Ogundeji’s patience sets tone for dominant Notre Dame defense

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Ade Ogundeji knows how to be patient.

The fifth-year defensive end waited months for his recruitment to pick up so he could turn a mid-major offer into a Notre Dame scholarship. He waited years for his weight-room work to turn into on-field progress at the expense of his teammates. And on Saturday, he waited a near eternity until the second overtime for a clean shot at Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, Ogundeji’s sack his sole tackle of the evening but one that played a pivotal part in clinching the 47-40 Irish upset.

“Patience is definitely one of my virtues,” he said Monday. “I always tell young guys, there’s going to be times where you feel like you should be playing but you’re not. But you always got to wait for that opportunity. And when you get that opportunity, you just got to go out there and play hard and make your opportunity count.”

That first-down sack, soon followed by another from classmate Daelin Hayes and then subsequently followed by the jubilant chaos that naturally accompanies ending a 36-game regular-season winning streak, was not Ogundeji’s first of a Tigers quarterback. He took advantage of an unexpected opportunity two years ago in the 2018 Cotton Bowl, pressuring and eventually sacking Trevor Lawrence. Though one of few Notre Dame defenders to rise to the competition in that blowout, Ogundeji still filed that 30-3 defeat away as a moment to fuel a desire to improve.

Ade Ogundeji Clemson
Though then just a reserve, Ade Ogundeji was one of few Irish defenders to play up to Clemson’s level in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal. (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“That game was definitely a stepping stone for me to make sure I get better,” Ogundeji said. “At that point, I knew, ‘Alright, we got to get better because I want to go back here. I want to go back here and win a national championship. And if we’re going to go back here, we’re going to have to go through, obviously, Clemson.’

“That was a big moment for me to understand that I got to work harder.”

That work soon paid off, to Irish left tackle Liam Eichenberg’s frustration. The two arrived at Notre Dame together, Eichenberg a highly-touted, four-star recruit and Ogundeji a commitment flip from Western Michigan. Eichenberg became a three-year starter at what has arguably been the most prestigious Irish position in recent years, while Ogundeji waited until injuries ravaged the defensive line to force him into the starting lineup in the final regular-season game of his senior year.

All that time, Eichenberg faced Ogundeji in practice. If anyone would know when his patience was finally paying off, it would be Eichenberg. That moment came a few months after the Cotton Bowl.

“I told Ade this a year-and-a-half ago, ‘You’ve gotten so much better, man,’” Eichenberg said. “He came in, he was a long, athletic guy. He really worked hard in the weight room. He’s super strong now. At the same time, he works on his technique and craft every single day.

“I honestly think he has improved the most out of anyone who came in during my class.”

That improvement made Ogundeji a captain, alongside Hayes, and a bookend to a defensive line that leads a defense giving up 17 points and fewer than 300 yards per game, even if its contributions don’t always show up on the stat sheet. Exhibit A: Ogundeji was credited for only one tackle against Clemson. Hayes logged just two.

“It’s a pretty good defense,” head coach Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame beat Pittsburgh 45-3. “There are playmakers all over that field. It’s very difficult to run the football against them.”

Ogundeji and Irish sophomore end Isaiah Foskey lead the defense in sacks with 3.5 apiece. Hayes trails just behind with three, a number that may come with a grain of salt when factoring in his view on pass rushing.

I feel like a lot of people have been making a big deal about my production as far as being a pass-rusher,” Hayes said two weeks ago. “A lot of times, I’ve been winning. There have been wins, there have been times I’ve been close to the quarterback. I get good rushes, but sometimes it doesn’t play out.

“That’s just part of being one of 11. As long as we’re winning and playing great defense and guys are making plays, that’s all you can ask for.”

The mentality makes it easy to see why the defensive line functions so well, and the acceptance of deferred gratification fits Ogundeji’s patience.

The West Bloomfield, Mich., native originally committed to Western Michigan during P.J. Fleck’s tenure in Feb. 2015 before flipping to Notre Dame that July.

After partially tearing his MCL as a high school senior, Ogundeji spent his freshman year, 2016, on the scout team. Then, following a sophomore season with minimal playing time, Ogundeji’s role began to steadily grow.

A switch to strong-side defensive end contributed to Jay Hayes’ decision to transfer as a graduate to Georgia, leaving Ogundeji in the 2018 backup role behind Khalid Kareem, the role that gave him that shot at Lawrence and the subsequent motivation to impress Eichenberg. He finished the 2019 season with 4.5 sacks, a mark he’s on his way to at least match, if not easily break this year.

“It took me a while to be in this position that I am right now, but I’ve never wavered,” Ogundeji said. “There were some times where I was a little down on myself, but I never wavered and I never was like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ I always had confidence and believed that I could someday be in a starting role, someday play at the level.”

Now, as Ogundeji starts and excels, he advises younger teammates on how to learn from his journey — while still following that same advice.

“Just continue to believe in yourself, continue to have confidence,” Ogundeji said. “And that’s what I’m trying to do right now.”

Continue may as well be a synonym for “wait,” something Ogundeji must now do for his third shot at Clemson. As he said, a national championship will have to go through the Tigers.

Until then, a former teammate who should also be familiar with Ogundeji’s growth awaits Saturday (3:30 ET; ABC). Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec was leading the Irish second-team offense a year ago.

“It’s obviously going to be a little weird seeing him in a different uniform,” Ogundeji said. “But you still have to go against him. … Phil does a lot of things well, throws on the run pretty well, he’s a big guy, gets away from tackles.”

It’s fine if Jurkovec evades Ogundeji’s first pass rush or two. He doesn’t mind waiting patiently for the moment to be most effective.

A junior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well.