Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, senior Vyper end coming off an Achilles injury

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Listed measurements: 6-foot ¾, 236 pounds.
2022-23 year, eligibility: A senior, Ekwonu has three seasons of eligibility remaining, courtesy of a typical eligibility-preserving freshman season followed by the universal pandemic eligibility waiver glossing over his nine games in 2020.
Depth Chart: Ekwonu may have found a home at Vyper end this spring, the second consecutive year that could be said. He had spent much of his healthy time the last few years at linebacker, but Vyper end both needs some depth and serves as a hybrid-linebacker role as often as not. There, Ekwonu is behind senior Isaiah Foskey and fifth-year Justin Ademilola, though the latter will split his time between Vyper end and “Big” end.
Recruiting: Ekwonu may have disappeared into the woodwork the last few seasons — more on that below, obviously — but do not forget that rivals.com considered the consensus four-star recruit the No. 15 inside linebacker in the class of 2019. Ekwonu could have headed to Alabama, Auburn or Michigan, but instead the No. 232 overall prospect in the class committed to Notre Dame two months after a springtime official visit.

CAREER TO DATE
Careers following a typical, gradual timeline that is then stalled for a year due to injury often lead to exceedingly diminished expectations largely due to a subconscious “out of sight, out of mind” factor. There is a folly to that.

Ekwonu has yet to take a snap from scrimmage in his collegiate career, working on special teams throughout his first two seasons before an Achilles tear cost him 2021. Injuries happen; aside from the obvious physical setbacks, one of their more common results is for the broader world to forget about a player’s potential.

Anyway, Ekwonu has yet to prove himself on Saturdays or, for that matter, do anything counter to that, either.

2019: 3 games, 1 tackle.
2020: 9 games, 3 tackles, one blocked punt.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Not that the Brazilian tourism bureau should need any help …

BROTHERLY HYPE
A year younger, Ekwonu’s brother Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu was the No. 6 overall pick in April’s NFL draft, taken by the Carolina Panthers to be their left tackle of the present and the future. The former North Carolina State star was a unanimous All-American in 2021.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Modern roster construction and turnover provide opportunities in all sorts of ways. For some, it comes in the form of a new chance at Colorado. For others, it comes after a former special teams ace transferred somewhere he might start on defense.

Jack Lamb’s transfer westward leaves a hole on special teams coverage, and while that may seem a small role for Ekwonu to blossom in, it is a role, nonetheless.

“Lamb made 13 tackles last season. Ekwonu should come close to that number on coverage units alone.

“He may not get much work on defense — partly because of the established top duo, partly because a position switch naturally comes with a learning curve, particularly when in a new defense anyway — but any chances there should also yield some quarterback hurries.

“Ekwonu arrived at Notre Dame as a seemingly surefire recruit. Waiting this long to get a pertinent chance at playing time was not expected, but it is at least somewhat because the Irish roster has continually improved during this four-year resurgence. That is not a knock on Ekwonu so much as a testament to the last couple defensive coordinators. …

“This may come across more awkwardly than intended, but … Ekwonu has the body of someone who will contribute on a Power Five team before his time is done. There is both explosiveness and speed evident in his little film, and at some point, that will break through.

“At Notre Dame, though, that may take a moment. Foskey should at least have to consider the NFL after this season, and if so, Ekwonu’s time waiting could soon come to an end. If Foskey heads to the next level — another example of a player’s body making it clear what his ceiling is, in this case, starting on an NFL defensive line — then the Irish will have only (Jordan) Botelho as an established Vyper.

“While early-enrolled freshmen Will Schweitzer and Devin Aupiu will provide depth, Ekwonu will be the more likely No. 2 in 2022. That could, in turn, lead to a starting role in 2023.”

2022 OUTLOOK
Another day, another entry into the 99-to-0 series and another opportunity to ponder a defensive end spending time at running back into 2022. The Irish dabbled with Ekwonu as a goal-line ball carrier before his Achilles injury cost him 2021, and now that Notre Dame is desperate for running back depth, there is a temptation to ponder that possibility anew.

