Notre Dame has been loaded at defensive end in recent seasons, with all four of its 2018 rotation ends eventually getting drafted. All of those standouts are gone, and now the Irish are going to look very different. There's talent but also a lot of questions, and how effectively those questions get answered will have tell us a lot about how good the Irish defense will be in 2021.
RETURNING PRODUCTION (Career)
Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa — 55 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries
Justin Ademilola — 34 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 pass defense
Isaiah Foskey — 25 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 pass defense
Jordan Botelho — 4 tackles
Osita Ekwonu — 3 tackles
Alexander Ehrensberger — 2 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack
NaNa Osafo-Mensah — 1 tackle
TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA MUST MAKE A SMOOTH TRANSITION
A two-year starter at defensive tackle, fifth-year senior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa heads into his final campaign with a slimmer physique and in position to become a more disruptive player.
At least that's the hope for the veteran defender.
Tagovailoa-Amosa has shown flashes of playmaking ability inside due to his quickness off the ball and instincts as a defender. He showed good block destruction and he plays with naturally good leverage. Now that he's shed a few pounds and playing at a more natural weight I expect to see him show an even better burst off the line than we saw in past seasons.
It was expected that Tagovailoa-Amosa would certainly provide stout edge setting ability as a defensive end, but sources tell me that early in spring practice his ability to get after the quarterback began to stand out. When the move was made I expected him to thrive in the run game, but if Tagovailoa-Amosa does in fact provide a similar pass rush to what Ogundeji provided he could have a much more impactful season than I expected.
VYPER POSITION SHOULD SEE A PASS RUSH JUMP
The lack of ideal sack numbers masked just how good Daelin Hayes played the Vyper position last season. Hayes was an excellent all-around defender that was stout against the run and effective in coverage. While he didn't put up huge sack numbers, Hayes did have some clutch sacks in his final season.
None of the returning Vypers will likely be able to replicate the all-around performance that Hayes brought to the defense, especially in pass coverage, but I won't be surprised if the disruptive numbers take a big jump, especially from a pass rushing standpoint.
Rising junior Isaiah Foskey was second on the defense last season with 4.5 sacks, which was the same number Ogundeji had in 2019, but Foskey did it in one less game and over 60 fewer snaps.
Foskey is an explosive athlete with exceptional length, but at times he lacked the technical repertoire to be a consistent high-volume pass rusher. If the experience he gained last fall and in the spring results in him becoming more technically advanced he could turn into a monster edge rusher.
Rising sophomore Jordan Botelho saw very little action last season, but during the spring he was a breakout player. The Irish offensive tackles had a very hard time handling him both in practices and in the Blue-Gold Game. His explosiveness at the snap is a key factor, but Botelho has a unique feel for winning on the edge with angles and leverage.
This one-two punch could be a major weapon for first-year coordinator Marcus Freeman, who could even use Foskey and Botelho together at times. I expect this duo to combine together to give the Vyper position a huge boost in pass rushing production.
Osita Ekwonu is another intriguing player I am keeping an eye on. He lacks ideal size for the position but his power and first-step explosiveness is outstanding.
ADEMILOLA STEPPING INTO KEY ROLE
End Justin Ademilola earned 132 snaps in his first two seasons (according to Pro Football Focus), but last season he earned 233 snaps as the primary backup to Ogundeji. Ademilola was solid all season, giving quality edge setting production and his late-season pass rush improved as well.
Now a senior, Ademilola needs to not only provide solid rotation minutes he needs to start making more plays on the ball. Ademilola is on the short side but he has strong hands, advanced technique and he doesn't make many mistakes.
The next step for Ademilola is for him to improve his block destruction, get to the ball more at or behind the line and to provide a bit more of a pass rush boost. Freeman wants to use a lot of players up front this season, and the key to having a successful defense is when the rotation players are also very productive, and Ademilola can be that kind of player.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Ademilola become more productive with pressures as he gets more opportunities against the pass game.
WHERE’S THE DEPTH
Notre Dame should have a good two-deep at end, but what if there's an injury or two? Behind the first two groups there are a lot of questions, but also some potential.
Rising junior NaNa Osafo-Mensah was a highly regarded recruit that saw most of his 2020 season lost to a fall camp knee injury. During the spring he flashed quite a bit in practice videos and showed promise in the Blue-Gold Game.
Osafo-Mensah is a physical edge player with power and a quick burst off the edge. Cleaning up his technique and finishing better are keys to him forcing his way onto the field.
I am also curious to see if rising sophomore Alexander Ehrensberger can make a jump this season. Ehrensberger played just 14 snaps last season, but in those very limited reps he racked up a pair of tackles for loss and a sack. He's massive (6-7, 252) and he's pretty athletic, but he's still pretty raw.
There are three important questions that will determine how good the defensive ends play in 2021.
1. Can Tagovailoa-Amosa make a smooth transition and be productive? - Notre Dame needs its big end position to not just be effective at setting the edge, it needs production on the ball. Tagovailoa-Amosa has the tools to be that player but for all the good he has done he's never been overly productive on the ball. That needs to change in 2021, but will it?
2. Will we see a breakout from Foskey and Botelho? - Foskey and Botelho showed impressive pass rushing talent in the spring, but will that carry into the fall? Will their potential turn into pass rushing production, especially in big games? That needs to be the case if this defense is going to live up to expectations.
3. How good will the depth be this season? - After Ademilola there are question marks. He needs to be more productive and the Irish need the other young ends to make strides.
The defensive end depth chart will play to its potential if ….
Tagovailoa-Amosa has a breakout season, Foskey starts showing off his first-round draft pick talent and Botelho uses his quickness and intense motor to become a high-volume pass rusher that is part of a dynamic Vyper rotation.
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