The Leap

Junior defensive end Romeo Okwara ranks atop the list of many X-factors in new coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme.

Rare athleticism has provided ample blessings for 19-year old Notre Dame junior defensive end Romeo Okwara.

That athleticism did not come without a price, and in the case of the Quick-footed 258-pounder (and counting), it was a year of collegiate eligibility.

Okwara found freshman-season playing time in 2012 as a member of Notre Dame's kick coverage unit. He was a fish out of water at first, unsure how to navigate opposing blockers while sprinting full speed under a booted ball, but Okwara settled in enough during the season's second half to earn occasional reps at Cat linebacker, locking down seven tackles over the final seven games, the highlight an exclamation-point forced fumble late in Notre Dame's upset victory over Oklahoma in Norman.

A season of collegiate eligibility, however, was burned as a third-string outside 'backer. Considering Okwara's 21st birthday will come after he graduates from Notre Dame, a year of weight room seasoning would likely have been the prudent approach. (A career-threatening migraine condition for starting outside linebacker Danny Spond instead forced the Irish staff to prepare Okwara for action.)

Okwara started slowly again last fall as a sophomore, recording just three tackles over the season's first seven games including a four-game stretch of hotly contested matchups (Purdue, Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Arizona State) in which he did not register a statistic. No show numbers were the norm, not the exception, through Okwara's first 20 collegiate contests.

Projected as a starting defensive end this fall, it's imperative Okwara thus picks up where he left off in the second half of 2013 when he finished with 16 tackles including 1.5 for lost yardage and a half-sack over the final six contests.

"This is definitely a great responsibility, but I'm a very competitive player," said Okwara. "I feel like I can take the necessary steps to be where I need to be by the fall. I'll be able to step up to that role."

That role includes rushing the passer, but also setting the edge vs. opposing running games on the weak side of the Irish defense. "I think I do fairly well against the run," he said during spring preparations. "I can stand up against those offensive tackles and compete. I'm just getting used to the position again, and I'm being more aggressive and more physical with big offensive tackles."

Three-Year Itch

Players entering their third season under head coach Brian Kelly have often enjoyed breakout campaigns since the veteran program builder arrived in South Bend. The list headed by former standouts T.J. Jones, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, and Troy Niklas, as well as current senior wideout DaVaris Daniels, each of whom starred in his true junior or red-shirt sophomore season. It is not, however, exclusive to players who had previously started in their second seasons as did each of those listed above.

Rookie starters that thrived in Year 3 include:

-- C Nick Martin: The team's swing lineman (backup at multiple positions) as a sophomore in 2012, Martin excelled last fall as a junior, starting the season's first 11 games at center prior to injury.

-- CB Bennett Jackson: With no starts and a position switch (WR to CB) under his belt over the course of the 2010-11 seasons, Jackson started all 13 games as a junior for the 12-1 Irish of 2012, finishing third on the team in total tackles () while ranking sixth in aggregate big plays (INT, PD, TFL, FF, FR), notching 14.5. Only the team's stout defensive quartet and linebacker Manti Te'o recorded more big plays than did Jackson.

-- LB Danny Spond: Beset by injuries and rarely appearing from scrimmage in his first two seasons, Spond solidified Bob Diaco's impenetrable defense in 2012 as both an edge-securing defender and cover man at the vexing drop linebacker position.

-- TE Ben Koyack: From rarely targeted in both 2011 and 2012 to essential cog in the offensive attack last fall, Koyack emerged midway through his junior season of 2013 as both a blocker and downfield pass-catcher, finishing tied for fourth in touchdowns scored behind Jones, DaVaris Daniels, and Troy Niklas.

Okwara has past experience as a defensive end, playing the position at Ardrey Kelly High School (Charlotte, NC), and dabbling as a down linemen in the second half of 2013. The latter role was in the Irish dime package where the undersized Okwara aligned as a nose guard -- one with the ability to drop into coverage, attack the pocket off the snap, or loop around the edge as a pass-rusher. Running game responsibilities were eschewed in most instances as the opponent faced long-yardage situations.

Now, becoming a versatile, complete player is the goal. He wasn't there in the spring, but the Irish coaching staff believes to a man he'll get there when the bullets go live in late August.

"We're doing a lot with him. He's in a lot of different things…he's come a long way," said Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston near the conclusion of spring ball. "He will be a completely different player in the fall than he is right now."

"He's a product of repetition and work," said head coach Brian Kelly. "He didn't get a ton of work last year. When we started off this spring, it was new for Romeo in a lot of ways. You've got this big, athletic kid, but there's a lot of room for improvement and growth.

"I would agree with Coach Elston that come time to play against Rice, we're going to see a different player than what we saw at the beginning of spring."

No Choice in the Matter

With but one start (Navy 2013) to his name, Okwara would be considered a defensive line neophyte at most programs, but compared to the endless list of relative rookies on the 2014 Irish roster -- from seniors such as Anthony Rabasa down through the incoming freshmen class -- Okwara ranks as a grizzled vet.

Though that's not likely an analogy Elston would endorse.

"He's getting better (in terms of his knowledge base), but he still has a long way to go," said Elston. "Every day is a learning experience for him. He's like a rookie right now playing defensive line. Everything for him is brand new. He's doing well. He's very young, very awkward at times…he's got a lot to learn about playing defensive line."

He's not alone. Bookend senior Ishaq Williams ended spring as the strong side defensive end. Behind that pairing was the aforementioned Rabasa (no career tackles with a game's outcome still in doubt), sophomore Isaac Rochell, and early enrollee freshman Andrew Trumbetti. After that, incoming freshmen -- at least four, maybe more -- will be put to the test.

Okwara and Williams must respond -- and produce -- from the outset.

"He's a perfect example of the guy that's in that process of development and improving, and we've got to do everything we can for Romeo to speed that process up," said VanGorder. "It's coach and player working at it, finding out the best way that a player learns and the proper repetitions that he needs to speed it up."

Trial-by-fire awaits. Okwara and his tutors believe he'll be ready.


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