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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 42 Julian Okwara, senior defensive end

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 29: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers scrambles away from Julian Okwara #42 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first quarter during the College Football Playoff Semifinal Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5, 240 pounds.2019-20 year, eligibility: A senior, Okwara enters his final season.Depth chart: Okwara will start at drop end with senior Daelin Hayes still getting plenty of snaps in support, a reversal of this line from last summer.Recruiting: A three-star, Okwara chose to follow in his brother Romeo’s footsteps rather than accept an offer from his homestate North Carolina, Clemson or Georgia.

Notre Dame needed Okwara to handle a workload as a freshman, even though he was yet undersized. He then started making an impact as a sophomore before taking a huge leap last season.

2016: 11 games; 4 tackles.2017: 12 games; 17 tackles with 4.5 for loss including 2.5 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.2018: 13 games; 38 tackles with 12.5 for loss including eight sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.

For most people, a season with eight sacks would be worthy of applause. In Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s mind, though, Okwara simply left that many more sacks unfinished.

“We put together a highlight video for Julian where he had 27 missed sacks last year,” Kelly said following spring practice. “If he has just half of those, he leads the country in sacks. Finishing for Julian, those plays, he can be a leading sack guy in the country. He can be a menace to teams. We want that, finishing for him.”

“It will be more of the same from and for Okwara. Given another year of development and work in Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program, that may be even more of more of the same from Okwara.

“There were points in 2017 when former Irish end Andrew Trumbetti would flip to the rush end spot from his usual role at strong-side, cutting into some of Okwara’s opportunities. Theoretically, that should set up Okwara for a few more snaps this season. Combine that with his continued development, and building on last year’s numbers makes complete sense.

“Projecting a defensive lineman’s stats is a difficult gambit, considering how much they depend on the unit as a whole, and doing so for a complementary piece is that much more difficult, but there is no reason not to fully expect Okwara to end up with at least 25 tackles and four or five sacks, although the turnovers may not be replicated if the ball does not bounce just right. If Okwara shines in pass-rush situations, that handful of sacks could become twofold, but anticipating such would just be greedy.”

Successfully predicting Okwara’s sack total for a second season in a row may be putting undue pressure on oneself, but doing so begins with Kelly’s comments. Okwara almost assuredly will not finish the year with 21.5 sacks, but he could break into the mid-teens.

For one thing, Notre Dame will need more from its ends this season without Jerry Tillery providing a pass rush in the middle. For another, Okwara is a year older and theoretically stronger, etc. Kelly’s 27 missed opportunities did not surprise anyone paying attention in 2018’s second half, when Okwara strung together a few successive weeks leading the Irish in the unofficial stat of quarterback hurries. He repeatedly found his way into the backfield, just a step slow or a moment late from a game-changing play, but influencing the result, nonetheless.

With that in mind, let’s go ahead and make the bold move of suggesting Okwara will double his sack total from last season, although he will likely need a bowl game to do so. (He managed one sack in the Cotton Bowl, his only tackle of the rout.)

Another year with hands in two turnovers may be even more ambitious, though Okwara has definitively shown an aptitude in particular pass coverages.

Just 12 months ago, Okwara was viewed as the backup to Hayes, even if that was as a complement rather than in a true second-string role. By the end of preseason, Okwara had established himself as the starter, and by the end of the season, he was arguably the defensive line’s most-disruptive force. He had reason to genuinely consider heading to the NFL draft, and now he returns as possibly Notre Dame’s best chance at a first-round pick in the spring.

There are others hoping for such, of course, but if Okwara shows a physical nature this season capable of handling the NFL, he could push himself into an enviable position. He already has the speed and some of the pass-rush moves needed. His lanky frame now needs to show it could hold up to next-level offensive tackles.

Okwara will be drafted, reasonably no later than the second day. Finding his way into the first may be contingent on fulfilling Kelly’s ambitious expectations.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90: Hunter Spears, defensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver
No. 85: George Takacs, tight end
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 80: Micah Jones, receiver
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right guard, three-year starter
No. 77: Quinn Carroll, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive guard
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive lineman
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, left tackle, two-year starter
No. 73: Andrew Kristofic, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle, three-year starter
No. 71: John Olmstead, offensive lineman, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 69: Aaron Banks, left guard
No. 60: Cole Mabry, offensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, veteran backup offensive lineman
No. 57: Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle
No. 56: John Dirksen, offensive lineman
No. 56: Howard Cross, incoming freshman defensive lineman, consensus four-star
No. 55: Jarrett Patterson, starting center
No. 55: Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle returning from injury
No. 54: Jacob Lacey, consensus four-star defensive tackle, early enrollee
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, senior defensive end
No. 52: Zeke Correll, consensus four-star center, early enrollee
No. 52: Bo Bauer, linebacker, sophomore
No. 50: J.D. Bertrand, consensus four-star linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, junior defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, senior inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, senior defensive end