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Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, sophomore defensive tackle

Aiden Keanaaina


Listed measurements: 6-foot-3, 312 pounds.2021-22 year, eligibility: A sophomore, Keanaaina has all four years of playing eligibility remaining as he enters the 2021 season.Depth chart: Notre Dame does not need Keanaaina to develop quickly, a perk of Kurt Hinish returning for a pandemic-exception fifth-year and third as the starter at nose tackle. Junior Jacob Lacey will back up Hinish, with classmate Howard Cross in the mix, as well. Even the ever-rotating Irish defensive line rarely goes four-deep in competitive moments.Recruiting: A four-star prospect, per, Keanaaina chose Notre Dame over Nebraska, Wisconsin and Cal. From Colorado, the 2020 Polynesian Bowl participant also vaguely considered Colorado State, where his father played.

Keanaaina appeared in Notre Dame’s 52-0 rout of South Florida back in September, an afternoon not only giving reserves mop-up chances but also needing them to supplement a roster at the precipice of an eventual coronavirus outbreak.

Reading too much into any athlete’s vague and/or motivational social media captions can be a foolish endeavor, but Keanaaina’s word of wisdom here seems both accurate and obvious.

Little has been discussed about Keanaaina to date; the only time Irish head coach Brian Kelly mentioned the sophomore this spring was as an example of someone playing on both the Blue and Gold teams in the spring practice finale. That is partly a reflection of Keanaaina presumably being on the scout team this fall and partly a reflection of the 2020 preseason being interrupted and scattered. If there is ever a time to ask about a freshman’s long-term prospects, it is after he makes first impressions on the coaching staff, but other items demanded more attention last August.

The reviews this spring, though, were encouraging. Hinish offered up “great” when asked about Keanaaina. Defensive line coach Mike Elston did not go into much further depth when discussing the nose tackle position as a whole.

“The nose guard position, between Kurt Hinish, Howard Cross and Aidan Keanaaina, those four guys have been super productive and very, very disruptive,” Elston said last month.

“In a normal year, the summer focus would be on getting Keanaaina into physical shape to offer 15-20 snaps if called upon due to injury, as Franklin was briefly needed two years ago when Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa broke his foot. Alas, nothing is normal in 2020.

“This is not to pick on Keanaaina. This concern will apply to each lineman on every team this summer or this fall, whenever teams can get together again to begin conditioning. Getting them into shape to provide power off the snap will be one challenge; getting them into shape to handle a two-hour workout will be another. That pertains doubly to freshmen who have spent no time whatsoever in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.”

Lacey missed this spring due to a shoulder injury. His recovery from that, expected to be full by fall, could be the single greatest factor in Keanaaina’s 2021. If Lacey is limited, then Notre Dame may need Keanaaina to enter the rotation to maintain its depth. But if Lacey is healthy, then this may be a chance to make up for lost time.

The pandemic cost every player differently — just like for the rest of us in everyday life — but it arguably cost many freshmen the most. While tight end Michael Mayer and running back Chris Tyree were able to contribute immediately, that was neither expected of Keanaaina nor viable. As written a year ago, he needed time in a collegiate strength and conditioning program. He still does.

That work began this winter. It will continue this summer. But if all of 2021 is devoted to building Keanaaina’s lower-body strength, that can still be considered a productive season.

DOWN THE ROADThe Irish are talented and deep at three-technique tackle. Both fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and senior Jayson Ademilola are starter-quality options, and both sophomore Rylie Mills and early-enrolled freshman Gabriel Rubio look to be such when considering years ahead.

The outlook at nose tackle is a bit hazier. Lacey’s shoulder creates questions, and Cross was considered by some as a defensive end recruit, not a tackle. Meanwhile, Keanaaina simply does not have the pedigree of Rubio or the 2020 impact of Mills.

That can be considered criticism, but it is more an honest assessment of the depth. For 2021’s concerns, Notre Dame is in good shape. Beyond that, any confidence derives from the track record of development across this four-year resurgence.

That confidence may be enough to believe in Keanaaina as a front-line starter in 2023 and 2024, but there is simply not enough known about him to date to base that off anything else other than the mere opportunity that should be available.

Let’s try this again
No. 99 Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle the size of a Volkswagen
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end

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