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Julian Okwara’s Notre Dame career ends with broken fibula

Chris Simms and Paul Burmeister preview the matchup between No. 16 Notre Dame and No. 23 Navy and explain why the Midshipmen's triple-option attack is so difficult to defend.

Julian Okwara’s Notre Dame career ended where the recruiting for it began. The senior defensive end fractured his fibula in Saturday’s Irish victory at Duke, in Okwara’s homestate. Though he was able to walk off the field on his own, creating some reason for optimism about the injury, head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday that it will require surgery.

A captain, Okwara finishes 2019 with 18 tackles, including six for loss with four sacks. He added seven more quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles, both in a starring performance against Virginia. One of those fumbles, also statistically a sack as he had three of Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins, resulted in a defensive touchdown.

That will go down as Okwara’s collegiate peak.

“I love what Julian did,” Kelly said following that performance. “He got back to playing really physical football. I think Julian would tell you that maybe the whole kind of sack thing was too much of a personal thing and he got back to playing physical football and within the realm of the defense and it really showed itself today.”

Okwara set high expectations this past offseason, partly to motivate himself and partly due to making 12.5 tackles for loss with eight sacks in 2018. Discussion lingered of him chasing down Justin Tuck’s Notre Dame career record of 24.5 sacks (set 2002-04), but Okwara instead finishes with 15.

Okwara career stats: 77 tackles, 23 for loss, 15 sacks, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovered, two interceptions.

Without Okwara, and already without senior defensive end Daelin Hayes, the Irish will turn to young depth to shore up its pass rush. The next name on the depth chart would be freshman Isaiah Foskey, who filled in for Okwara in the second half in nickel packages Saturday. Foskey has now played in three games, meaning Notre Dame will have to weigh playing him in only one more to preserve a year of eligibility against giving him full run.

That nickel package, and its dime counterpart, has been the best Irish defensive look this season, so short-circuiting it could come at a cost, but Kelly indicated Foskey should make only one more appearance this season.

“We want to be judicious for him,” Kelly said. “We have to decide when to use that fourth game. … We’ll make a decision as a staff and maybe decide to save that for [Boston College] or Stanford.”

Of course, the passing-situation packages should not be needed against Navy’s triple-option attack.

Sophomore linebacker Jack Lamb, another key part of that dime look, will be out for the season with a torn muscle in his hip region, suffered last week against Virginia Tech.

Sophomore receivers Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins both did not make the trip to Duke due to injury concerns.

“Lenzy has had some fatigue issues,” Kelly said. “We wanted to protect him.

“Joe has been much more of a hamstring issue, a lingering hamstring that we wanted to get right. In both of these instances, guys that just needed some protection relative to the rigors of the season. They’re closer to being where we need them, but it’ll really be determined by how they practice on Tuesday.”