Analysis: Notre Dame realigns with DE Julian Okwara out for the season

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune


In another time, in another circumstance Isaiah Foskey wouldn’t ever have had an opportunity to incubate.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Notre Dame freshman defensive end has flashed enough talent in practice to conjure thoughts that he could be the next big thing as an edge pass rusher. Eventually.

Circumstances — namely defensive line coach Mike Elston stockpiling talent — kept the Irish coaches from having to test that assumption sooner than later.

Until perhaps now.

On Sunday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly announced preseason All-America defensive end Julian Okwara has played his last game in a Notre Dame uniform. The 6-foot-5, 248-pound senior suffered a fractured fibula Saturday night in a 38-7 Irish rout of Duke in Durham, N.C.

Okwara finishes the season with 18 tackles, including six for losses with four sacks. He garnered seven quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery, forced two fumbles and blocked a kick.

“I feel terrible for him,” Kelly said. “He will have a procedure done here once we’ve figured out all the specifics.”

In the meantime, Kelly, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Elston have to figure out how to keep the Irish defense surging without a player considered a possible first- or second-round selection for next spring’s NFL Draft.

No. 16 Notre Dame (7-2) stands at No. 26 nationally in total defense and 19th in yards per play allowed heading into Saturday’s home showdown with 21st-ranked Navy (7-1), that after the Irish held Duke (4-5) to 197 total yards.

To put that in perspective, that’s one yard fewer than N.C. State garnered in the 2016 game played in the outer bands of Hurricane Matthew and the third-lowest opponent output in total yardage in the 10-year Kelly Era.

The Irish also have to find a long-term stand-in for linebacker Jack Lamb, a significant niche player in ND’s third-down “dime” package. The sophomore missed the Duke game after suffering a hip injury Nov. 2 against Virginia Tech.

Kelly confirmed Sunday that Lamb will miss the rest of the season with a muscle tear in the hip/glute region. Lamb had seven tackles, including two for losses with a sack, as well as a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.

Senior Jamir Jones is the logical choice to ascend to the top of the depth chart, and his productivity (17 tackles, including six for losses with four sacks, and two forced fumbles) has almost matched Okwara’s. In fact, he’s been a revelation after the plan at the start of the season was to redshirt him.

Instead senior Daelin Hayes is redshirting after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury Sept. 28 against Virginia.

Elston’s philosophy on getting the most out of his defensive line is all about rotating fresh bodies in, so sophomore Ovie Oghoufo moves into a larger role and the push is to do the same with Foskey.

The hope was to be able to play Foskey in four games and still redshirt him. A fifth game of participation would nullify that plan. Playing against Duke Saturday night puts him at three games.

“We want to be judicious with him,” Kelly said. “We have to decide when to use that fourth game. We like him. We like him in our nickel package.”

On the mend

The Irish left home two of its fastest offensive players from the road trip to Duke. Both sophomore receivers Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins stayed in South Bend because of lingering health issues with the hope of both being available this week for Navy.

Kelly characterized Lenzy’s issue as fatigue, while Wilkins is reportedly dealing with a hamstring injury.

“In both of these instances, (they’re) guys that just needed some protection relative to the rigors of the season,” Kelly said. “They were evaluated (Sunday). I think they’re doing much better. I think we’ll see where they are after they weight train (Monday).

“If they’re feeling good, they’ll be cleared for practice on Tuesday and then we’ll take it from there. We’re expecting that we’ll get something out of them. At what level? We won’t know really until Tuesday.”

Navy reinvents its defense

Meet Cole Capen, a 6-foot-5, 227-pound sophomore walk-on QB from Yorba Linda, Calif., and Kendall Abdur-Rahman a 6-foot, 189-pound redshirting freshman wide receiver from Edwardsville, Ill.

They’re the two players Kelly has designated to simulate Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry in practice, running the triple-option offense.

“It’s a year-round study,” Kelly said of prepping for Navy and the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense. “Our coaches are always looking at Navy. It’s very difficult to prepare for this team with three days of practice.

“We try to use a little bit of it in the spring, a little bit on preseason camp, because they are so difficult to defend.”

And now apparently, the Mids are difficult to move the ball against as well.

After a 3-10 season in 2018, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo swapped out seven assistants. Five of the new coaches are on the defensive side of the ball. That includes new coordinator Brian Newberry and co-coordinator Brian Norwood.

The statistical turnaround on defense in one season is stunning. A sampling: Navy improved in rushing defense from 90th nationally (out of 130) to 17th, 117th to 19th in pass-efficiency defense, 86th to 17th in total defense and 121st to 24th in third-down defense.

“Really aggressive, timely, defensive play in a sense that they’re coming up with big plays, turnovers,” Kelly noted. “Aggressive defense, setting up their offense in a manner that hasn’t happened in a while. Just been really impressed with their defensive structure. It has changed dramatically from what we’ve seen in the past.”

Getting it right?

Junior Josh Lugg made his first career start Saturday night and grad senior Trevor Ruhland his first of the season, filling in for injured right tackle Robert Hainsey and injured right guard Tommy Kraemer, respectively.

“I thought they battled,” Kelly assessed. “I thought Lugg was solid. Did some really good things. He made maybe one mistake in the run game in a third-down situation, but other than that was really solid.

“Trevor battled. He had a tough matchup. He had a big fella on him, but he battled all night. I think we got what we expected.

“One in particular that he’s got great size and he used his size to his advantage (Saturday) night and that’s Josh Lugg. I think all in all, we’re really happy with his play. And then Trevor’s going to give you everything he’s got. Sometimes it doesn’t look as pretty as you want it to, but he’s pretty effective.”

ND senior Jamir Jones (44) will step in for fellow defensive end Julian Okwara (42), after the latter suffered a season-ending leg injury Saturday night at Duke.
Notre Dame offensive guard Trevor Ruhland (57), here celebrating a TD on Sept. 14 versus New Mexico, earned passing grades for his start at Duke on Saturday night.

WHO: AP No. 16 Notre Dame (7-2) vs. No. 21 Navy (7-1)

WHEN: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium


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