College football success has long been determined in the trenches, and it is no coincidence Notre Dame’s 43-8 run across the last four seasons has included both defensive line depth and development. Thus, it is only logical the defensive recruits most discussed in both December’s early signing period and last week’s traditional Signing Day were the four defensive line signees.
If Notre Dame intends to keep its high floor — one that suggests a 10-2 season in 2021 is quite viable despite replacing a dozen starters and facing four top-20 teams per SP+ projections— in the years to come, it will depend on the continued development of those defensive linemen so as to rely on depth up front.
Of these four 2021 signees, it is quite likely none make an immediate impact for the Irish. Notre Dame returns excess depth at defensive tackle, such that it may spill over to defensive end, and the three defensive end recruits discussed here will all necessitate some incubation time.
That should not be considered a knock. Throughout their four-year resurgence, the Irish have enjoyed the rewards of defensive ends once considered prohibitively raw. Khalid Kareem ended up an NFL draft pick; Ade Ogundeji will be one in April. Even Jamir Jones went from an overlooked three-star prospect to a fringe NFL prospect, one who would have been more than that if circumstances had not robbed him of both a fifth collegiate season and a typical rookie NFL offseason to impress front offices.
Who will next follow Kareem’s, Ogundeji’s and Jones’ footsteps?
On consensus four-star tackle Gabriel Rubio:
Defensive line coach Mike Elston: “We gave him a challenge of we need to see your academics go up before we can offer you a scholarship, and it was a risk that we took because Gabriel was getting 15-20 offers from top-10 programs and he held steadfast to what he was looking for. Once he got his GPA up to where we needed it to be, we offered him a scholarship and he turned around and he committed.”
Recruiting coordinator Brian Polian: “The first thing you notice about Gabe is that he’s wide as a Volkswagen. He’s a big, big man and he’s really, really light on his feet. For a big man, he plays really hard. Sometimes those big guys can go two and three plays and then they tap out because they’re worn down. He works really, really hard.”
On California end Will Schweitzer, a former Nebraska commit:
Elston: “He’s going to be a Vyper (hybrid end, one with some pass coverage responsibilities). We’re excited for him. He’s long and he’s tall. He’s an incredible worker. He’s played linebacker, so he’s got coverage ability, which we’re excited about for that Vyper position.”
Polian: “Schweitzer is actually the last prospect that I think I saw in person. I was in Schweitzer’s school in January before the cycle ended and we haven’t been back out since. Clark (Lea) and I loved him. The issue was, when he was a junior he was playing linebacker. He was 205 or 208 pounds.
“Why are you recruiting this guy to play the Vyper position when he’s standing up? You don’t see him pass-rush that much. But his motor was so good and we knew because we had seen him, he’s got length. He is 6-4 plus.
“Through the summer, even though he was committed to Nebraska, we never stopped communicating with him and we were watching his body. He’d send us photos and video and you’re seeing his body start to fill out. When the time was right and the numbers allowed it, we offered him and we felt great about it. Now, he is a guy that is going to take some physical development, but his length, his twitch, his motor, we believe are going to lend himself to being a really good player.”
2031: Florida at #NotreDame.
2032: Irish at Gators.
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On California end Devin Aupiu, a former UCLA commit:
Elston: “Same as Will, a very long, athletic player that’s played in a two-point stance. The great thing about Devin is that he’s a football junkie. When we talked during the recruiting process, it wasn’t about the glitz and the glamour. He wanted to talk football. He wanted to know why Daelin (Hayes) is in a two-point stance with his outside foot up and his inside foot back. ‘I think I’ll feel more comfortable with my inside foot up.’ Then, ‘I see you’re playing three Vypers and they’re moving all over the place. What are you telling him when he’s over the guard.’”
Polian: “Aupiu is a great bet. If this guy played his senior year (California postponed high school football to this spring, while both Schweitzer and Aupiu enrolled early at Notre Dame), who knows what his recruiting would have looked like. We see shots of this guy dunking a basketball, the way he runs, his length.
“What we’re hoping for is Ade (Ogundeji). We’re hoping for Khalid Kareem. Who did we beat (f0r) Ade? Western Michigan. It took him two years in the weight room. Now you look at his production and what he looks like physically, and that’s the part of player development that we believe we can hit on because we trust (strength and conditioning coordinator) Matt Balis and his staff, and we know that these guys are going to get bigger and stronger. We’re going to recruit guys with the right framework, with the right bones, with the right approach and fit, and then we believe the physical development will come and we’re going to end up with some really good players.”
On end Jason Onye, with only one season of football on his résumé:
Elston: “Jason is going to be a Big end for us. Right now he’s 275-280 pounds. He’s going to be a huge end, as we call it right now. He gives us some good positional flexibility. Maybe he goes in and plays some three-technique (tackle).
“We’re excited for Jason’s development. He’s super tall, long and athletic, twitchy enough to give us great pass rush. He’s going to be on the edge to start and see how he goes.”
Polian: “Onye is already a big, big man, and he’s going to offer some position flexibility. Onye is the type of guy that might someday be able to rush at three-technique in passing down situations because he would be such a mismatch.”