SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A little more than three years ago, former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco laid out an assignment for the assembled media: Find out if Romeo Okwara is the youngest student enrolled at Notre Dame.
Having moved to North Carolina from Nigeria as a 10-year-old sixth-grader, Okwara -- who, it turns out, was not the youngest -- had turned 17 just one day before his first college classes in the summer of 2012. Fast-forward to this past Saturday: By the time Okwara's career inside Notre Dame Stadium was complete, he was a 20-year-old recipient of his first game ball, symbolic as much for his three-sack performance as it was for his career turnaround these past several years.
"It's one of those things where he came onto campus as a 17-year-old that just really was a raw football player and has grown in a very short period of time this year into the kind of football player that I think has a huge growth potential in front of him, as well," head coach Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame's 28-7 victory over Wake Forest. "We're just seeing that maturation process kind of come together. Long, athletic, starting to really understand the game of football, and I think that's what we're seeing in front of us."
Okwara has a team-best nine sacks on the season -- good for eighth nationally, and six clear of anyone else on the roster. He led the Irish last year with four. With three games remaining — and perhaps even four, accounting for a potential playoff run -- the senior has a shot at reaching Justin Tuck's single-season school record of 13.5 sacks.
"We always joke with Romeo in practice: 'You're not gonna get sacks this week. You’re not gonna do this,'" defensive tackle Sheldon Day said. "And he always just comes and outperforms, so he's definitely doing a good job right now."
Okwara is closing in on his preseason goal of 10 sacks, a surprising surge considering the potential first-round picks among the Irish's front seven and the number of changes that have come throughout his career.
Okwara has played for two defensive coordinators. He has played for two defensive line coaches. He fluctuated between defensive end and drop linebacker in Diaco's 3-4 scheme, and he has found a full-time home on the line these past two years under Brian VanGorder.
Okwara said he has swelled from 230 pounds to 265 during his four-year career, which he credits to better eating habits in season. That has helped him ditch his attempts at becoming a speed-rusher, as he can rely more on his power.
"[Defensive line] Coach [Keith] Gilmore tells me every time: 'If you know you're good at something, why don't you just keep doing those things 'til it stops working?'" Okwara said. "So I guess he was right."
Perhaps more importantly, Okwara has answered the bell at all times for a line that has been preciously thin these past two years, having played in all 49 games since arriving on campus in 2012. And he is saving his best for last: Eight of his nine sacks have come over his past five games.
His most impressive hit came right before halftime Saturday, as he leaped over the Wake Forest offensive line to take down John Wolford on a third-down play, which, coupled with a penalty, helped turn a makeable field goal attempt into an eventual long miss.
Afterward, Okwara joked about ribbing his younger brother, Julian, for not being in attendance, as he had a high school playoff game. An ESPN four-star defensive end prospect, Julian Okwara has already pledged to join the Irish next season, ensuring anywhere between seven and nine straight years of Okwaras on the Notre Dame front.
In the meantime, Romeo has a playoff chase to tend to. Not even the legal drinking age yet despite going through Senior Day, he still holds the promise of more that will intrigue NFL scouts come this spring.
And with graduation in December, he also has to find a landing spot for that precious game ball that helped signal his arrival nationally.
"I move out in a month, so I've gotta get a new place, first of all," Okwara joked, "but I'm gonna hold it 'til then."