Notre Dame has defensive linemen to spare. In years past, that may have included a qualifier — last season that compliment was expected at defensive end, for example, while defensive tackle represented a lack of experience exacerbated by injuries robbing the interior of depth. No such additional explanation is needed in 2020. Simply put, the Irish defensive line should be the strength of the defense.
The line will have both talent and experience across its starting lineup, luxuries that should be trusted enough to give a bounty of young talent a chance to establish a reserve pecking order.
Spring roster, split into the two primary position groups:
— Fifth-year ends Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji
— Rising junior ends Ovie Oghoufo and Justin Ademilola
— Rising sophomore ends Isaiah Foskey and NaNa Osafo-Mensah
— Rising senior end Kofi Wardlow
— Early-enrolled freshmen Jordan Botelho and Alexander Ehrensberger
— Rising senior tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish
— Rising junior tackles Jayson Ademilola and Ja’Mion Franklin
— Rising sophomore tackles Howard Cross, Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
— Early-enrolled freshman Rylie Mills
Only one more name will join the fray in the summer, four-star tackle Aidan Keanaaina. While the Irish enjoy rotating through much of the available depth along the defensive line, utilizing the perks of four games without losing a year of eligibility, Notre Dame will not need Keanaaina to provide competitive snaps.
With Mills involved this spring, that will be even more the case. He will be ahead of Keanaaina from the outset, giving the latter time to adjust to a collegiate strength and conditioning program — which will have plenty to work with, given he will arrive weighing more than 300 pounds but carrying all of it well — and possibly see some time in blowouts of Arkansas and Western Michigan.
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Depth Chart Possibilities:
While Hayes may be limited this spring thanks to the shoulder injury that cut short his 2019 and created this season of eligibility — and for that matter, should be limited as that shoulder concern traces back to high school — his starting role will not be in doubt. Ogundeji may be healthy, but his should not be, either. In fact, the Blue-Gold Game format should be ripe for Ogundeji to rack up an eyebrow-raising number of touch-sacks and buoy his summer hype.
Behind them, Foskey, Justin Ademilola and Oghoufo will form a reliable rotation. Foskey has all the makings of becoming the next star Irish end, Ademilola held up in the stiffest of atmospheres 14 months ago, and Oghoufo has progressed from Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year in 2018 to a consistent role player in 2019. Next emerge the unknowns, namely Wardlow and Osafo-Mensah. One has not earned notable playing time in three seasons, and the other is simply on the traditional path.
If anyone will shift the tiers at defensive end, it will not be Ehrensberger, who simply needs to get to work developing as soon as possible, but rather Botelho. Ogundeji is the front-runner to dazzle on April 18, with Foskey and Ademilola next in the theoretical betting odds, but Botelho would be a smart dark horse to monitor.
At tackle, Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish have nominal backups to work with in Jayson Ademilola and Lacey, respectively. The returning starters will presumably remain as such, but the roles may end up as shared more than anything else.
This will be Franklin’s first healthy spring and some care may linger to keep him healthy as Cross and Mills get their chances to impress.
However long this current stretch of Irish success lasts, Notre Dame will look back on the defensive end duo of Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara — as well as Jamir Jones, frankly, given the team-first sacrifice he made last season — as the pieces that changed the Irish defense. As much credit as is understandably and deservedly heaped upon coordinator Clark Lea and his one-year predecessor Mike Elko, Kareem, Okwara, Jones, Hayes and Ogundeji were all in South Bend before their arrival.
Consider the situation entering 2017, the first year of Elko’s system, when the defensive line returned no sacks from 2016. Then Kareem (3), Hayes (3) and Okwara (2.5) combined for 8.5 sacks as true sophomores. Along with tackle Jerry Tillery’s 4.5, they had established a pass rush to be feared.
As the defensive line became Notre Dame’s strength, that was initially because of the top-line talent. Leaning on it gave reserves time to develop, lessened their roles to manageable duties and created the depth the Irish will now enjoy.
2019 statistically speaking:
Khalid Kareem: 46 tackles with 10 for loss including 5.5 sacks; three forced fumbles and one fumble recovered for a touchdown.
Ade Ogundeji: 34 tackles with seven for loss including 4.5 sacks; three forced fumbles and one fumble recovered for a touchdown.
Jamir Jones: 26 tackles with 6.5 for loss including 4.5 sacks; two forced fumbles and one recovered.
Jayson Ademilola: 25 tackles with four for loss
Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa: 22 tackles with 2.5 for loss including 0.5 sacks; one fumble recovered and memorably returned 48 yards to within seven of the end zone.
Julian Okwara: 18 tackles with six for loss including four sacks; two forced fumbles and one recovered.
Kurt Hinish: 15 tackles with 4.5 for loss including two sacks.
Jacob Lacey: 14 tackles with 1.5 for loss including 0.5 sacks.
Ovie Oghoufo: 12 tackles with one sack
Justin Ademilola: 9 tackles with one for loss
Howard Cross: 7 tackles
Daelin Hayes: 6 tackles with three for loss including one sack; one fumble recovered in four games.
Isaiah Foskey: 5 tackles while preserving a year of eligibility, along with a pivotal blocked punt at Stanford.
Ja’Mion Franklin: 4 tackles
Hunter Spears: 3 tackles while preserving a year of eligibility
NaNa Osafo-Mensah: 1 tackle while preserving a year of eligibility
Kofi Wardlow: 1 tackle
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