Adetokunbo Ogundeji

Notre Dame defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji (91) strips Florida State running back Cam Akers (3) in the 42-13 Irish victory last season.

The Adetokunbo Ogundeji who sacked Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the College Football Playoff barely resembled the Adetokunbo Ogundeji who enrolled at Notre Dame in 2016.

The physical transformation alone has been drastic for the Irish defensive end. Ogundeji said he weighed somewhere close to 210 pounds before his freshman season at Notre Dame. Two years later, Ogundeji was listed at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds on the 2018 Irish roster.

After Ogundeji’s freshman season, the Irish hired Matt Balis as director of football performance. The two have worked closely together since then.

“Balis did a great job for me,” Ogundeji said. “He put on a lot of pressure. He and I are great friends. We talk all the time. He definitely helped me.”

But Ogundeji’s transformation needed to be more than physical. He redshirted as a freshman and only saw the field in five games as a sophomore in 2017. Meanwhile, Ogundeji’s classmates at defensive end — Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara — all played in at least 12 games as sophomores.

A loss of confidence would be understandable. He had become a bit of a forgotten commodity.

“When I didn’t play my first couple years, I was kind of frustrated a little bit,” Ogundeji said. “But then I realized once I get in, I have to make this opportunity.”

The meaningful chances started coming early last season. Defensive line coach Mike Elston wanted to rotate along the defensive line and that meant Ogundeji would replace Kareem at times. The opportunities increased when Kareem dealt with ankle issues in the middle of games.

Ogundeji flashed in the first four games of the season. He registered the first 11 tackles of his career and was credited with his first half tackle for a loss and half sack against Vanderbilt and Wake Forest, respectively. He even nearly blocked a punt in the season opener against Michigan.

It had taken some time, but Ogundeji could be relied on as a rotational player at defensive end. He was bigger and stronger, but he was also more confident.

“In fall camp, it really kind of clicked that I have an opportunity to play,” Ogundeji said. “As the season goes on, you start to build confidence. Especially when you start getting reps, you start making plays, it really starts to build your confidence. I built my confidence throughout the season and that’s what made me get better and better.”

That improvement led to Ogundeji beating Clemson left tackle Mitch Hyatt, a consensus All-American, around the edge to sack Lawrence on third down. The first solo sack of his career led to a missed 49-yard field goal on the ensuing play and kept Notre Dame within one score of the Tigers in the middle of the second quarter.

Ogundeji, who finished the season with 22 tackles, three tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks, should have even more opportunities to make plays this season. He’s done so throughout spring practice by pressuring the quarterback whether with the No. 1 or No. 2 defense. With Ogundeji and Hayes, the Irish have a pair of backup defensive ends who could start at a lot of college programs.

A healthy Kareem will prevent Ogundeji from becoming a starter this season, but the two have a close relationship that goes back to their time as Irish recruits out of Michigan — Ogundeji at Walled Lake Central and Kareem at Farmington Hills Harrison.

They came to Notre Dame together, but Kareem has been a mentor of sorts for Ogundeji.

“I’ve always looked up to him and always followed him and seeing what he does,” Ogundeji said. “He’s always helping my game. I’m always trying to help him with his game. It’s vice versa. We’re just out here trying to learn the game, because we don’t know everything. We’re not perfect.”

The confidence Ogundeji gained on the field last season has translated into confidence for the entire defense. He has high expectations for 2019.

“We can be the best defense in the country. I thoroughly believe that,” Ogundeji said. “We can win a national championship with this defense. I truly believe that. We have the guys to go out there and win. I have to focus on myself and everybody else has to focus to be the best defense.”

The self-focus for Ogundeji has many details. He wants to get better with his hands, hips and feet. He needs to be quick off the ball. He has to find ways to shed blockers easier. It’s a mental check list he’s put together to keep himself on track for another season of improvements.

“Spring is really kind of funny because it’s far from the season and just you’re going over the same plays, but it’s important because you’re really focusing on your craft,” Ogundeji said.

Ogundeji can’t get comfortable. If he doesn’t continue to develop, his opportunities could go away. That’s life as a backup defensive end on this Notre Dame team. A couple bad practices could result in less playing time. Senior Jamir Jones, junior Kofi Wardlow and freshmen NaNa Osafo-Mensah and Isaiah Foskey want to get on the field too.

The position isn’t lacking for talent. That’s changed since Ogundeji enrolled at Notre Dame in 2016 too.

“It’s good for us. It’s competition,” Ogundeji said. “We can’t slack. Khalid and I can’t slack. Daelin and Julian can’t slack. None of those guys can slack because we always have to bring in our ‘A’ game all the time.”

tjames@ndinsider.com 574-235-6214 Twitter: @TJamesNDI

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