More diamond than rough, Ade Ogundeji developing into a key figure for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — The statistic that seemed to matter the most both when Adetokunbo “Ade” Ogundeji first committed to play football at Notre Dame was, of all things, shoe size.

Eighteen.

Lacking a healthy right knee his senior football season at Walled Lake Central High, sparking statistics, and a long and decorated offer list, the details that were constant in seemingly every verbal commitment and signing day story about the lithe 6-foot-4, 220-pound defensive end was how young he was (17 when he enrolled at ND) and how big his feet were.

Which is a more common recruiting profile for, say, eighth-ranked Notre Dame’s next opponent, Ball State (1-0) than the Irish (1-0).

The Cardinals and Irish clash for the first time ever, on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT (NBC-TV) at Notre Dame Stadium. It’s the seventh time ND has faced a Mid-American Conference school, with six wins in the previous six games.

The other three players at the top of ND’s four-man rotation at the two defensive end spots, like Ogundeji, are juniors. Unlike three-star prospect Ogundeji, Khalid Kareem, Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara were coveted by a plethora of elite Power 5 programs.

In fact, four-star Kareem was first verbally committed to Alabama, and five-star Hayes for months was pledged to USC. Ogundeji was also a commitment flip, but he eventually passed on Western Michigan. Four of his reported modest nine offers came from MAC schools, though Ball State was not one of them.

It is often said recruiting is an inexact science, but identifying the developmental prospect that will eventually blossom, particularly at the defensive line positions, might feel a bit more like inexact guessing.

ND’s recent run of edge pass rushers who transferred as underclassmen for varying reasons — Jonathon MacCollister, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace, Kolin Hill, Nile Sykes — suggests it’s more likely to end up with rough than a diamond when pursuing those kinds of prospects.

“We had had some success with Romeo Okwara (Julian’s older brother), who we felt had a similar profile, that was just a little bit outside of the weight and distribution relative to size,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of what appealed to the coaching staff about Ogundeji.

“And we felt like his length — and if we could develop him in our program — that we could really have somebody special. and he’s continuously showing us that we may have made the right decision there.”

Now 19 years old and up to 255 pounds, Ogundeji saw the first high-leverage snaps of his career last Saturday night in ND’s 24-17 conquest of Michigan (the home-state school that showed zero interest in him).

And he also recorded his first statistics of any kind — a pass break-up, a quarterback hurry and almost a blocked punt.

It is players like Ogundeji that will come to the forefront in a game like Ball State, roughly a five-TD underdog, as the Irish continue to fortify their depth.

“Each and every month, as he continues to grow, he becomes more football savvy. He’s just really starting to scratch the surface as it relates to football.”

Freshman focus

Once a software bug was fixed and ND’s player participation list was finally amended from Saturday’s flawed final book two days later, the official count for freshmen who played for Notre Dame in the opener against Michigan was a modest five:

Defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, wide receiver Kevin Austin, linebacker Bo Bauer, cornerback TaRiq Bracy and safety Houston Griffith.

Ademilola, who stepped into a key backup role early in the game, when sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa suffered a broken foot, is the only one of the five who recorded a statistic — one tackle.

With the new redshirt rule that allows up to four games of participation without burning a year of eligibility, Kelly could conceivably play all 27 freshmen in 2018 at some point.

Flow of the game matters less than a master plan Kelly and his staff have sketched out loosely for participation over the course of the season. Injuries and surges of progress could certainly alter the plan.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good plan moving forward how we’re going to use players,” he said.

Special effects

After 11 special teams tackles as a freshman, Chase Claypool made a single tackle in kickoff coverage in Notre Dame’s 2017 opener with Temple, then vanished from that role the reason of the season.

The now 6-foot-4, 227-pound junior was back on both punt coverage and kickoff coverage Saturday night against Michigan, making two athletic plays on punt returns. It could be argued, though, that he was running out of his lane on Ambry Thomas’ 99-yard kickoff return for the Wolverines.

Kelly blamed himself for the special teams gaffe.

“I had, I think, one live kickoff throughout camp,” he said, “and then we kick them down there and we get out of our lanes. Chase Claypool is on outstanding special teams player, and he is a must on all of our kick teams.”

What coaxed Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian to go back to using Claypool on coverage was the maturing Claypool has started to bring to his overall game.

“And quite frankly understanding his importance to our football team and recognizing that he can make an impact in those areas,” Kelly said. “I’m proud of his development in the sense that he recognizes he has a talent that can help our football team.”

How much talent? NFL type special teams talent.

“I think Chase Claypool is going to play in the NFL even if he never plays a down as a wide receiver,” said draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com. “He’s that good of a special teamer. He could make a roster based on just that.

“And if he can have a breakout year on offense as a pass catcher, that would enhance his value even more.”

Personnel matters

Although place-kicker Justin Yoon took over for struggling sophomore Jonathan Doerer on kickoff Saturday night, Kelly doesn’t want to continue that and potentially wear down Yoon.

“We needed to get Jon right,” Kelly said. “Obviously he got in his own way. He’s a talented player, (but) we needed to go rescue him and get him out of the game. He wasn’t throwing strikes.

“But he’s going back in, and he’s going to kick off and he’s going to get it right. He’s a talented player, and he’s committed to doing it, so he’ll be back out there.”

• Freshman rover Shayne Simon has started to cross-train at the buck linebacker position behind starter Drue Tranquill and No. 2 option Jordan Genmark Heath.

“We just think he’s a really good player that has good instincts, and I think (defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) feels comfortable, as I do,” Kelly said in loading a freshman up with two positions.

• The final official stats showed two sacks and three QB hurries for the Michigan defense Saturday night, both modest totals given that the Wolverines ranked seventh nationally in sacks (3.23 per game) in 2017.

But in Tribune sports writer Tyler James’ film study, he counted Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush being pressured on 18 of his dropbacks, far more than the final stats showed. Eleven of those 18 pressures came against the two ND tackles making their first (Liam Eichenberg) and second (Robert Hainsey) career starts.

All things considered, especially the competition level, Kelly found a lot to like in his tackles’ performances.

“It starts with their preparation, which was outstanding,” he said. “They trusted it. and then they played really hard.

“They made mistakes. Those are good (Michigan) players, and that’s a tough scheme. But they overcame it with great communication. They helped each other. There was a lot of help going on. Very rarely was Hainsey or Liam left out on an island. If you do that, you’re going to have some problems.”

• Three former area standouts are all in the Ball State two-deeps. All three are offensive linemen and all three are redshirt juniors.

Adams High grad Danny Pinter is the Cardinals’ starting right tackle, backed up by New Prairie’s Grant Williamson. Bremen’s Zac Ricketts is Ball State’s No. 2 left guard.

Notre Dame’s Adetokunbo Ogundeji (91) comes close to tipping a punt by Michigan’s Will Hart (17) during ND’s 24-17 win, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

WHO: No. 8 NOTRE DAME (1-0) vs. Ball State (1-0)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1)

LINE: Notre Dame by 34½