During an offseason defined by short-term uncertainty, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah connected with someone who offered long-term guidance.
Spending 13 seasons as a quarterback in the NFL, Vick has plenty to share about his football experience. So a mutual friend brought Vick into contact with Owusu-Koramoah. The Notre Dame senior rover took advantage of the opportunity.
Not until 2019 did Owusu-Koramoah record his first career tackle with the Irish. He broke out that season, tying for the team lead in tackles with 80. Following his impressive junior campaign, Owusu-Koramoah began to see his name everywhere. On social media. On college football preseason award watch lists. On NFL draft boards.
Becoming an overnight success meant Owusu-Koramoah needed to adjust. He sought advice from Vick, the No. 1 overall pick of fhe Atlanta Falcons in 2001.
“Him going through this process of deciding if he’s going to the NFL Draft, he was curious and wanted to talk,” Vick told the South Bend Tribune in a phone interview. “He wanted to pick my brain, and we developed a friendship. It’s been really cool.”
Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah celebrates after a touchdown in the second quarter against Clemson. (Photo: Matt Cashore, USA TODAY Sports)
Led by Owusu-Koramoah, No. 4 Notre Dame will play No. 1 Alabama in the Rose Bowl on Friday. After another strong season from Owusu-Koramoah, the College Football Playoff semifinal in Arlington, Texas, could be his last game in an Irish uniform.
Owusu-Koramoah is eligible to declare early for the 2021 NFL draft and projects to be a first-round selection. Vick said he plans to help Owusu-Koramoah with that process. The four-time Pro Bowler spoke with him again earlier this month.
“For me, it’s about the relationship,” said Vick, now an NFL analyst for Fox Sports. “Helping him as a player. Helping him with what he’s about to go through, the next-level National Football League, if that’s what he’s set out to do after this season. I look at it as an opportunity to help a young man who is about to enter some good fortune.”
Good fortune already came Owusu-Koramoah’s way this month. He claimed the Butkus Award and earned first-team All-ACC honors last week. This week, he received first-team All-America recognition from The Associated Press, The Sporting News and the Football Writers Association of America.
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Notre Dame added Owusu-Koramoah via the 2017 class as its first player specifically recruited to be a rover in former defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s 4-2-5 scheme.
Until his senior season at Bethel High School, Owusu-Koramoah primarily played defensive back in high school. Then, his coaching staff created a new position for him called “joker.” That multi-faceted role worked a lot like rover on the Irish, which is still used under current coordinator Clark Lea.
“As a kid you don’t really think about defense,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “You think about offense, because that’s the person who is getting all the praise and touchdowns. All throughout high school, I thought I was a safety. I thought I was a corner. I thought I was everything but a linebacker."
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea used the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Owusu-Koramoah in various ways in his two seasons as a starter. He blitzed off the edge. He shadowed wide receivers in coverage. He offered run support.
Owusu-Koramoah recorded 56 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, 1½ sacks, two quarterback hurries, three pass breakups, one interception, three forced fumbles and two fumbles recoveries across 11 games this season.
“He’s all over the field, creates turnovers, causes fumbles, interceptions, all sorts of things,” Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones said. “He’s the pivotal piece in the defense.”
As he continued to show that versatility this season, Owusu-Koramoah climbed draft boards.
Mel Kiper, ESPN’s draft analyst, ranked Owusu-Koramoah as his top outside linebacker and No. 9 overall prospect earlier this month. ESPN’s other draft analyst, Todd McShay, pegged Owusu-Koramoah at No. 12 overall on Wednesday.
“They trust him covering slot receivers,” McShay said on Wednesday’s edition of the Pod of Gold podcast. “They trust him covering tight ends and guys like (Alabama tight end) Jhaleel Billingsley, who he’s going to go up against in this game. You could see him against DeVonta Smith, who is the best wide receiver in the country this year for Alabama, at times in one-on-one (coverage).
“That’s how much they trust him in coverage. Plus the pressure. And then the effort that he brings from sideline to sideline.
“It seems like he’s always on the field and he’s always running to the football. I love that about him.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL has yet to announce a deadline date for college players declaring early.
Owusu-Koramoah may talk more with Vick before publicizing his decision. But to Owusu-Koramoah, he still has at least one more game to play.
“I’m all appreciative and I’m thankful,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “But even to that extent, my due diligence is what’s in front of me. My due diligence is to handle what is at stake right now. What is at stake is the national championship, is the playoff game.
“So it’s just been about blocking the noise out. I know it’s a cliché saying, ‘blocking the noise out.’ But it’s really an extensive process of having to turn your phone off some days, having to limit your social media use some days, having to focus on certain things, focus on film and stuff like that."
Owusu-Koramoah understands the upcoming challenge. He will have to defend Jones, the nation’s leader in passer-efficiency rating (202.3) and completion percentage (76.5). He may have to cover Smith, who ranks No. 1 in receiving yards (1,511), No. 2 in receptions per game (8.9) and No. 2 in receiving touchdowns (17).
Alabama running back Najee Harris, who leads the country with 27 total touchdowns, also will be a responsibility for Owusu-Koramoah. And Harris runs behind a Crimson Tide offensive line that was named as three finalists for the Joe Moore Award.
The pressure will be on Owusu-Koramoah to show he’s deserving of all the recent recognition.
“I think those are the two key things that I take away from coach Lea, is the art of words and how it can distract you,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “And how you have to focus on yourself and not let the compliments get to your head. Not let the compliments overshadow who you are.
“Because ultimately what matters is the performance. So you have all the words, and then you have leaving a place better than you found it.”
Owusu-Koramoah will leave Notre Dame better than he found it, no matter how Friday’s game unfolds.
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