Scouting Combine Edge Rushers: Plenty of Questions

Bill Huber

In all, 34 edge defenders will be at the Scouting Combine. Some will work out with the defensive ends and some will work out with the linebackers. Part 3 of our four-part series includes Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara and several players who faced obstacles, such as Alabama’s Terrell Lewis, Mississippi State’s Chauncey Rivers, Syracuse’s Alton Robinson, Mississippi’s Qaadir Sheppard and N.C. State’s James Smith-Williams. (Underclassmen are noted with an asterisk.)

LB Azur Kamara, Kansas (6-4, 235): In two seasons, Kamara recorded five sacks and 10.5 tackles for losses, including four sacks and 6.5 TFLs among 51 tackles as a senior. He spent his first two years at Arizona Western.

Kamara spent his first nine years in the African nation of Ivory Coast, fleeing before a civil war. KUSports.com told his story. “My mother had moved to the United States five years before I did,” Kamara said. “First time I got to see my mother in five years. It was an amazing feeling.” In Ivory Coast, he dreamed of playing for the national soccer team. “I started playing soccer when I was 5 years old,” Kamara told AZPreps365.com. “When I moved to the United States, I continued playing soccer in elementary school. I didn’t know anything about football.” He learned quickly upon arriving in high school. As Kamara recalled in the KU Sports story: “The football coach said, ‘Do you play basketball?’ And I said, ‘No, soccer.’ And he said, ‘You’re way too tall to play soccer. I’m the head football coach here. Why don’t you play football? You’ll never know if you’re going to be good unless you come out and try it. I think you should come out for football and see if you like it.’”

DE Khalid Kareem, Notre Dame (6-4, 265): Kareem was a team captain as a senior, when he posted 5.5 sacks, 10 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles among 46 total tackles. In his final three seasons, he tallied 13 sacks, 26 TFLs, eight passes defensed and four forced fumbles.

Every moment in Kareem’s Farmington, Mich., home could be a training moment. “I’ve always coached him to use his hands,” his father, Ken Kareem, told the Indy Star. “Sometimes we’ll be at home, and I’ll do something quick. I may take a Muhammad Ali jab at him, even when he isn’t paying attention, because I want him to grab my hand. That quick little jab that was literally just screwing around in the kitchen could turn into a teaching moment.” At Notre Dame, he gained a fondness for art. Part of his studies included making a huge self-portrait .As he told ABC 57: "In the middle it's me, I think it's the celebration against Pitt when I got the sack, of me like screaming and then around me is a bunch of pieces of pop culture and the kind of things I was raised on, like cartoons I watched as a kid. And then in the background I have a tie that my dad gave me and a scarf my mom always wears, so that kind of represents them. And then I have my siblings initials. And an ND, there's a bunch of stuff on it. It will be fun to see what it's like when it's done.” Recruiting was a difficult time. His father, a former high school defensive line coach, sent video after video to schools around the nation and couldn’t get a nibble. Finally, Ball State offered. “Then it was like a flood,” his dad told ND Insider, which initially ended with Kareem picking Alabama.

LB Terrell Lewis, Alabama* (6-5, 252): During his final season, Lewis was second-team all-SEC with six sacks and 11.5 tackles for losses. He led the team with 16 quarterback pressures. After playing in 11 games as a freshman in 2016, Lewis missed most of 2017 with an arm injury, all of 2018 with a torn ACL and a game in 2019 with a hyperextended knee. It was “dark times,” he said. “Watching practice and games over and over again and you see guys not putting forth the full effort,” Lewis told the Tuscaloosa News. “You never know when it’s going to be your last play. Those are the darkest times, when you see somebody else taking the game for granted or not cherishing the fact they get to be out here. Guys get to play football and they complain about external elements like, ‘It’s hot, I don’t feel like practicing.’ They don’t even realize that if I could be out there I would love to.

He had a breakout game with two sacks vs. Texas A&M. “I was excited,” Lewis’ personal trainer, Sean Washington, told AL.com. “I was teary-eyed watching the game because I know what he’s gone through and what he’s continuing to go through. I know it will get in his head a little bit when they talk about other players and what their draft stock is and where his draft stock is because he knows that if he’d been 100 percent healthy there’d be no discussion as to who’s better. But I know that he can play on a higher level, like what we saw Saturday. It was great.” He had an impressive week at the Senior Bowl. "I read all your guys' stuff, everyone is into player comps," Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy told the Detroit News. "Terrell Lewis is almost impossible to give a player comp for because he's got that long, stringy body, but then he's got like Mike Tyson hands. Those long guys can't generate power well and this guy is so explosive. He's just been banged up a bunch.”

