Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive line

Isaiah foskey
ACC Media
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Four years later, it is a stat not remembered as often as it was entering 2017. Coming off the 2016 debacle, Notre Dame returned zero — 0! — sacks along its defensive line. For that matter, the Irish managed only 14 sacks total in 2016. The pass rush was paltry and defensive line pressure nearly non-existent.

The shift up front has been the single greatest change in Notre Dame’s four-year resurgence. In 2017, the Irish managed 22 sacks, including 15 from that previously-unproductive front. And now despite sending four defensive ends to the NFL draft in the last two years, Notre Dame’s defensive line returns 11 of the team’s 31 sacks from 2020.

Defensive line coach Mike Elston has developed not only talent at the point of attack, but also depth.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
If given a normal offseason and a season void of the constant concerns of the coronavirus pandemic, defensive end Ade Ogundeji may have earned more praise than his seven sacks and seven additional quarterback hurries did, anyway. His growth mirrored Khalid Kareem’s, concluding a season prior, becoming a defensive stalwart once given time enough to develop into the role.

The opposite end of the “developmental” scale was Daelin Hayes, only back in 2020 for a fifth season due to a shoulder injury suffered fortuitously in the fourth game of 2019 rather than so much as a week later. Hayes finished 2020 with three sacks, half his six tackles for loss, including perhaps the one that will stand as the play most remembered from the entire season, the second-down sack of Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, a snap after Ogundeji combined with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah for an initial overtime sack.

That will be where Ogundeji and Hayes are most missed. When push came to shove, as the tired saying goes, they could pin their ears back and reliably get into the backfield. The Irish defenders knew they could not lose the game against the No. 1 Tigers in that second overtime, they could only win it. So Ogundeji and Hayes dialed up the pressure with a singular focus.

Notre Dame might not replace that by Labor Day Eve. Then again, with Elston’s track record the last four years, there is no need to assume the worst anymore.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
The Irish are already showcasing their defensive line. One can write that off as social media staffers picking out good photos, but the communication between social media staff and program focus has been consistent this last year, so there is reason to think last Monday’s noting of junior end NaNa Osafo-Mensah, fifth-year tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (2.5 sacks in 2020) and sophomore end Jordan Botelho was an intentional one.

With all due respect to Tagovailoa-Amosa’s return, as well as his interior partner Kurt Hinish’s (two sacks in 2020), that photo set did not even include Notre Dame’s most promising defensive lineman entering 2021.

The discussion these next 167 days should balance between that inside pair and the rising junior Isaiah Foskey (4.5 sacks in 2020). When both Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa opted to return — more a choice for Hinish, having played four complete seasons already and with reason to head to the NFL while Tagovailoa-Amosa missed most of 2018 due to a foot injury and has since known he would have 2021 eligibility — they raised the Irish floor this season. Hinish has proven adept at holding the point of attack for years now, while Tagovailoa-Amosa’s length makes him equal parts pass-rusher and running-back-absorber. That length may, in fact, push him into defensive end situations at points this season.

That part-time move outside would come as somewhat a result of Notre Dame having tackle depth, buttressed by senior Jayson Ademilola (0.5), juniors Jacob Lacey and Howard Cross, and sophomore Rylie Mills (0.5). Not often have the Irish gone three-deep at both tackle positions, but that is the expected situation this offseason.

If Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa raised the floor, the play of Foskey may determine Notre Dame’s ceiling. Expect the hype around Foskey to increase these next five-plus months to an extent that you should assume he will head to the draft after the season, which will then open a chance for Botelho to go from rotational player to starter in a year.

On the opposite side of the line, senior Justin Ademilola (1.0) has proven himself ready to contribute at this level since spot duty in the 2018 College Football Playoff. Once a supposed recruiting throw-in, he could have a starring role in 2021, keeping Osafo-Mensah as a rotational piece through no fault of his own.

This depth and multiplicity of options is why Irish head coach Brian Kelly insisted his new defensive coordinator hire would keep the fundamentals of the current defensive scheme. A four-lineman front may not be Marcus Freeman’s default, but not utilizing it now would be not making the most of the talent on hand.

Not to keep going back to those concerns entering 2017, but it is a testament to the growth of the program that only four years ago, the defensive line was such a concern it dictated the offseason conversation and now it is such a strength, it dictates the entire defensive philosophy.

Before we get into spring practices, any questions? Let’s hear them: insidetheirish@gmail.com

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