Notre Dame DE signee Kofi Wardlow in a rush to make an impact

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Kofi Wardlow doesn’t feel like a project, nor is he acting like one this spring.

The final player to sign in Notre Dame’s 21-man, 2017 recruiting class had just two seasons of organized football on his résumé when the defensive end from Washington, D.C., hit the send button on his letter-of-intent mid-afternoon during the Feb. 1 national signing day.

Since then, and until he arrives on campus, the nascent pass rusher has been trying to microwave the learning process with the intent of being a contributor this fall.

“Whether I do, it’s up to Coach Elston and them,” Wardlow said of his future position coach, Mike Elston, and ND’s recruiting coordinator. “So I go in with the mindset, ‘I’m ready to play, ready to start, ready to contribute to the team.’ Then whatever happens, happens.”

As a defense, Notre Dame needs pass-rushers to happen. Soon. Notre Dame’s 14 sacks in 2016 ranked 117th among the 128 FBS teams and were the fewest by an Irish team since 1991.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly has seen enough though the first 10 spring practices — with No. 11 of 15 scheduled for Sunday — that he admits to having mentally pondered which of the 16 June arrivals’ talent intersect with team needs to the point of warranting a long look in August training camp.

Defensive tackles Darnell Ewell and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, along with safety Jordan Genmark Heath, are three of the more obvious options, though Wardlow’s skill set could push him into the conversation.

Last season, he racked up 84 tackles, including 28 for loss with 9.5 sacks for St. John’s College High School against a strong schedule that included a 35-14 road loss to national prep power IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

In that game, Wardlow faced future Notre Dame teammate, offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, one of five early enrollees in the Irish freshman class and a pleasant surprise this spring, taking second-team reps at left tackle in ND’s spring practices.

Wardlow is working out on his own, following a script sent to him by first-year Irish director of strength and conditioning Matt Balis.

“It’s pretty tough,” he said.

And yet Wardlow has added to it, working out with some members of the St. John’s coaching staff, watching film of standout college defensive ends and playing pickup basketball a couple of days a week.

There was a point not too long ago, Wardlow was convinced that basketball was his future. But in the summer between his sophomore and junior years in high school, enough voices that he respected coaxed him into trying football.

Wardlow’s older brother, Zakara, had played in high school. Their father was a big Dallas Cowboys fan. His only exposure as a participant had been in backyard games, but at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds at the time, he figured, why not?

“It hit me hard that I can’t be a 6-3 power forward my whole life,” he said. “So let’s see what happens.”

What happened is his bulked up to 230 pounds and started getting recruited. His three-star rankings from the recruiting services spoke to his relative inexperience in the game rather than to what he may turn out to be.

“He’s got the kind of athletic ability that gets you excited about his potential,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “Now it’s up to Mike Elston to develop him and (defensive coordinator) Mike Elko’s scheme to help him grow into that potential.”

Wardlow said he’s been studying the Notre Dame playbook with St. John’s head coach Joe Casamento.

“It’s actually similar to what we run here at St. John’s,” Wardlow said. “I’m like a sponge, ready to absorb.”

He follows what’s going on with Notre Dame this spring through Twitter, through messages Elston sends him and through conversations with burgeoning Irish sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes. Wardlow plans to get a peek in person April 22, when he comes to campus for the annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium (12:30 p.m. EDT kickoff; NBCSN).

“I think the whole class is trying to make it for that game,” he said. “I don’t know much more than that. Our class has a group chat, but I’ve missed a lot of it, because I’m focusing on school and getting myself ready to come to Indiana.

“I don’t want to get too big. If they want that when I get to Notre Dame, they’ll help me do it the right way. Right now I’m focused on getting faster, getting smarter, getting into the playbook and be ready for my opportunity.”

The last addition to the 2017 Notre Dame football recruiting class, defensive end Kofi Wardlow is working hard back home in Washington, D.C., while the Irish go through spring practice. (Photo courtesy of Rivals.com)