Maybe the Irish coaching staff does so, maybe not. Regardless, it is unlikely that is where Ekwonu’s impact is felt in 2022.

He is not as buried in the Vyper depth chart as a third-string label implies. Ademilola will not be a full-time Vyper, making Ekwonu perhaps a “2B” rather than a true “No. 3.” If granting that premise, then he should take at least 10 snaps per game, with more coming in any Notre Dame blowouts. (Looking at you, Cal and Marshall.)

Recruiting rankings have become uniquely accurate. Plenty of high-profile recruits do not pan out, but broadly speaking, the rankings predict pertinent contributions correctly. With that in mind, some faith should be put in Ekwonu to make the most of those 10 snaps per week and in doing so, earn some more.

DOWN THE ROAD
If Ekwonu can make an impact in 2022, then a large role could be his for the taking in 2023. Notre Dame will be without Foskey and Ademilola, leaving the Vyper role empty. Junior linebacker Jordan Botelho Will Likely spend more of his time in that pecking order once those two veterans do not take up the bulk of snaps, but he will need a partner in chaos.

Ekwonu will have first right of refusal to that role.

If Ekwonu falls short of an impact in 2022, then a transfer would seem more than likely following the season. At that point, some Group of Five program or lower-level Power Five team will be betting on the pedigree of a consensus four-star recruit, an understandable risk.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end

No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a junior defensive tackle who tore his ACL in March
No. 91 Josh Bryan, sophomore kicker
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, early-enrolled freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90 Alexander Ehrensberger, junior defensive end, a German project nearing completion
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, sophomore tight end
No. 87 Michael Mayer, junior tight end, likely All-American
No. 85 Holden Staes, incoming freshman tight end
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, junior tight end
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, sophomore receiver, former four-star recruit
No. 80 Cane Berrong, sophomore tight end coming off an ACL injury
No. 79 Tosh Baker, one of four young Irish offensive tackles
No. 78 Pat Coogan, sophomore center, recovering from a meniscus injury
No. 77 Ty Chan, incoming offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, sophomore starting left tackle
No. 75 Josh Lugg, sixth-year offensive lineman, likely starting right guard
No. 74 Billy Schrauth, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard coming off foot surgery
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, senior offensive tackle-turned-guard
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, sophomore offensive tackle, former Auburn pledge
No. 68 Michael Carmody, junior offensive line utility man
No. 65 Michael Vinson, long snapper, ‘Milk’
No. 65 Chris Smith, defensive tackle, Harvard transfer
No. 59 Aamil Wagner, consensus four-star incoming freshman offensive tackle
No. 58 Ashton Craig, incoming freshman center
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, fifth-year defensive tackle, coming off shoulder surgery
No. 56 Joey Tanona, early-enrolled offensive guard coming off a concussion
No. 56 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle with heavy hands, and that’s a good thing
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, fifth-year offensive lineman, three-year starting center, captain
No. 54 Jacob Lacey, senior defensive tackle, now lighter and a starter
No. 54 Blake Fisher, sophomore starting right tackle, ‘ginormous’
No. 52 Zeke Correll, senior center or perhaps left guard
No. 52 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker, Ironman
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, sophomore offensive guard
No. 48 Will Schweitzer, sophomore end-turned-linebacker
No. 47 Jason Oyne, sophomore defensive end-turned-tackle
No. 44 Junior Tuihalamaka, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, consensus four-star recruit
No. 44 Alex Peitsch, junior long snapper
No. 42 Nolan Ziegler, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, Irish legacy
No. 41 Donovan Hinish, incoming freshman defensive tackle, Kurt’s brother
No. 40 Joshua Burnham, early-enrolled freshman linebacker-turned-end
No. 20 Jadarian Price, early-enrolled freshman running back with a ruptured Achilles
No. 9 Eli Raridon, incoming freshman tight end with a torn ACL