DE Julian Okwara, Notre Dame (6-4, 248): Okwara posted 15.5 sacks, 24 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles in his career, including five sacks, seven TFLs and two forced fumbles as a senior and eight sacks and 12.5 TFLs as a junior. A team captain as a senior, his final year was limited to nine games by a broken leg.

Okwara was born in London and spent several years in Nigeria before moving to the United States when he was in third grade. There’s power in his mom’s cooking. This past summer, he returned to Nigeria, where his father is a businessman, for a few days. “It was awesome just being able to go back home and know where I’m coming from and be able to see my home and my family,” Okwara told the Indy Star. “I just hung out with my dad really. I don’t really know anybody or have any contacts. I was young when I left, so I didn’t have a phone or any email (addresses).” His brother is standout NFL defensive lineman Romeo Okwara. “My brothers definitely played a huge role to get me to this point because we were always competing siblings and competing in everything we did,” he told the Notre Dame Observer. “Just watching my brothers play football and what they did in high school, Romeo coming into college and having the career he had and the success he had, going into the NFL from Notre Dame, I think that helped me out. So I always want to do better than them and be able to play harder than them and beat them in everything, no matter what it was.”

DE Chauncey Rivers, Mississippi State (6-3, 275): A junior-college transfer, Rivers was second-team all-SEC as a senior with five sacks and eight tackles for losses among his 43 total stops. In two seasons, he had 7.5 sacks and 15 TFLs. He graduated in December 2018.

Rivers opened his career at Georgia, where he played in four games in 2015 before being kicked out of school following his third marijuana arrest in seven months. He landed at East Mississippi Community College, the aptly named “Last Chance U.” As Rivers told CDispatch.com: “You've got people who you look up to, but at the end of the day you want to be the best version of yourself. If you be the best version of yourself, you can't lose.” He came from Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., the same high school as former Mississippi State edge defenders Montez Sweat of the Redskins and Preston Smith of the Packers. “A lot of kids coming out of my community don’t have the chance to make it to these big universities and get a fair chance to do something with their lives,” Rivers told DJournal.com. “I want to affect my community and do something for them.”

DE Alton Robinson, Syracuse (6-4, 260): After opening his career at Northeastern Oklahoma, Robinson was a three-year starter for the Orange. He had a huge junior year with 10 sacks, 17 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles among his 39 tackles. As a senior, he had four sacks and nine TFLs but a career-high 46 tackles. A two-time all-ACC selection, Robinson won the school’s Tim Green Award as the team’s most outstanding defensive lineman in 2018 and 2019. He joined Arthur Jones (2007, 2009) and Chandler Jones (2010, 2011) as the only players in team history to earn the award multiple times.

Robinson was charged with felony robbery in May 2015 and February 2016, when he twice stole his ex-girlfriend’s purse. At the Senior Bowl, he was asked about it “Every single time,” he told the Democrat and Chronicle. “And that’s part of the reason why I’m here, to clear my name and show my true character as well as showing them that I’m a good football player. I get to use my voice and express myself.” That’s why he ended up at Northeast Oklahoma, a juco located in Miami, Okla. “I was definitely ready to leave that first day,” Robinson told Syracuse.com. “It took everything in me not to pick up my stuff and go back down to a juco in Texas. I remember my first day there. I left my house at 12 a.m. It took me 12, 13 hours because I took all these funky routes to the Northeast tip of Oklahoma. I get there, take everything out of the car, and we have to practice. My mind was jacked up.” While there, the charges were reduced to misdemeanors and then dropped altogether. “We said, ‘You know what, you need a fresh start. Get out of the state,’” his high school coach, Sean McAuliffe, told the Daily Orange. “Go play your butt off, keep a low profile, and good things are going to happen for you. It’s a little off the time table, but at the end of the day, you’re going to end up getting what you want.”

DE Qaadir Sheppard, Mississippi (6-3, 252): Sheppard spent one season at Syracuse before playing three years at Ole Miss. A two-year starter, he had two sacks, 10 tackles for losses and two forced fumbles among 48 stops as a junior and no sacks and two TFLs among 25 tackles as a senior, when he had to wear a club-cast on a surgically repaired hand.

