Where Notre Dame was, is & will be: Defensive line
The trademark of a top program in 2020 is the ability to reload along the defensive line. The fact that Notre Dame can replace a pair of early-round defensive end draft picks with continued depth and experience is proof the Irish have become one of the country’s premier programs.
The Irish proved this in 2019, replacing a first-round defensive tackle with unproven youth only to reach 34 sacks for the second season in a row. Aside from quarterback, an argument can be made no other position impacts a game as much as the defensive line, and Notre Dame’s recovery from 2016’s debacle directly ties into improved recruiting and development along the defensive front.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The hype around the Irish ends reached its peak in the preseason. To give local context: The annual “Counting Down the Irish” series featured Khalid Kareem at No. 3 and Julian Okwara at No. 1. The reasons to be optimistic about Notre Dame’s season began with the senior duo, buttressed by classmates Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji.
Opposing offenses game-planned around the pair, relying on short drops and rollouts. As much as altering the gameplan can be successful, it was, with Kareem notching only 5.5 sacks and Okwara managing only four in nine games before a broken fibula ended his season.
Similarly, Hayes’ year was cut short by a shoulder injury, though that is also why he will return in 2020. In his absence, Ogundjei took on a bigger role and senior Jamir Jones changed his plans on the fly to use his last season of eligibility in 2019 rather than in 2020. The trio combined for 10 sacks, a piece of why Kareem’s and Okwara’s numbers were a bit diminished.
All the while, any worries about replacing Jerry Tillery were handled by the reliable competence of juniors Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish. The fact that so many names can be rattled off without much in the way of disclaimer highlights what has become the greatest strength of the Notre Dame defensive line, its depth.
The entire Irish defensive line depth chart will return except for Kareem, Okwara and Jones. Both Kareem and Okwara should be drafted no later than the second round, with Okwara possibly hearing his name the first night of the April draft.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
The definition of a “returning starter” can be manipulated to fit differing narratives. Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish cannot be described as anything else, while neither Hayes nor Ogundeji would be by obvious definition. Rotations at the position, however, gave Hayes (when healthy) and Ogundeji that kind of workload.
The Irish have built depth to yet again have a contributing second grouping. Current sophomore Justin Ademilola played well enough as a freshman to flash against Clemson, and current freshman Isaiah Foskey provided the tide-changing play at Stanford, despite not yet necessarily being physically ready for the collegiate level.
“He’s going on really good hands, hand-placement,” head coach Brian Kelly said in the bowels of Stanford Stadium. “He can leverage really well. He bends well. He’s going to be a really, really fine football player. He’s just not strong enough yet.”
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Foskey may be a star in the making, a probable starter in 2021, and the gradual development afforded by the four games he could appear in without burning a season of eligibility is a template to follow, one first utilized with Ademilola. Next in line for targeted impacts should be early-enrolled freshman Jordan Botelho.
“He’s very heavy-handed,” Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian said on National Signing Day. “When he strikes you, he’s punching you. He is a really unique combination of a high intensity, violent football player.”
Projecting production from Botelho before he plays in even one practice may seem premature, given sophomore Ovie Oghoufo, junior Kofi Wardlow and freshman NaNa Osafo-Mensah are all around, but the first two of those have not sniffed much playing time in their careers, and Osafo-Mensah will not be higher than third-string this season.
Keeping talent like Osafo-Mensah’s that far down the depth chart speaks to Notre Dame’s depth, also visible at tackle where sophomore Jayson Ademilola should supplement Tagovailoa-Amosa, and the combination of freshman Jacob Lacey and sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin will provide Hinish relief.