INDIANAPOLIS — Pass rush in the NFL is at a premium and rushers come in all shapes and sizes.
There are power rushers that excel at compressing the pocket around the quarterback while there are others that offer explosive burst to put stress on offensive linemen to stay in front of as they work to close in on the quarterback. There are guys that have the tools to rush from the edge, while others project more favorably to attacking interior gaps.
Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara believes he is all of the above.
“I’m very fluid in my movements,” Okwara said Thursday at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. “I offer difficulty for tackles and guards. I’m able to rush at three-technique and five-technique. My speed and strength combination are very misleading to people. Some people wonder how I’m able to do that, even when I was around 220 pounds I was doing the same thing. Guys wonder where my strength comes from, I think Nigerians have some extra muscles that some people don’t have. Nigerians are built differently. … I’m just different in a lot of ways and you can see that in my game.”
Okwara is a different type of player, just like his path to get to this point. Okwara’s brother, Romeo, is entering the fifth year of his NFL career and is a member of the Detroit Lions after starting his career with the New York Giants. Okwara moved to the United States from Nigeria when he was in the third grade.
His path from Africa to America is an unlikely one and it fuels him to maximize this opportunity.
“The path we’ve taken, coming from Nigeria, we don’t expect to be here,” Okwara said. “I don’t expect to be on this podium right now. I went back there this past summer and just seeing kids who are begging for food on the side of the street, I’m just grateful to be here and for the sacrifices, my parents have made for my brother and I, and for my sister to be able to go to college. To be here at this moment, I’m thankful for it all.”
An impact pass rusher for Notre Dame, Okwara compiled 19.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks across his final two seasons. With plenty of momentum surrounding his draft stock entering his senior season, Okwara’s final campaign in South Bend was cut short due to a broken left fibula.
While he continued to showcase an intriguing pass-rushing skill set, the primary area Okwara needed to showcase growth in 2019 was defending the run. Measuring 252 pounds at the combine and playing in college in the high 240s, his lack of preferred mass for setting the edge has naturally risen questions about how that component of his game translates to the next level.
“I felt like going into the last three games I played that I was picking things up [as a run defender],'' Okwara said. “I was finding my groove, then the freak injury happened right before half time. It sucks; that was something I was definitely wanting to prove in my senior year.”
Okwara suffered a broken left fibula against Duke in 2019, causing him to miss the last four games of Notre Dame’s season.
Not being able to show NFL teams his best run defense isn’t the only thing the unfortunate injury is going to keep Okwara from showing teams, he isn’t quite ready to perform a full workout at the combine where he expected to blaze in the 40-yard dash.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Okwara stated. “I ran a 4.53 [seconds] last spring and I know I’m even faster than that. I definitely wanted to show that.”
Okwara is on schedule to fully work out and test at the Notre Dame Pro Day, which is scheduled for April 1. While the injury is limiting Okwara at an inopportune time, the time missed has deepened Okwara’s passion for football.
“It has been a cool recovery process,” Okwara said. “It’s my first real injury and to be able to go through that, it opened my eyes a lot. It made me fall in love with the game of football a lot more. I have no regrets about it.”
Okwara’s gratitude, skill set, confidence and focus serve as a strong foundation as he enters the next chapter of his football career.