Moving an established starter only helps Notre Dame’s defensive line depth

Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Notre Dame Athletics

Notre Dame once had two returning starters at defensive tackle in 2021. No longer. Now, the Irish have a returning starter at defensive tackle and another one at defensive end. Which is all to say, Notre Dame has removed the conditional tenses from fifth-year lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s move outside. Every mention of him at end now comes across as definitive, not temporary, not a trial, not part of a sub-package.

“Myron’s doing great,” Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston said Thursday. “The move for him has been very beneficial. He’s trimmed down and leaned out in his weight. He looks really good with speed and agility off the edge. Probably the most productive guy right now up to this point throughout the spring.”

Tagovailoa-Amosa made the move because the next three names Elston mentioned as producing along the defensive line this spring were all nose tackles: fifth-year Kurt Hinish, junior Howard Cross and sophomore Aiden Keanaaina. Nose might not be the same position as Tagovailoa-Amosa left — the more penetrative three-technique tackle duties — but Notre Dame’s depth and ability on the defensive interior is an unquestioned strength at this point while there was arguably a bit of a vacuum at end after Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji headed to the NFL.

Ironically enough, at either three-technique or “Big” end, Tagovailoa-Amosa splits time with an Ademilola twin. Jayson remains on the inside, backed up by sophomore Rylie Mills and early-enrolled “Volkswagen” freshman Gabriel Rubio. Justin now works with Tagovailoa-Amosa on the outside.

“It’s been awesome just getting an opportunity to work with Myron,” the latter said earlier this month. “We’re both playing D-end this year, and it’s going to be a crazy, 1A-1B punch right there.”

In most years before the current four-years-and-counting Irish resurgence, Notre Dame would have been fine starting Justin Ademilola as a primary pass-rush threat in his senior season. The fact of the matter is the Irish coaching staff has long had plenty of trust in his abilities. If Justin’s recruitment seemed like an add-on enticement to his more-heralded brother, that skeptical suggestion lost credibility when Notre Dame managed Justin’s freshman year usage such that he could play in the Playoff without losing a year of eligibility. More impressively, on an afternoon when the entire Irish roster seemed out-classed by Clemson, Ademilola held his own, making two tackles.

With 35 tackles and 24 games of experience, Justin Ademilola is not in over his head, even if he lacks the hype of Ogundeji or Khalid Kareem before him. By no means is the once overshadowed recruit meek about his personal expectations.

“I guess you can say I was a little underrated in high school,” he said. “I just let my tape speak for itself. If people think I’m under the radar this year or in the shadows, you guys are going to feel this year on the field.”

In Elston’s view and Notre Dame’s track record the last few seasons, moving Tagovailoa-Amosa and subsequently cutting into Ademilola’s snaps should serve to only help him, as well as the team. His brother Jayson has shown himself to be a bona fide contributor for a few years now, and creating a defensive end tag team assures the Irish of depth at a position that was otherwise going to depend on junior NaNa Osafo-Mensah, with all of two appearances in his career thus far.

“We’re going to play hopefully 10, 11, 12 guys,” Elston said. “What that does is the culture that you create, the buy-in during the week, the effort and energy they put into the practices and the meetings, everybody’s bought in because they know they have a chance to play.”

If the operating expectation is 10 contributors along the defensive line, at a minimum, then that sets up to be two at each end position and three deep at each tackle. Moving Tagovailoa-Amosa created that balance without having to throw someone like Osafo-Mensah into a primary role on Labor Day Eve (142 days).

Hinish is well-known — presuming health primed to set an unbreakable record for appearances in the Notre Dame uniform thanks to the pandemic-granted extra season of eligibility — but the rest of the defensive line is a bit less proven, though also not doubted, given the defensive front has become the second-most consistent Irish piece the last four years (behind only the offensive line).

Isaiah Foskey
Isaiah Foskey (Notre Dame Athletics)

The next best-known would be junior end Isaiah Foskey, though those accolades are largely for his punt blocks to date. He hopes to continue contributing on special teams, but that work may diminish with Foskey now in a starting role, not to mention being arguably the most NFL-ready of the Irish defensive linemen. Foskey has made technical improvement a priority this offseason, to complement that NFL-ready frame.

“I need to be more consistent with pass rushing and trying to get around the blocks or going through the blocks,” Foskey said last week. “… Even though I’m considered one of the better pass-rushers on the team, I need to be more consistent with that.”

That consistency may be masked, at least statistically, by new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s multiple-front scheme. While the Drop, now known as Vyper, end occasionally dropped into coverage in Clark Lea’s scheme, it was more a wrinkle than a consistent deployment. Now, Foskey (and backup sophomore Jordan Botelho) will find himself in coverage against running backs and tight ends with some frequency.

“I’ve been working on a lot more drops and a lot more covering, but I’m still a pass rusher,” he said. “… But covering, there are just new techniques I need to learn. I always see corners doing it with chasing their head and staying with [receivers]. It always looks easy when they do it, but when you actually go out there, it’s a little bit more challenging.”

The obvious benefit of Foskey proving adept in pass coverage will be sending pass rushers from other, unexpected spots on the defense, part of Freeman’s preferred aggression.

“We can move [Foskey] all over the field now,” Elston said. “… The multiple front and the fluidness of coach Freeman’s package is really fun to work with and add to.”

The defense can then supplement Tagovailoa-Amosa’s new work, or just as likely, Justin Ademilola’s.

Jayson Ademilola on himself: “I’m a guy who is going to attack the football, go find the football. I’m a head-hunter, and then when it gets to third-down, I’m a pass-rusher. That’s what I do. I could do a little bit of everything, and I try to pride myself on everything.”

Elston on sophomore tackle Rylie Mills, the primary backup to Jayson Ademilola: “Rylie is progressing and doing a nice job. He’s cross-training and doing some different things, but progressing well and doing a nice job.”

Elston on sophomore Botelho, the primary backup to Foskey: “Jordan had a long way to go in maturity and accountability (when he arrived in 2020). The best thing for him was that he was sent home (before last season). He realized that we’re here about a holistic development and this isn’t just about him getting sacks on Saturday, which he’s going to be able to do because he’s a very talented player.”

Elston on early-enrolled freshmen ends Devin Aupiu and Jason Onye, and freshman tackle Gabriel Rubio: “The freshmen have done a really nice job. They’re all very aggressive and learn really well. They’ve integrated very well into the defensive line. … It’s been a really seamless transition for those guys. I don’t know that we’ll have to utilize them in the depth (chart) this season. Some are progressing and we’ll see, but right now, everybody is on track and we’re excited about their progress.”

Elston on junior nose tackle Howard Cross: “Howard Cross is just a dynamic accelerator. Speed off the ball, low pad level, he finds his way into creases and gaps. He’s always in the backfield and he’s quick with his hands. He’s got good speed and really good agility. He’s been a load to block. He’s going to have a breakout season and I’m excited for him.”

Elston on injured junior nose tackle Jacob Lacey: “I don’t expect to get Lacey back this spring. Hopefully, we can get him involved in some footwork and drill work. He’s working hard in our pit, staying in shape. He’s leaning out his body, he’s focused and he’s got to make some progress this offseason with strength, even before the shoulder injury.”

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