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Al Washington Is Stepping Into A Great Situation He Needs To Make Even Better

Notre Dame's new defensive line coach Al Washington is stepping into a strong situation, and he'll be tasked with making it even better

Recently hired defensive line coach Al Washington is one of those lucky coaches that gets to go from a good situation to a great situation, and he'll have two immediate tasks. Develop the 2022 line into one of the nation's best groups and hit the recruiting trail to make it even better.

Washington inherits a Notre Dame defensive line that returns a lot of experienced talent and the potential to have impressive depth. The defensive line was expected to be the backbone of the 2022 defense when Mike Elston was expected to return, and that shouldn't change that Washington arrived.

The exciting part for Washington is that he inherits such a talented group, but that also means he'll need to hit the ground running. There will be no grace period for Washington, he'll be asked to get the line to play at a high level right away.

TOP LEVEL TALENT

The return of defensive end Isaiah Foskey and defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola gives Washington two top-level players to build around. Not many teams return an inside-outside combination like Foskey and Ademilola. The duo combined for 19.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks, and both made money plays throughout the 2021 season.

Foskey was a first-year starter in 2021, and when you break down the film you see he has even more room to improve his game. As a junior, Foskey used his first step, length and power to win on the edge, but there is clearly room for him to enhance his pass rushing repertoire. It will be up to Washington to quickly learn Foskey's game and help him develop a wider array of counter moves.

Foskey improved as a run defender throughout the 2021 season, but there's still room for improvement with his game as an edge setter and when it comes to block destruction. He has elite potential as both an edge rusher and run defender, and now he needs to be that kind of player on an even more consistent level.

Washington's background as a linebackers coach should help him develop Foskey's footwork, angles of departure and route recognition when he drops into coverage, but hopefully Notre Dame's next defensive coordinator uses him more as a pure edge player and less as a pass dropper.

Ademilola was quite disruptive this season, but Washington's task will be to get Ademilola to be more productive on the ball. The New Jersey native has the quickness, strength and block destruction ability to be a far more dominant player from a numbers standpoint. 

Washington needs to help Ademilola do a better job getting off blocks and to the ball, to finish better at the quarterback, to be more gap sound when he penetrates and overall to make more plays. Ademilola has the talent needed to make a similar final year jump that Sheldon Day had back in 2015. Day went from 7.5 tackles for loss in 2014 to 15.5 in 2015. Ademilola had 7.0 tackles for loss this season, and a jump into double figures should be the expectation.

TURN POTENTIAL INTO PRODUCTION

There are some young players on the Fighting Irish that have the potential, and arguably the biggest task for Washington is getting them to make the leap their talent dictates.

First and foremost, Washington will need to spend a lot of time getting the most he can out of Rylie Mills. The rising junior flashed this season, and a move to big end could combine with another year of experience to make him a breakout player for Notre Dame in 2022.

Mills has the combination of athleticism, power and playmaking potential to be a difference maker. He won't be asked to replace the leadership that Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa brought to the defense in 2021, but he absolutely should be asked and expected to provide more production.

Tagovailoa-Amosa had five tackles for loss and two sacks this season, and the entire big end depth chart combined for 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Simply put, that isn't enough production from an edge position. Mills has the potential to match that production by himself, but it will require he and Washington to partner together to turn his talent and potential into production.

Classmate Alexander Ehrensberger is another player that is long on potential but short on experience and production. Ehrensberger has elite size (6-7, 255) and he's surprisingly athletic, but he's still learning the finer points of defensive line play. Washington needs to make Ehrensberger and Mills a pet project of his, and if he can get them to tap into their potential I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Mills and Ehrensberger combine for double digit tackle for loss numbers next season, and to see a jump in sacks as well.

Young interior defenders like Gabriel Rubio, Aidan Keanaaina and Jason Onye are also talented players whose progress over the next eight-plus months will tell us a lot about Washington's ability to develop talent. A case could also be made for talented incoming freshmen Tyson Ford and Aiden Gobaira.

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HIT THE TRAIL .... HARD

Of course, developing the current roster is just part of Washington's task. There is room for Notre Dame to upgrade its defensive line, and there is room to upgrade on the recruiting trail.

Notre Dame has a commitment from five-star defensive end Keon Keeley and Top 100 big end Brenan Vernon, which would be the team's best defensive end combination since it landed Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt back in the 2011 class.

Washington absolutely MUST keep these two standouts in the class.

After that Washington must continue upgrading the roster, both inside and outside. Notre Dame has recruited well under Elston, but I can't sit here in good faith and say that's as good as it gets. Washington and head coach Marcus Freeman will need to partner with whoever Freeman hires as the head coach to maximize the recruiting potential of the defensive line.

Washington has a lot of work to do, and expectations for him are high the moment he officially steps foot on campus as the defensive line coach. The good news for him is that he is the day he does officially step foot on campus he'll be walking into a great situation.

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