The most common reason cited for Notre Dame’s failure to compete with the upper echelon of the sport is its lack of depth. The Irish have the skill players to compete with Clemson or Ohio State in Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet, but they do not have anyone alongside or behind them. They have the defenders needed, but — to use an example perhaps still sensitive to Notre Dame fans — as soon as Julian Love left the Cotton Bowl, no one of appropriate talent could replace him at cornerback.
Be it a symptom of recruiting, of development, of geography, the shallow nature of the top of the Irish depth chart cannot be argued … but for two position groups. If Notre Dame had to endure some injuries this season — and being this is football, it was an inevitability — losing players in the trenches is something the Irish may be able to navigate without losing all of November.
Fifth-year Trevor Ruhland, complemented by sophomore John Dirksen, and junior Josh Lugg have stepped in for senior right guard Tommy Kraemer (sprained MCL) and junior right tackle Robert Hainsey (ankle), respectively.
“I think we got what we expected,” head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday of their performances in Notre Dame’s 38-7 victory at Duke. “Two guys that are — one in particular that he’s got great size and he used his size to his advantage last night, and that’s Josh Lugg. All in all, we’re really happy with his play.
“And then Trevor is going to give you everything he’s got. Sometimes it doesn’t look as pretty as you want it to, but he’s pretty effective.”
Some of the reserves Ruhland and Lugg are used to facing in practice will not get tested as well, with senior Julian Okwara (broken leg) joining senior Daelin Hayes (shoulder) as hyped defensive ends sidelined for the rest of the season.
That begins with senior Ade Ogunudeji (pictured at top), making a cameo appearance as a starter a year before that was expected.
“Ade, obviously, is a guy that gives us that versatility at that position,” Kelly said Monday. “He’s long, he’s athletic. He was extremely disruptive on Saturday. Hand up in the face of the quarterback virtually all the time.”
Ogundeji made two tackles against the Blue Devils, bringing his season total to 19 with 1.5 for loss. He has been somewhat seen as a pseudo-starter, the Irish ends going at least five-deep in that caliber at the start of this season, but with two of those now injured, someone else needs to step forward as the fourth member of the two-deep.
Freshman Isaiah Foskey was the first player called upon to fill in as the backup to Ogundeji at Duke. Foskey can play in only one more game, though, before losing a season of eligibility. Note: That includes the bowl game, meaning Foskey has one more appearance in the next four games.
Enter sophomore Ovie Oghoufo.
“Ovie now is going to play,” Kelly said. “He is a young player that we have a great deal of confidence in, so now he becomes part of that rotation.”
Enter sophomore Justin Ademilola.
“He’s really played well for us. Both Ademilolas have played really solid football for us, and they would be counted in that as well, absolutely.”
Foskey, Oghoufo and Justin Ademilola may not have the discipline, durability or experience to take over Ogundeji’s backup role individually, but as a collective, they just might. They certainly have the talent and, surprisingly given their age, the size.
Notre Dame could not trot out such a range of possibilities at any other position but offensive and defensive lines.
WHY REDSHIRT FOSKEY?
For years, Kelly resisted sitting freshmen defensive linemen, arguing if they were good enough to play as freshmen, they would not be around for a fifth season, anyway. To some degree, his argument made sense. But he has recently reversed course on that line of thinking. Why?
Look at next year’s expected starters: Hayes and Ogundeji, both fifth-years. Sure, Hayes will have the additional season because of injury, but if he had not been injured, then Jamir Jones would not be playing currently and would be a 2020 starter, another fifth-year.
Jones and Hayes were both good enough to play as freshmen, though the latter more than the former. Due to position changes, injuries and other stars along the line, each could use another season of development, just like Ogundeji.
If the Irish can afford to limit Foskey’s time now — and thanks to the trio of sophomores, that should be possible — they may be grateful in 2023.
THINK BACK TO 2014
When Notre Dame lost at Michigan a few weeks ago, the concern was it might figuratively close shop for the rest of the season and suffer a collapse akin to 2014’s. After the Irish lost in controversial fashion at Florida State in mid-October, falling to 6-1 but still in the College Football Playoff discussion, injuries led to four consecutive losses to end the season.
Those injuries, however, came at linebacker (Joe Schmidt) and defensive tackle (Sheldon Day), at safety (Austin Collinsworth) and cornerback (Cody Riggs). They came where the Irish did not have the pieces to fill in, no offense to a young Nyles Morgan or an upset Jay Hayes, no disrespect to a perpetually out-of-position Eilar Hardy or an over-performing Devin Butler.
Avoiding that collapse this season has mostly been due to a locker room mindset, but it has also stemmed from that perpetual attrition occurring where Notre Dame can best manage it.
INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE OF DUKE VICTORY
— No. 15 Notre Dame dances past Devils, 38-7
— Julian Okwara’s Notre Dame career ends with broken fibula
— Things We Learned: Notre Dame finally delivers a complete performance
— PFF’s College Football Week 11 Eckrich Team of the Week