DE Kofi Wardlow embraced challenges on path to Notre Dame

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Two years ago, Kofi Wardlow still had hoop dreams.

Basketball had always been a part of the future he envisioned for himself. But as a 6-foot-3 post player, Wardlow knew his ceiling on the court was limited.

That’s when he turned to football. His size and quickness fit the profile of a football player — even if he didn’t have the slightest idea of how to play the sport.

As a 195-pound junior, Wardlow took his lumps at Washington (D.C.) St. John’s. Raw athleticism wasn’t going to be enough to get by at one of the top football programs in the area. He knew it was going to be a challenge.

But challenges have always appealed to Wardlow. That’s why he decided to enroll at St. John’s when his friends were going to different high schools. It’s the same reason why Wardlow decided a day before National Signing Day earlier this month that his future belonged at Notre Dame.

“It’s an elite school,” Wardlow said. “Its mission is for you to become a well-rounded person spiritually, educationally and physically. That’s what I want to get at Notre Dame.”

Learning the game

It didn’t take Wardlow long to realize that defensive end would be his best position on the field. He wasn’t strong enough to consistently beat offensive linemen, but he was fast enough to get around them at times.

“When I was playing basketball, I was always more of a defensive player. So that kind of carried over into football,” Wardlow said. “In my junior year, I was going against people that weighed 100 pounds heavier than me. I always realized that this was a challenging sport. I wanted to play it because every play you’re giving it your all, trying to get to the quarterback, trying to make tackles. It just felt right for me.”

Wardlow credits head coach Joe Casamento and the St. John’s coaching staff for helping him acclimate to the game.

“They had a really big part in it,” Wardlow said. “One of my biggest things was using the things that I had around me to help me become a better football player. I always weighed less than most of my teammates. So I’d work on things that they don’t have like speed and quickness.”

Wardlow also had the opportunity to learn from talented teammates. When he joined the team as a junior, he was able to watch Terrell Hall, a five-star defensive end according to Rivals, thrive and eventually sign with Alabama.

He continued to be challenged as a senior with classmates Calvin Ashley and Tyree Johnson. Ashley, a five-star offensive tackle according to 247Sports, served as a tough opponent in practice. Johnson, a four-star defensive end according to Rivals, became another player for Wardlow to try to imitate.

“Tyree’s a really close friend of mine,” Wardlow said. “We’re both competitive players. We always used to go at it in practice. Just watching him going against offensive lineman and the moves that he makes, I tried to mirror him and do it as well or better. Having that caliber of a player as a teammate helped a lot.”

With so many stars around him  — Ashley and Johnson signed with Auburn and Texas A&M, respectively — Wardlow had plenty of opportunities to play in front of college coaches. He received his first offer in May of his junior year from Bowling Green.

The flashes Wardlow had already shown were enough for some Division I programs to offer scholarships, but many of the Power Five schools remained hesitant.

“I had a lot of interest from schools like Virginia Tech,” Wardlow said. “I had a lot of potential, but they didn’t want to offer me until they saw some of my senior film.”

Recruiting wave

The combination of a short football career and untapped potential made for an interesting senior season for Wardlow.

When he started to fill out his 6-3 frame with 230 pounds and produce on the field, more schools started to take note. When Maryland and Virginia Tech extended scholarship offers to Wardlow in October, it became the turning point in his recruitment.

Michigan State, Rutgers, Boston College and Missouri joined the fray in November. Following his senior season — in which he tallied 84 tackles, 28 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks — Wardlow started setting up official visits.

“Everybody’s recruiting process is different. Mine picked up really late my senior year midseason,” Wardlow said. “I felt like I needed to go on all five of my officials to really see what kind of school I wanted to go to.”

That didn’t stop Wardlow from committing to Maryland in mid-December. He had only made official visits to Michigan State and Maryland, but he saw the Terps as his best option. A pair of Wardlow’s teammates, quarterback Kasim Hill and defensive tackle Cam Spence, had been committed to Maryland for months.

As the new year came, Wardlow stuck to his plan to make all five of his official visits. Pittsburgh received a visit. A late offer from Notre Dame sent him to South Bend. He finished his campus tour with a trip to Virginia Tech on the final weekend before signing day.

When he realized he wanted to be Irish, he had to inform the Maryland coaching staff of his decision.

“That was tough for me. I had a really good relationship with (defensive backs) coach Aazaar (Abdul-Rahim) and (head) coach (DJ) Durkin,” Then I had two of my teammates, Kasim and Cam, who are also going there. When I had to tell all of them that I decided to go somewhere else it was really painful for me. It all comes down to a selfish decision. I think I made the best choice that’s right for me.”

Finding a fit

In the days following signing day, the stress of the recruiting process started to fade from Wardlow. He no longer has to host coaches for visits, answer phone calls day and night and field questions on which school he’s going to pick.

“Now that it’s past, it feels kind of weird because that was a daily part of my life,” Wardlow said.

He’s excited about his decision, even though Notre Dame offered him less than a month ago. The Irish needed to add another defensive end with pass rush skills. Wardlow wanted a defense that could maximize his talent. Both parties think they found a match.

“I’m a pass rusher,” Wardlow said. “I’m not one of those guys that wants to put their hand down on all four downs. I can drop back in coverage. I can get to the quarterback. I’m just versatile. I don’t want to put my skills into one thing when I can do multiple things on the field.”

“We were looking for one more pass rusher,” head coach Brian Kelly said on signing day. “We think Kofi has some elite skills at the defensive end position where he can grow and develop. We really liked his athleticism and his size. Really impressed with him in person.”

Wardlow drew a comparison to former Irish defensive end Romeo Okwara from Kelly. Okwara, like Wardlow, came to Notre Dame with a raw skill set. Okwara played in all four seasons, but didn’t didn’t peak until a senior season with eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss. He totaled seven tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks in the previous three seasons combined.

The wait for Wardlow to develop could be similar. Rivals ranks him as the No. 47 weakside defensive end in the 2017 class. 247Sports slates him No. 78 at the position.

But if Wardlow continues his trajectory, he might realize his potential faster than he discovered the ceiling of his basketball career. He no longer plays the sport other than in pickup games.

His dreams now include include footballs and quarterbacks. Notre Dame will be happy to let him chase both.

tjames@ndinsider.com

574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Defensive end Kofi Wardlow, who signed with Notre Dame earlier this month, has played football for only two seasons. (Photo courtesy of Rivals)