At Syracuse, he was suspended and dismissed from the program following a second violation of team rules, reportedly for failed drug tests. “I was sitting in my classroom, and I was just mad at the world, because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Sheppard told DJournal.com. Then, Ole Miss D-line coach Chris Kiffin reached out. Sheppard ultimately saw it as a positive. “I ain’t want to talk to no other school because the SEC, it’s the best conference in football,” Sheppard told the Oxford Eagle. “I was never offered by SEC schools (coming out of high school) and never thought I’d come down here to play SEC football ever in my life. Mississippi? I’m from New York. It was crazy.” At Ole Miss, he made the SEC’s academic honor roll. “The transition was actually pretty easy for me,” he told USA Today. “It taught me how to manage my time. There’s a time and a place for both academics and football. I had a heavy workload in high school and that prepared me accordingly.”

DE James Smith-Williams, North Carolina State (6-3, 265): With season-ending injuries in 2015 and 2016, Smith-Williams put up meager production with eight sacks and 12 tackles for losses over parts of five seasons. As a junior, he set career highs with six sacks, nine tackles for losses and 36 total stops. As a senior, he had one sack, one TFL and 20 tackles, with his final year derailed by an early-season foot injury.

He wore No. 1, an honor that is given to a player each season for his work ethic, character, leadership and accomplishments. He was named to the Allstate GoodWorks Team and was a semifinalist for the Jason Witten Man of the Year Award as a graduate student who worked a paid internship with IBM. "The core principles for success are the same," Smith-Williams told the school athletics site. "The work is very different, but the tools you rely on are your work ethic, doing your job based on the expectations that are set before you, and your goals. The background of football laid that out for me in terms of responsibility, accountability, work ethic, and perseverance. Those ideals translate to the other aspects of my life.” His mom has battled breast cancer. "She sat me down and told me, 'Don't worry about it, I got this,'" he told WRAL. "My mom is like the toughest person I have ever met in my entire life. She'd have chemo and then meet me to play catch in the yard. My mom is unreal.” They got through it, in part, due to some help from the foundation created by former NFL receiver Torry Holt.

LB Darrell Taylor, Tennessee (6-4, 255): Taylor had eight sacks and 11 tackles for losses as a junior, when he was voted team MVP, and another 8.5 sacks, 10 TFLs and four pass breakups as a senior, when he was named a team captain. After the season, he revealed he had played through a stress fracture in his shin.

Why did he come back for his senior season? “I think I can show that I have knowledge of the game,” he said before the season. “As far as my physical ability, I can show that I can pass rush really well.” Moreover, “We definitely have some unfinished business, and I think I have unfinished business, too,” Taylor told the News Sentinel, “because I had an OK season last year, but I feel like I could’ve done a lot better. That’s what I’m working on to do this year, to accomplish more than I did last year and achieve more things than I’ve ever done before.” Despite his production as a junior, he wasn’t even named to any of the preseason SEC teams. “He’s the face of the program,” defensive coordinator Chris Rumph told The Associated Press. However, he was suspended in 2017. 

Get to Know the Scouting Combine Prospects

Introducing the 34 Edge Rushers

Part 1: Unstoppable Epenesa, Baun, Anae

Part 2: Gross-Matos' incredible story

Part 3: Okwara and a lot of questions

Part 4: Thrill of the Chase (Young)

Introducing the 25 Defensive Linemen

Part 1: Auburn duo and dynamic twins

Part 2: Kinlaw and SEC stars

Part 3: Baylor's defensive lynchpin

Introducing the 20 Tight Ends

Part 1: Kmet, Moss and the Bryants

Part 2: Small-school stars Trautman and Taumoepeau, and five SEC standouts

Introducing the 25 Offensive Tackles

Part 1: Becton, D-III stud Bartch and Charles

Part 2: Jones and plenty of NFL DNA

Part 3: The Big Three of Thomas, Wills and Wirfs

Introducing the 17 Guards

Part 1: Bredeson, Hunt, Jackson and Lewis

Part 2: Stenberg, Simpson and Throckmorton

Introducing the 10 Centers

Big Ten’s Biadasz, Ruiz Lead Way

Introducing the 55 Receivers

Part 1: Aiyuk, Bowden did it all

Part 2: Duvernay, Edwards and Gandy-Golden

Part 3: LSU's Jefferson among TD machines

Part 4: Lamb, Jeudy top receiver class

Part 5: Mims leads Texas trio

Part 6: Ruggs, Shenault produce big plays

Introducing the 30 Running Backs

Part 1: Cam Akers, Eno Benjamin and J.K. Dobbins

Part 2: Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Zack Moss

Part 3: D’Andre Swift and Jonathan Taylor

Introducing the 17 Quarterbacks

Part 1: Burrow, Eason, Fromm

Part 2: Gordon, Herbert, Hurts, Love

Part 3: Tagovailoa and two Wisconsin natives

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