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Where Notre Dame was and is: Defensive line

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 29: Khalid Kareem #53 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish pressures Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers in the first half during the College Football Playoff Semifinal Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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When a far-too-early look at the 2020 NFL draft includes genuine mention of three Notre Dame defensive ends, it makes it clear where the Irish strength will come from this season. Instinct insists some SEC program, or somehow Clemson despite just producing three first-round defensive linemen, will churn out a more-imposing defensive front than Notre Dame will come fall. Expecting otherwise overlooks a decade of precedent.

But there might not be a better defensive end duo in the country than seniors Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem. There almost certainly will not be a better quartet than those two plus classmates Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji.

The Irish will need all of them, given the worries on the line’s interior.

Before delving into the defensive ends too much, let’s focus on the tackles. Once Okwara and Kareem opted to bypass their NFL chances for a year, the spring did not change the optimistic outlook on the ends. It did, however, provide some vague hope on the inside.

Entering the spring, little (read: nothing) was to be expected from sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (torn quad) or early-enrolled freshman Hunter Spears (ACL). Only so much could be expected from junior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, theoretically back from a broken foot that cost him all but two games of 2018, yet still not an injury to rush in the spring. Handling a few series in the College Football Playoff is one thing — there are stakes involved. Working in the spring is another.

That left junior Kurt Hinish, sophomore Jayson Ademilola and early-enrolled freshman Jacob Lacey as the spring workhorses, with Tagovailoa-Amosa adding what he could.

The expectations for the defensive ends rose throughout the spring, though it should also be acknowledged only injury would have dampened those lofty thoughts. Such is the nature of spring practice, and such is the untapped potential made quite clear in 2018. For as much a leap as Okwara made in going from Hayes’ backup to the starter with eight sacks, he left even more production on the figurative table.

“We put together a highlight video for Julian where he had 27 missed sacks last year,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the Blue-Gold Game on April 13. “If he has just half of those, he leads the country in sacks. Finishing, for Julian, those plays … he can be a menace to teams.”

Nevada v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Julian Okwara #42 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action against the Nevada Wolf Pack during the game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Nevada 39-10. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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If the idea of 21.5 sacks in a season sounds absurd, perhaps it should. Last season’s NCAA leader, Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson, notched 17.5. Only he and Kentucky’s Josh Allen (17.0) broke 15 sacks in the season. Presuming Okwara would so greatly supercede such figures is a reach, but even joining that mix could sway multiple games in a season.

After Okwara, the conversation turns to Kareem, which it will continue to do until Hayes or Ogundeji show massive development , no matter how good they already are.

“For Khalid, just cleaning up his overall game in all areas,” Kelly said. “The little things. Lined up offside (in the Blue-Gold Game). He’s a dedicated player, but we just want to clean up all the little things in his game. He’s a guy that can do a lot for us in the run game and in the pass game.”

If Okwara and Kareem deliver to these alluded-to levels, then Notre Dame’s defensive line will be in good shape, especially with Hayes and Ogundeji providing potent depth, not to mention senior Jamir Jones (who is likely to play in only four games to preserve a year of eligibility), sophomore Justin Ademilola and perhaps either sophomore Ovie Oghoufo (moved up from linebacker) or early-enrolled freshman Nana Osafo-Mensah.

The Irish will still need defensive tackles, even if Kareem spends obvious passing downs lined up inside with Hayes flanking him. Projections for Franklin and Spears will need to wait until the preseason, if not even September, entirely dependent on their respective recoveries. Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish both look to be reliable, but perhaps not explosive or penetrating, underscoring the loss of Jerry Tillery’s pocket pressure.

But one method of making up for a lack of a playmaker at a position on the line is to keep legs fresh and rely on that added explosion to make up the difference. That is where Notre Dame may have found some hope this spring in the forms of Jayson Ademilola and Lacey, the former somewhat expected and the latter a welcome possibility.

“That second wave of D-line is so important in how we rotate those guys,” Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea said days before the spring finale. “Jayson and Jacob both have a skill set that gets you really excited.”

If nothing else, those two should help Lea buy some time as Franklin and Spears gain health and fitness.

Ends Howard Cross and Isaiah Foskey will join the mix this summer, but both project to be reserves used only in blowouts, and no more than four of those. That is in part due to the depth at end.

Somewhere here should be a mention of junior tackle Darnell Ewell, back on the defensive front after spending half the fall at offensive guard. Consider this that requisite mention, though not much else is warranted on the topic at this point.

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