Will This Enigmatic Pass Rusher Be the Steal of the NFL Draft? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Julian Okwara. No. 42 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, in action on defense during a game against the USC Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 12, 2019, in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated USC 30-27.
SourceJoe Robbins/Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

This talented Nigerian-American lineman has spent his life in his brother's shadow. Now comes the breakout.

By Andrew Mentock

In the middle of an outdoor rugby field on the north end of Notre Dame’s campus, Julian Okwara, one of the prestigious university’s former football captains, strips down to his training tights and cleats and assumes his starting stance, with one hand on the artificial turf and the other in the air. A 6-foot-4, 252-pound defensive end with top-end NFL talent, Okwara should have drawn the attention of students and other passersby, but outside of a few of his former Notre Dame teammates, two cameramen and an assistant strength and conditioning coach, the grounds are empty at 11 a.m. on a Thursday in early April due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He shoots out of his stance, sprinting upfield and recording a hand-timed 4.6-second 40-yard dash, which would have tied James Smith-Williams for the fastest time for a defensive lineman at the 2020 NFL Combine (Okwara says he’s hit 4.53 in the past). Moments later, Okwara weaves through plastic trash cans to show off his agility. The footage will be sent to NFL teams curious to confirm the freakish athleticism they’d seen on game film. 

Ordinarily, this same information would have been gathered from the combine, but Okwara missed out on the late February workouts because he was still recovering from a fractured left fibula he suffered in Notre Dame’s game against Duke in November. Now the pandemic is preventing Okwara from working out in front of teams in person ahead of the April 23 NFL Draft.

While Okwara doesn’t get anywhere near the fanfare of fellow edge rusher and likely second overall pick Chase Young from Ohio State, his talent is on a similar level. Over the past two seasons, no defensive lineman pressured the opposing team’s quarterback in pass-rush situations at a higher rate than Okwara, according to Pro Football Focus.

Yet Okwara remains an enigma, and no workout tapes can reveal why he’s been such an inconsistent performer on the field. He could be a first-round pick or plummet to the later rounds. “You’ve got to go back two years ago when he was really good,” says ESPN’s NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. “If you look at the tape there, he had first-round tape. I would think if you want a pass rusher with some length, you could look at him in the late second [or] early third [round].”

Coming from Lagos, Nigeria, I’m not really expected to be here.

Julian Okwara

What’s clear, though, is Okwara’s burgeoning talent will give him a shot in the league, where he’ll join his older brother Romeo (a defensive end with the Detroit Lions) as part of a small but growing number of Nigerian immigrants to play the sport professionally.

Born in London, Julian spent much of his early childhood in Nigeria, where both of his parents are from. While he was still young, his mother moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, so his oldest brother, Jimel, would receive a better education, also taking his sister and the family’s youngest, Adaeze. But Julian stayed in Nigeria with his father and Romeo until he was 8. By the time they reunited in the United States, Jimel was already playing football, which was their introduction to the game after growing up with soccer.

julian_okwara2

A family photo from 1999 shows father Julius Okwara, mother Melda and brothers (from left to right) Jimel, Julian and Romeo.

“Coming from Lagos, Nigeria, I’m not really expected to be here,” Okwara says. “My parents made a lot of sacrifices. My dad did, my mom just working — it’s how Nigerians are and how they make sacrifices to make opportunities for their future.” His mother is in health care management in the Charlotte area, and his father is an entrepreneur who still lives in Nigeria for a large portion of the year, but he takes the 12-hour flight to see Julian and Romeo play at least once a year. 

Four years apart in school, Julian and Romeo just missed overlapping in high school and at Notre Dame, where Julian would be mistakenly called Romeo. “He has always had to deal with, I guess, being cast in my shadow, but he’s definitely paved his own way and created his own story,” Romeo says.

As he enters the NFL, Okwara is once again tasked with making a name for himself separate from his older brother’s. Despite going undrafted, Romeo has carved out a successful career as a starter in the NFL, but his popularity flourished last year after he was featured in GQ and elsewhere for his fashion sense, photography skills and love for the Grateful Dead. 

During Julian’s press conference at the NFL Combine, where he met with more than 20 teams but could participate only in the bench press, a significant portion of the questions from the media were about his older brother. Did he ever visit his brother in the NFL? Does he also want to be featured in GQ? “I don’t know if I’m as good-looking,” Okwara responded. “I’ve got a good personality, though.”

It’s hard to pinpoint why Okwara’s play was inconsistent during his senior year, which he started by setting a goal of obliterating the school record with 18.5 sacks. Instead, he had flashes of brilliance (three sacks and four quarterback hurries against Virginia) but finished the injury-shortened season with just four sacks in nine games. “God has a plan for me, and my process is a lot slower than some guys’,” he says, with no regrets about returning for his final college season.

In elementary school, Okwara developed a passion for writing. At first, it was “love letters” to girls he was too shy to speak to, but even as he’s come out of his shell, he still journals, writing down his goals, frustrations and the emotions he felt during significant moments and trying times. “It’s more of a learning experience to be able to read that stuff and just go back and experience it in a more vivid way by putting my emotions in writing,” he says.

From a devastating injury to bizarre pandemic workouts to an uncertain professional fate, Okwara’s next chapter should make for a thrilling read.

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