Okwara out on a high note

In his final year Romeo Okwara has developed from an anonymous defensive end to threatening Notre Dame’s single-season sack record. And that’s not the most interesting part of his story.

This story is about the ukulele, long boards and Christopher Nolan movies. It’s also about Lenny Kravitz, Lisa Bonet and the campus library at Texas Southern. But mostly it’s about Romeo Okwara, the defensive end who will hit Fenway Park as arguably the biggest surprise within a Notre Dame season full of them.

After three years of anonymity that went beyond statistics, Okwara has unlocked the kind of curious potential that comes in 6-foot-4, 270-pound packages that play their senior seasons at 20-years old. The fact Okwara is threatening Notre Dame’s single-season sack record – Justin Tuck holds it at 13.5 – ranks among the least interesting things about him.  

“Each and every day since I got here I’ve been working hard to get to where I am now,” Okwara said. “It’s always a constant grind.”

Last spring break Okwara tagged along with Corey Robinson to Hawaii, where he learned to play the ukulele. Last summer he studied in Greece, where he gave a presentation on the Elgin Marbles, sculptures that were part of the original Parthenon.

On Saturday night he’ll play in front of three cousins who helped Okwara get from Nigeria to North Carolina to South Bend.

In that branch of the Okwara family tree Obi attended Harvard, Amma played soccer at M.I.T. and Toby is a freshman offensive lineman at Brown. Their father, Dr. Benedict Okwara, lives in Charlotte, N.C., which drew his brother Julius there almost a decade ago when it was time for Romeo and his younger brother Julian, an Irish verbal commitment, to start their American educations in middle school.

Julius wanted his sons to play football because he couldn’t. As a foreign college student at Texas Southern, Julius was a 260-pound athlete still wired for soccer. But football intrigued him, so much that he approached the school’s coach for a tryout. The coach asked how much Julius knew about the sport. Julius admitted to complete naiveté. He expected instruction. Instead, the coach told Julius to go to the library and read up on the sport.

He declined.

“My dream, no matter what, was for my kids to do the same sport,” Julius said. “When we came here Romeo’s age was young but he was a bigger size. The schools tested him and said they couldn’t take him down a grade, he was too smart.”

Because he received private tutoring in math and science in Nigeria, Romeo arrived in North Carolina for the sixth grade so far ahead academically that Julius said the school could have put him in seventh.

And that’s how Notre Dame ended up with a 17-year old freshman linebacker who looked the part even though he probably should have red-shirted. Okwara barely played that fall and Brian Kelly admitted he might do things differently in retrospect, although Okwara saw the field in the BCS National Championship Game that year.

Now Okwara is set to graduate Notre Dame in December – he’ll turn 21 in May – with a degree in accounting and eyes on investment banking and the NFL.

Either profession feels clinical for a defensive end named after something more passionate. While studying at Texas Southern, Julius was struck by the music of Lenny Kravitz and his marriage to actress Lisa Bonet. At that point Kravitz went by Romeo Blue and the name stuck for his second son.

“I was fascinated by his love story with Lisa Bonet,” Julius said. “And I liked the music. It was romantic.”

Romeo said he’s grown to like Kravitz’s music, part of his personal palate that includes Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson movies, plus long boarding around campus. There’s the ukulele too, which Okwara played with Robinson on a bench at Culver Academies during training camp. All that diversity actually runs counter to what’s made the senior such a standout under first-year defensive line coach Keith Gilmore.

Instead of wanting Okwara to expand his game as Notre Dame hunted for a pass rush, Gilmore demanded less. In reality, the Irish just needed something off the edge from Okwara. It couldn’t be a replay of the three silent seasons before, production so faint that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said his first reaction to watching Okwara pass rush was, “Oh my God.”

He did not mean it as a compliment.

Gilmore spent the summer drilling techniques and hand placement. He cut down Okwara’s inventory of pass rush moves. The results are getting Okwara around the quarterback and the football more.

There was the diving sack last weekend against Wake Forest when Okwara hurdled a running back to take out quarterback John Wolford. Okwara showed natural power too early in the second half when he drove the left tackle straight into running back Tyler Bell. Okwara couldn’t make the stop, but he disrupted Bell enough that Jaylon Smith cleaned him up for a two-yard loss.

“He seems to have adapted to ‘less is more’ from Keith’s teaching,” Kelly said. “Sometimes it’s a connection and when we ask less of him in terms of technique and what we wanted him to focus on, it’s really helped him a lot and he’s blossomed because of it.”

Unfortunately for Notre Dame it gets this Okwara for just two more regular season games. But these late developments could also make the difference between making the College Football Playoff and not.

Turns out the most interesting man in Notre Dame’s defense isn’t the future first-round pick at linebacker, the mama’s boy defensive tackle or the walk-on linebacker turned captain. It’s the Nigerian who grew up shy because of his accent. It’s the senior with a literary name that has a musical soul. It’s also the defensive end challenging for the school’s single-season sack record.

“I’m definitely feeling more comfortable,” Okwara said. “I bounced around a lot since I've gotten here. This defense for the second year, just knowing the defense a lot better, it kind of gives you a sense of freedom.

“Just knowing what to do lets you play a lot faster.”

For Romeo Okwara, it’s just in time.

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