As the Irish are preparing for the 2019 season opener with fall camp underway, there are many question marks on the roster due to the considerable amount of departures due to graduation and the NFL Draft. However, the defensive line is not one of them. Any talk about that defensive line begins with senior defensive end Julian Okwara, who was just named to the preseason All-American list by Sports Illustrated on Wednesday. Okwara burst onto the college football scene last year with 61 QB pressures, which was good for seventh-highest in the country and an unofficial school record. This performance cemented Okwara as one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the country. He also accumulated 39 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, and 8.0 sacks. He snagged one interception and forced one fumble. While the sack or tackles for loss numbers may not grab your attention, the 61 QB pressures is a clear indication of how dominant he was as a pass rusher. Okwara displayed an innate ability to get to the QB at will and didn’t seem to slow down late in games, displaying a relentless motor. Almost every time the opposition’s QB panicked in the pocket, Okwara’s pressure was the reason for it.
Listed at 6’5” 248 pounds, Okwara has the size to overpower offensive linemen. But what makes him truly dangerous is his unique agility and quickness at that size, which is rarely seen. This agility allows him to explode past linemen who lack the foot speed he possesses. He’s the freakiest athlete Notre Dame has seen since stud linebacker Jaylon Smith, who left early for the NFL after the 2015 season and just signed a five-year, $64 million extension with the Dallas Cowboys. That is high praise. Below is a look at how explosive Okwara is coming off the edge.
Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus has Okwara 12th in his 2020 NFL mock draft, third-highest among edge rushers. Todd McShay also has Okwara listed in the first round in his mock draft at 17th. This is more high praise from analysts highly regarded for evaluating NFL talent. In addition to Okwara’s athleticism, his versatility is why he’s so highly coveted by the NFL. He can play both defensive end and linebacker, and in an age where the NFL values sideline-to-sideline speed more than physical strength, Okwara will fit in perfectly.
While Okwara electing to not enter the 2019 draft to return for his senior season was crucial for this Irish team, there are still big shoes to fill on the defensive side of the ball. One of these departures is Jerry Tillery, who was one of the best defensive linemen in college football last year and a first-round draft pick four months ago. With him no longer lining up alongside Okwara and commanding most of the offensive line’s attention, Okwara will face more double teams in 2019, which may make it difficult to improve on the stats he accumulated last season. However, those double teams will free up other defensive linemen such as Khalid Kareem, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, and Kurt Hinish to make plays on the ball. With Kareem and Okwara’s prolific pass-rushing ability, that tandem of defensive ends places Notre Dame at the top of college football in that regard. The bottom line is that Okwara was a catalyst to ND’s dominant front seven last season, and he will be first on every opposition’s scouting report in 2019 for that exact reason. He will no longer fly under the radar, so his ability to build upon last season’s achievements and lead the defense will be paramount if the Irish hope to have as much success as last season. No pressure, kid.
Featured Photo: Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports