish defense if he is able to do so – junior defensive end Romeo Okwara.
[Related: Read our entire series on 2014 Breakout Candidates for Notre Dame]
Romeo Okwara, an early commitment in the class of 2012, was an under the radar recruit of sorts for Notre Dame a few years ago. Ranked as a 3-star recruit by most services, Okwara held primarily regional offers from the likes of Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, and Virginia Tech among other Atlantic coastal programs.
Hailing from the same prep high school that produced Prince Shembo, Okwara came to Notre Dame as a very similar prospect. Okwara was ranked by most services as a defensive end but was recruited by Notre Dame to play the CAT position in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense. 247 Sports for instance not only ranked Okwara as a defensive end, but they also gave him 4-stars as a defensive end.
Why Okwara Will Breakout
Much like Shembo, Okwara has shown a knack for rushing the passer in practice, but as a CAT backer, he previously held more responsibilities. He also was stuck behind his former high school teammate at the position the last two years. As he heads into his junior season, Okwara will be playing his more natural defensive end position and with Shembo trying to chase down quarterbacks in the NFC South this fall, Okwara’s place in the starting line seems pretty set.
After a slow start to the spring in which it wasn’t initially clear if Okwara would be able to seize the starting opportunity in front of him, he came on strong down the stretch and put any questions about his starting status to rest. By the end of the Blue Gold Game, Okwara actually looked like potentially the best pass rusher on the Irish roster.
Okwara was one of the shining stars on the defensive side of the ball back in April and was singled out by Brian Kelly afterwards. “I think we found a role for Romeo, one that I think we feel a lot more comfortable where he is. He’s got to do a good job of taking care of his body and keeping up the weight up and doing those things,” Kelly said at the conclusion of spring.
Okwara will be learning on the job this year, but he has shown a knack for getting on the field ever since arriving as a 17 year old freshman in 2012. Okwara was one of the babies of the class of 2012, but still found his way onto the field from day one for Notre Dame’s 12-1 squad that made it to the National Championship. Two years later Okwara is still just 19 years old – the same age as most sophomores.
Why Okwara May Not Breakout
While Okwara will have a starting role in 2014, he will still likely encounter some bumps along the road. Okwara weighed in a 258 lbs during the spring which is plenty big enough to be a very effective edge rusher but is also small enough that Okwara could be targeted in the run game by bigger offensive lines if he lets opposing tackles lock on to him. Given his lack of playing time at defensive end the last two seasons that is a real possibility and will force Okwara to spend a lot with Mike Elston working on his technique this fall.
Okwara’s success in 2014 is also slightly dependent on how much attention Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones are able to draw from opposing offensives. If neither Day nor Jones force double teams, Okwara is not going to have much room to work. Had Stephon Tuitt stuck around for a senior season he would have commanded double teams which would have created some more favorable matchups that allowed Okwara to take advantage of his speed. Not having a huge anchor in the middle of the Irish defensive line like Louis Nix could also hurt Okwara’s chances of breaking out.
Notre Dame has to find a way to get pressure on the quarterback this year without having to blitz every down and after losing Tuitt and Louis Nix up front, the Irish lost a lot of bulk. The line will be faster in 2014 so they will need to rely on the speed of guys like Okwara and fellow DE Ishaq Williams to generate that pressure. Okwara had three “sacks” in the Blue Gold game back in April using that speed – how many of those would have been actual sacks in a real game are another question all together but the pressure he generate was undeniable.
A season with 5-6 sacks from Okwara should not be unreasonable in 2014 given how much he will be on the field and how little experienced depth there is behind him right now. My biggest concern for Okwara though will be against the run where it may take a bit more time for him to adjust to his new position.
If Okwara is able to step up and exceed those expectations, the Irish defense could surprise. The two biggest concerns for Brian VanGorder heading into fall camp have to be generating a pass rush and finding a set of linebackers that can at a minimum hold their own against the Florida State’s and USC’s on the schedule this year. If Okwara can help calm one of those concerns with a breakout season, Notre Dame just may not have to win as many shoot outs as people think they will this fall.