Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and college football.
NOTRE DAME IS LOADED UP FRONT
The Irish have had outstanding defenses in the past, and have had top lines in the past, but Notre Dame is on the verge of having a stretch of strong defensive line play that we haven’t seen in South Bend in some time.
Notre Dame lost an All-American at defensive tackle (Jerry Tillery) and its starting nose tackle (Jonathan Bonner) from its 2018 defense and lost both inside starting linebackers, but the Irish still jumped from No. 16 in defensive efficiency in 2018 to No. 8 in 2019, according to the Fremeau Efficiency Index.
Notre Dame is one of just nine defenses to rank in the top-16 of the FEI the last two seasons.
If that is going to continue the Irish will have to replace ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, who are projected to be picked in the first three rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft. Also running out of eligibility is senior Jamir Jones, who racked up 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in his final season.
That trio combined for 47.5 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks in the last two seasons.
For a very long time losing that kind of production from the defensive line would devastate the Notre Dame defense, but line coach Mike Elston has this unit prepared to simply reload in 2020.
Prior to his injury, senior Daelin Hayes was playing the best football of all the Irish ends, and for the last three seasons he has been the team’s best all-around player at the position. Hayes was the team’s top run defender on the edge in 2018 and his coverage skills are top-notch. He hasn’t been the pass rusher that Okwara and Kareem have been, but Hayes has the athletic tools to be that kind of defender.
He was expected to exhaust his eligibility after the 2019 season, but his shoulder injury occurred early enough for Hayes to get a medical hardship, giving him an extra season for 2020.
A strong case could be made that Notre Dame’s best end in November wasn’t Kareem, who played quite well in the season’s final month, but was actually senior Ade Ogundeji. The overlooked member of the 2016 class, Ogundeji had an outstanding spring and fall camp, but he was slow to get started in 2019.
In fact, Ogundeji had just 1.5 tackles for loss, zero sacks and nine run stops in the first ten games of the season. In the final two games, Ogundeji had 4.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and eight run stops in the final two games.
He ended the season as Notre Dame’s second highest-graded defensive player according to Pro Football Focus, and if he can carry his finish to 2019 into 2020 he could emerge as one of the nation's best edge players.
There have been some behind-the-scene rumblings that Ogundeji might go pro, but should he return - and he should - he and Hayes would give the Irish a potentially dynamic one-two punch on the edge in the starting lineup.
Depth is vital to success along the defensive line, and while the depth behind the starters is relatively inexperienced, there is quite a bit of talent coming back.
Injuries to Hayes and Okwara opened up opportunities for sophomore Ovie Oghoufo and freshman Isaiah Foskey to get action in November. Oghoufo had five quarterback pressures and three run stops against Navy and Boston College, but he missed the Stanford game with an injury.
Oghoufo is an athletic player that moved to drop end from linebacker, and he has the physical traits coaches desire for an edge rusher and coverage player. Those are the traits Notre Dame will look to take advantage of next season as Oghoufo works to become a key part of the Irish defensive line rotation.
Foskey might have the most raw talent of anyone along the line, but the raw part is key. He’ll continue to need a lot of work, much like Okwara and Ogundeji needed when they were freshmen. Despite limited playing time as a freshman (4 games), Foskey made three runs stop in just 18 run snaps, and his blocked punt against Stanford sparked the Irish comeback.
Sophomore Justin Ademilola is another player that will get a chance to work himself into the rotation next season. The experienced talent ahead of him kept Ademilola from getting much action this season, but when he has played the last two seasons he’s shown himself to be an effective run defender.
Ademilola has mostly played drop end early in his career, but his stocky frame, physicality and penchant for making plays against the run projects best for the strong side position. Don’t be surprised to see Ademilola work his way into a backup role behind Ogundeji at that spot next season.
Freshman NaNa Osafo-Mensah and junior Kofi Wardlow will also get a chance to push themselves into the rotation during the winter, spring and summer periods.
The Irish depth chart should be deep and very talented at end next season.
While the Irish lose quite a bit of talent and production at end, the entire interior defensive line depth chart returns, and Notre Dame should have an outstanding interior line next season.
What will be interesting to see is if the veterans continue to maintain their prominent spot in the rotation, or will the younger players get a legitimate chance to push for even more time - or possibly even a starting role - next season.
Junior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa had a quality season, thriving early in the season but being a bit more up-and-down later in the fall. That shouldn’t be a surprise considering he missed almost the entire 2018 season. With a full year of experience under his belt, Tagovailoa-Amosa should be in better position to play strong for an entire season.
