Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end, the definition of ‘development’
Listed measurements: 6-foot-6 ⅞, 252 pounds.2021-22 year, eligibility: Ehrensberger is one of the few players whose eligibility was not impacted by the universal waiver granted during the pandemic (hence the largely-accurate use of “universal,” consider it colloquial). A sophomore academically, he has four years of playing eligibility remaining entering the 2021 season.Depth chart: Notre Dame gives itself the ability to take on developmental projects like Ehrensberger by establishing consistent depth along its defensive line. The German project currently projects behind fifth-year tackle-turned-end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, senior Justin Ademilola and junior NaNa Osafo-Mensah. Ehrensberger will see playing time in 2021, but it will not be an Irish requirement, giving him a continued chance to grow into his frame and learn the game.Recruiting: Ehrensberger heard Notre Dame offer him a scholarship and rather quickly ended his recruitment. The German native and consensus three-star prospect was the fourth commit in the Irish class of 2020, though presumably the most secure commit in the entire class.
CAREER TO DATE
When Notre Dame had to scramble to field a full defense in its second game of the pandemic, Ehrensberger was not one of the headline-stealing impromptu starters. That notice primarily went to linebacker Jack Kiser, going from scout team to starter in the span of a few hours before kickoff against South Florida as positive coronavirus test results and contact tracing impacted the Irish roster. But Ehrensberger did move up the depth chart all the same.
Combine that short-handed unit with a 52-0 rout and that September afternoon became Ehrensberger’s only appearance of his freshman season, making two tackles for loss, including one sack.
NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
It seems unlikely Notre Dame put up a billboard in Düsseldorf featuring Ehrensberger, as the Irish have done across the United States in a unique recruiting push, but if it did, that billboard would actually be appropriately proportioned to fit Ehrensberger’s wingspan.
Following that South Florida appearance — Ehrensberger’s sack came late in the third quarter with Notre Dame leading 38-0, so hardly a crucial moment but it was a third-down sack all the same — Irish head coach Brian Kelly singled out Ehrensberger for praise.
“You look at Alex Ehrensberger when he gets in there,” Kelly said. “He was playing nose guard all week on the scout team. He gets in there at defensive end and runs a great stunt, technically sound.”
Kelly’s praise continued this spring, though it also tempered expectations of any impact coming soon from a player Notre Dame knew would need time.
“Ehrensberger continues to develop and he is a guy that has put on weight and strength,” Kelly said in late April. “We’re just waiting on him to continue to develop in the weight room. He’s such a hard worker, and he’s doing everything we’ve asked him to do.
“It’s just a matter of time for him. I don’t want to compare everybody, but a little bit like [former Irish defensive end, and recent NFL draft pick, Ade Ogundeji] in that it took a little time for Ade to develop physically and that’s where we are with Alexander.”
WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Kelly was neither the first nor the only individual to cite Ogundeji when it comes to Ehrensberger’s future …
“In eight months, this may come across as outrageously ambitious, but for now, the framework holds up. Irish fifth-year end Ade Ogundeji is 2 ½ inches shorter than Ehrensberger, but his length is nonetheless one of his key attributes. Furthermore, he was a lightly-regarded recruit back in 2015, a Western Michigan commit before Notre Dame saw his potential.
“In his first two seasons, Ogundeji appeared in five games and that was the extent of his statistics. When the Irish ran the table to reach the College Football Playoff, Ogundeji became the fourth of four contributing ends, making 22 tackles in 13 games with three for loss.
“Ehrensberger should strive for a similar progression. If in 2022 he backs up Isaiah Foskey and gets into the opposing backfield a few times, it will be a sign of even more to come in 2023 and 2024.”
To be blunt and to the point, Ehrensberger may not see more than a few handfuls of snaps in 2021. Not only does he still need to put on strength and weight, as Kelly discussed, but Tagovailoa-Amosa moved to end with making an impact in mind. Ademilola has proven he can make an impact since the 2018 Playoff. Osafo-Mensah is coming up on a make-or-break season of sorts.
Deferring to those interests at the expense of Ehrensberger will not be the coaching staff’s explicit intent, but doing so will also allow Ehrensberger time to find that strength and weight. Quite literally, the one thing this prospect needs most is time.
RELATED READING: Ade Ogundeji picked in the fifth round by the Falcons
DOWN THE ROADEmphasizing Ehrensberger’s timeline serves the future depth chart well. Upperclassmen’s practical eligibility is impossible to nail down currently due to that universal waiver in 2020, but just like that waiver did not impact Ehrensberger’s clock in 2020, it will not impact his playing time in years to come.
He should see a contributing reserve role in 2022, but his real time to shine will come in 2023 and 2024, and none of the names mentioned ahead of him on the depth chart will still be factors come then.
When Notre Dame signed Ehrensberger — with little football experience and even less exposure to pertinent talent — Kelly foreshadowed Elston’s comments about recruiting years later. This past February, Elston called the Irish a “developmental” program, and it was intended as a strength. Along Elston’s defensive line, in particular, it has been.
“You’ve seen the development of our defensive line, where it came in and where it is,” Kelly said back in December of 2019 when Ehrensberger signed his National Letter of Intent. “We want to continue to look toward that model where those guys can be looked at as elite players as they develop.
“We can see him as an elite player as he develops in the program. So for us to invest all of that time, we have to be able to see him develop in our program as an elite player down the road.”
Note that phrase that matches the header of this subsection. Notre Dame is in no rush for Ehrensberger to be elite, as long as he is eventually.