Defense has carried Notre Dame during most of its 33-5 stretch of the last three years and the unit will have to be outstanding again in 2021 if the Irish are going to compete for another College Football Playoff berth. The heart of the defense has been the line, but there will be a lot of new faces in the starting lineup this season.
For the defensive line to flourish in 2021 in the way it has in past seasons, or possibly be even better, senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola and junior Isaiah Foskey will have to take their games to a much higher level. They are the two new faces in the starting lineup and they are arguably the two most gifted players up front, but neither has yet to emerge as a dominant force, something Notre Dame hopes changes in the fall.
Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has stated that his defense is going to be driven by the defensive line, and for that to work the line will need to be much more disruptive than it was the last two seasons. That pressure has to start inside and Ademilola has the most raw talent of any interior defender on the roster.
He has shown flashes in past seasons, showing the ability to disrupt the run game when asked to do so and to rush the quarterback when asked to do that. Ademilola was dominant in the Rose Bowl loss to Alabama, showing the playmaking potential that Notre Dame fans have been wanting to see from him for years.
Ademilola is a quick, athletic defender with excellent hands. He'll need to stay healthy, show he can play at a higher volume of snaps and the big key is making more plays on the ball. For as disruptive as he's been, Ademilola has racked up just seven tackles for loss and one sack in three seasons. Part of that is the system he played in, but Freeman will ask him to make a lot more plays, and if Ademilola answers the call he could have a 10+ tackle for loss season.
Notre Dame needs him to be that kind of player. I would not be surprised if Ademilola has a Sheldon Day type of breakout senior campaign and starts getting attention as being one of the nation's best interior players .... of course assuming he can stay healthy.
There might not be a more physically talented player on the entire defense, whose name isn't Kyle Hamilton, than Foskey. The 6-5, 257-pound rising junior has all the physical tools you want in an edge player. He's incredibly long, he has powerful hands, he's explosive off the line and he's athletic. The problem is Foskey is still a raw player from a technical standpoint.
We saw flashes of what Foskey can do last season, and he finished second on the roster with 4.5 sacks despite finishing 13th on the defense in snaps. When Foskey is on his game he can blow past edge blockers, showing the instincts and ability to bend that you just can't teach.
What Notre Dame needs from Foskey in 2021 is for him to take a jump from a technical and consistency standpoint. Notre Dame needs him to be a defender that moves past being a flashy player and be a defender that can dominate on a more regular basis. Foskey needs to be hungry this season and he must play with the confidence that fits a player with his God-given tools.
Foskey has the talent to be effective against the run and pass, but it's as a pass rusher where Notre Dame needs him to have the biggest impact.
If Ademilola and Foskey both play to their potential they will put up big numbers and combine with veterans Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, and a deep interior depth chart to make this one of the nation's better front fours.
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