Considered raw in the game of football after moving to the United States from Nigeria as a sixth-grader, Romeo Okwara impressed colleges with a 76-tackle, 14-sack, 27-tackles-for-lost-yardage senior season at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, N.C., despite playing his final prep campaign at the age of 16.
Okwara – from the same high school as multi-faceted outside linebacker/defensive end Prince Shembo – chose Notre Dame over North Carolina, North Carolina State, Michigan and Virginia Tech. Scout ranked the three-star prospect the No. 65 defensive end in the country, a position he wouldn’t truly play until his junior season.
Okwara made an immediate impact as a 17-year-old freshman in 2012, playing in all 13 games, mainly on special teams, while posting his first career tackle for a loss in Notre Dame’s upset victory at Oklahoma.
He didn’t play a more integral role as a Cat linebacker in 2013 with his path to increased playing time cluttered by Shembo. Bob Diaco eventually used the 255-pounder as an interior pass rusher during the second half of the season when he came up with his first career assisted sack.
Okwara switched from a Cat linebacker in a 3-4 scheme to defensive end in a 4-3 alignment under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder in 2013, his junior season. Okwara shared time with freshman Andrew Trumbetti, who at one point moved past Okwara on the depth chart during the pre-season.
Ultimately, the 265-pound junior defensive end led the Irish in sacks with four while tying for the team lead in fumbles forced (2).
Okwara puts it all together and fulfills his promise as a defensive end after making the transition following his sophomore season. Okwara leads the team in sacks and makes progress as a run defender as he ends his collegiate career on a high note and puts his name in the consciousness of the NFL.
As the season progresses, Andrew Trumbetti earns more and more playing time over Okwara as a more effective pass rusher and run-stopper.
As a player who dabbled in both outside linebacker in a three-man front and defensive end in a four-man front, John Ryan ascended to the Notre Dame starting lineup as a sophomore in 2007. He recorded five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks from an outside linebacker position and started 15 games through his first three years – two more than Okwara. That’s where the demarcation in comparisons should be made. Ryan fell to third-team defensive end as a senior whereas Okwara should be a key figure throughout the 2015 season.
The fact that a three-star player who had just turned 17 played an integral role on a team going undefeated during the regular season says volumes about Okwara’s impact as a freshman. He was a regular contributor on special teams from the outset of the season, playing in all 13 games, and forced a fumble on a devastating hit in the upset road victory over Oklahoma. One could argue that considering his early playing time, Okwara should be a bit further along, but one must factor in the position/assignment change midway through his collegiate career.
Of Okwara’s 38 regular-season tackles in ’14, 11 (28.9 percent) came in Notre Dame’s victory over Purdue in the third game of the year. Of his four sacks on the season, 2.5 came in the first three games of the year – one each versus Rice and Michigan, and a half-sack against Purdue. He also had a career-high four unassisted tackles in the USC game.
“I think you’re going to see as we move forward that Trumbetti and Okwara are better off the edge than they have been before.”
-- Brian Kelly this spring