South Charlotte

Knights defensive end commits to Notre Dame

Romeo Okwara stands 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, almost all of it muscle. The Ardrey Kell senior defensive end is second on the team in tackles, tied for the most sacks and blocked a field goal.

Okwara received scholarship offers from schools all over the country and recently committed to play college football at Notre Dame.

And he's just 16 years old.

Okwara's family moved to Charlotte from Nigeria when he was in the sixth grade, one of the youngest in his grade because he had gotten ahead in school in Nigeria. He started playing football at Community House Middle in seventh grade because he liked the physicality of the sport. He's always played defense and moved up to the varsity team his junior year, starting every game.

He gained two inches and 20 pounds between his junior and senior years and head coach Adam Hastings, who took over the program two years ago, thinks Okwara has more growing to do.

If it wasn't for his size, you'd never know he was the sixteenth best senior recruit in the state according to Rivals.com. He's quiet and soft-spoken.

"People like him because he's humble," said Hastings. "He's not going to walk around saying, 'Look, I'm Romeo Okwara. I'm going to Notre Dame.' He's so far from that."

Okwara got his first college scholarship offer from Duke in February.

"I was really excited," he said. "It was probably the happiest day of my life."

After that, the offers kept pouring in, from schools like Clemson, North Carolina, Miami and Georgia Tech. The offer from Notre Dame quickly rose to the top. Okwara was interested first in a good academic school - he's thinking about studying business - but he also liked the rich football tradition at Notre Dame.

"I don't think you have to be a Notre Dame fan to go to Notre Dame and be kind of blown away," said Hastings. "The biggest thing that Romeo was looking for was a great academic school and obviously Notre Dame brings that."

Okwara visited the campus over the summer and committed quickly after. He hasn't been to a game there yet but plans on going to the game against Southern California Oct. 22.

"I visited there sometime in the summer and got to hang out with the coaches and some of the players," said Okwara. "I really liked the campus and stuff so I felt like that was the best fit for me."

Okwara, who said he expects to play outside linebacker in college, will join former Ardrey Kell defensive lineman Prince Shembo who is a sophomore linebacker at Notre Dame. Shembo played in all 13 games last year as a freshman.

The Irish will have four south Charlotte players on the roster next year. Charlotte Christian's Matthias Farley is a freshman receiver this year and Charlotte Catholic lineman Mark Harrell will also be a freshman next year.

For now, Okwara is focused on leading Ardrey Kell to the state playoffs. The Knights are 2-2 (through Sept. 22) and won their first conference game against South Mecklenburg. Okwara has 35 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and five sacks. He had a blocked field goal against South Meck in the second half that helped Ardrey Kell keep their lead and win the game.

"I pretty much got it in my head that I wanted to block the field goal," said Okwara. "It was a big play in the game, so I just went extra fast and extra hard."

Hastings said Okwara's biggest strength is his work ethic.

"He plays very hard. A lot of times you find guys like that don't play hard because they haven't had to physically," he said. "Romeo does a good job using his hands, he really comes off the ball real quick and a lot of that just comes because he plays hard."

Okwara, with senior nose tackle Ian Dibble (38 tackles, 11 for loss and five sacks) are the heart of the Ardrey Kell defense and will be key in helping the Knights through the rest of the conference season. They've stepped up as leaders of the defense, with Dibble being more vocal and Okwara leading by his actions.

Okwara "is a leader, and because of that he's developed in being more vocal and making sure he does the right things all the time so these other guys looking up to him will follow," said Hastings. When he does talk, the players listen, added Hastings.

In a crowded Ardrey Kell cafeteria before practice last week, it was hard to hear Okwara talk sitting just a few feet away from him.

But he doesn't need to be loud: his actions on the field speak for him.

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