Practice would be much different for Taleni Suhren without his usual sparring partner.
Suhren, an offensive tackle from Charlotte and Wake Forest commitment, first met Julian Okwara in fifth grade. They’ve been friends ever since and spent the past couple years opposite one another during practices at Ardrey Kell High School.
Okwara, a four-star defensive end, has proven a worthy opponent. Suhren credits the one-on-one work between them as one of the major reasons for his own development.
“Whoever wins that day gets bragging rights for that day and that practice,” Suhren said. “With one-on-ones it’s always high tempo. Coaches don’t want you to slack. They’re not going to let Julian get a rep against someone else other than me. Likewise for me. It’s a great competition helping push each other and get that extra work. We’re always trying to outdo each other and make big plays.”
Last week Okwara gave a verbal pledge to Notre Dame. He will follow in the footsteps of his brother Romeo in South Bend via Ardrey Kell, albeit under different recruiting circumstances.
The elder Okwara was young for his grade and still new to the game as a three-star prospect in the Scout.com rankings. His offer list was regional, littered with ACC programs.
Julian Okwara turned down scholarship offers from Clemson, Duke, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan, Ole Miss, North Carolina, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia, among others, in choosing the Irish. He’s slotted at No. 135 overall in the Scout300.
And yet many think Julian is similar to his brother in just scratching the surface of his talent before playing Saturdays at Notre Dame Stadium.
“He’s still raw right now, but his upside is huge,” said Scout.com analyst Michael Clark. “Julian could easily add 40 to 50 pounds to his frame. He has tremendous speed and quickness off the edge, and as he gets stronger, he could become a special player. In my opinion, Julian should be playing on Sundays in four to five years.”
Perhaps no one outside the Ardrey Kell coaches has seen more of that potential in Julian than Suhren, who wasn’t quite old enough to match up against Romeo before he departed for college.
Suhren sees a 6-foot-4, 220-pound problem off the edge for offensive tackles.
“Julian’s got great length and he’s got a great first step,” Suhren said. “A lot of times he’ll beat you with his speed. That’s his biggest thing, his speed. So if you don’t hurry up and get back in your steps he’s gonna beat you to it. He’s got great length and can push the pocket. A lot of times with him I’ll jump set so then I don’t have to deal with his length. He’s got real lanky arms. I’ve got a little bit more power and more strength but if he gets that initial push on me, then it’s definitely he’s got great length and speed and a great first step.
“His first step is probably what makes him so good because he can get that edge on you then push that outside shoulder and kinda get you into a tough spot. He’s also got a great motor. Julian isn’t going to quit on that first step. It’s the first, second or third move. He’s got great moves, a great arsenal.”
Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore will gladly welcome that skill set to Notre Dame in a couple seasons.
Four-star outside linebacker Bo Wallace will join the program’s un-established group of pass rushers this summer that includes Jhonathon Williams, Grant Blankenship, Kolin Hill and Andrew Trumbetti. Williams redshirted while the others combined for four sacks as freshmen last season.
Another year of development before joining that mix should serve the younger Okwara well.
“In the past year, I think he’s improved in every aspect of his game,” Clark said. “The strides he’s made as a player have been very impressive. He’s gotten bigger, stronger and faster. However, he’s nowhere close to being as good as he will be in a few years. His best football is definitely ahead of him.”
Okwara will arrive on campus in time to replace his brother, whose eligibility runs out after the coming season.
While it might not be a like-for-like swap, Suhren figures to see plenty of his friend making plays at the college level.
“I think Julian is a little bit quicker but Romeo had more of that raw strength,” Suhren said. “I think he’s one of those kind of hybrid guys, like a standup outside linebacker that can put his hand down. He can also stand up and come off the edge. I think there’s a really big kind of potential for him at the next level.”