When Notre Dame gave sophomore Jayson Ademilola more snaps he rewarded them with outstanding play. A case could be made that Ademilola was Notre Dame’s most impactful interior player, and he’s just getting started. Ademilola has to get stronger and improve his conditioning, but when he is on the field he provides a strong pass rush and playmaking skills in the run game.
Both Tagovailoa-Amosa and Ademilola are a bit undersized, so keeping both of their snaps in the 30-40 range would benefit both, and make them difficult to contend with in the fourth quarter if both are more fresh.
Kurt Hinish was a dirty-work player at nose tackle, and he shows a good motor inside. He’s not much of a playmaker, but you can get away with that at nose tackle. Hinish struggles at times when facing double teams, but he is quick enough and plays with good enough pad level to make up for that against most opponents.
What will be interesting this spring and in fall camp is whether or not freshman Jacob Lacey and sophomore Ja’mion Franklin will be given the chance to beat out Hinish. At the very least, both should get a chance to eat away at some of Hinish’s snaps. The Irish veteran is better with a smaller workload, so even if he starts next year it would be better for him to play fewer snaps, which would make him even more effective.
Franklin is a stout run defender that holds up well against double teams and has the strength to get a push up the middle. Lacey has a rare combination of power and quickness, which gives him the most playmaking potential at the nose tackle position. In fact, Lacey has the quickness and impact skills to also play the three-technique at a high level, but at nose tackle he could be a true difference maker.
Lacey is just scratching the surface of how good he can be.
There are a couple of freshmen to keep an eye on in the spring.
Hunter Spears has a ton of talent and potential, and he flashed well against Boston College when he was thrust into the lineup in place of Ademilola and Tagovailoa-Amosa, who were both out with injuries. He is a legit 300-pound athlete, he can penetrate and he has the tools to be an outstanding run defender.
Howard Cross III is undersized, but he’s surprisingly strong, shows impressive quickness and when he keeps his pads low he is able to get up field and do damage. Cross showed up well when given snaps in 2019, and with a year in the weight room he’ll be in better position to get playing time next fall.
Notre Dame could easily go seven deep next season with players capable of playing at a high level inside.
EVEN MORE TALENT IS ON THE WAY
Notre Dame has another strong recruiting class coming in next season.
In the winter, the Irish will welcome early enrollee Jordan Botelho, a talented player that will be hard to keep off the field next season. Botelho lacks the ideal length you want at the position, but he has everything else you want at the drop end spot. Botelho has an exceptional motor, he’s an instinctive defender and he’s got the range and quickness to fly off the edge as a pass rusher or to drop effectively into coverage.
Botelho has the athleticism to play drop end or even inside linebacker at Notre Dame, and that kind of combination should bit in well in the Irish defense.
Defensive tackle Rylie Mills will also enroll early, which should benefit him when it comes to gaining the size and strength necessary to play as a freshman. Mills can play strong side end as a power player or as a disruptive interior player that has the ability to play with power and get into the backfield.
With the talent ahead of him in the previous classes the Irish can go slow developing Mills, but he's incredibly talented and could force himself onto the field very early in his career.
Nose tackle Aidan Keanaaina has something the current interior players don’t have, and that’s great size. He’s long and already weighs over 300 pounds, and his size is natural. Keanaaina has broad shoulders, an incredibly thick lower half and an impressive natural punch. While he might lack the athletic skills of other players on the roster, his size and power is a great complement to the current roster.
His athletic skills relative to his size are impressive, and he fits the Irish scheme quite well. Elston beating out Ohio State for Mills and Keanaaina was big for the Irish 2020 class.
Mills, Spears, Lacey and Ademilola have the high-upside talent that Notre Dame has mostly lacked over the last decade. There have been players here and there, but the Irish haven’t had the kind of depth of impact talent at the position that it will have next season. Keanaaina, Mills and Spears bring outstanding size to the position as well, which is something the undersized 2019 rotation mostly lacked.
Notre Dame also landed German talent Alexander Ehrensberger, who sources I've spoke with say reminds them a lot of Ogundeji as a prospect, Raw, but very long, and he possesses a lot of upside.
Notre Dame is also off to a strong start in 2021 as well, with 6-5, 290-pound defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio already committed. Rivals ranks Rubio as a Top 100 recruit, and he had 46 tackles for loss and 18 sacks as a junior.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
We'll stick with the defensive line theme for the tweet of the week, and it comes from end Daelin Hayes, who brings much more to the institution than just his ability as a football player.
FILM TO WATCH
It's not the usual film I provide, but it is worth it. 2021 wide receiver commit Lorenzo Styles Jr. scored a 49-yard touchdown late in the state title game to vault his team to a state championship. This young man is incredibly talented ... and clutch.