It was a tough decision, but Julian Okwara is my choice for the Notre Dame Football Defensive Player of the Year for the 2018 season.
This isn’t an attempt at being cute or different; Julian Okwara earned this honor. Simply put, the pass rush changed the way Notre Dame football was able to defend as opposed to year’s past, and he was the best of the bunch. Outside of that, Okwara became a much more accomplished drop end in 2018, consistently dropping into coverage while also playing solid against the run.
Okwara’s final stat line doesn’t necessarily jump off the page. He made 37 total tackles, 11.5 for loss, while also accumulating seven sacks and an interception. However, he also led the team in QB hurries with 21 — one of the better totals in the country. Okwara was disruptive on an every-game basis and easily Notre Dame’s most consistent and best pass rusher.
Taking things a little further, let’s take a look at his game numbers for the entire year:
Starting with Michigan (probably his worst game of the year from a purely statistical standpoint), he picked of Shea Patterson in the second half.
Against Ball State, he had four QB hurries.
Vanderbilt was also a low output game with only 2 tackles.
This is when his stats really turn the corner…
Wake Forest: 5 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry
Stanford: 2 tackles, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry
Virginia Tech: 4 tackles, .5 for loss, .5 sacks, 1 QB hurry
Pittsburgh: 6 tackles, 1 for loss, 7 QB hurries!!!!, 1 pass breakup
Navy: 5 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 sack, 2 QB hurries
Northwestern: 8 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry, 1 forced fumble
Florida State: 4 QB hurries
Syracuse: 2 tackles, 1 for loss, 1 sack
USC: 1 tackle, 1 for loss, 1 sack
Players like Te’Von Coney, Drue Tranqull, Khalid Kareem, Jerry Tillery, Julian Love and Alohi Gilman all could make a case for defensive player of the year, and you wouldn’t hear an argument from me. Football is centered around the quarterback. Does your team have a good quarterback? Can your team protect the quarterback? Can your team disrupt the quarterback? Julian Okwara falls squarely into the category of getting after the quarterback. His play has improved tremendously from his sophomore year and even from early on in the season when he was listed as a backup.
As an undersized junior edge defender, Notre Dame will likely have him back for his final year of eligibility. Along with Kareem, these are probably the two underclassmen we as fans should want back the most. Getting back the majority of the 2018 pass rush for 2019 is a crucial part of a possible repeat season. More importantly, Okwara and Kareem should only improve in 2019.
This was probably the hardest time I’ve had determining the best player on either side of the ball in a long time. Usually, even if there are multiple suitors, one stands out above the rest. This is a good problem to have. My vote goes to Okwara due to his pass rush presence, consistency and dominance for long periods of time. He couldn’t be blocked this season.
Who’s your defensive player of the year? Let us know in the comments.