Notre Dame defensive line poised for next step in its evolutionary cycle

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

The notion that vaunted edge prospect Jordan Botelho is expected to do more incubating than intimidating during his freshman season this fall is actually a mark of progress.

Collectively, at least, for a defensive line group teeming with depth, experience and promise. Again.

The same was true in 2019, when then-freshman Isaiah Foskey did most of his flashing and surging behind the scenes, save a blocked punt in the regular-season finale at Stanford.

It’s almost hard to believe that just four years ago, when Irish head coach Brian Kelly made an in-season purge at defensive coordinator (Brian VanGorder), that Notre Dame ended the 2016 season with a Power 5-low three sacks collectively from its starting and reserve defensive linemen. Also among the statistical carnage that year was a program 25-year-low 14 sacks when you include linebackers’ and defensive backs’ production.

Last season those numbers were 23.5 and 34, respectively, and that’s with third-round NFL Draft choice Julian Okwara missing four-plus games with a broken fibula, fifth-rounder Khalid Kareem playing five games with a torn labrum and former five-star prospect Daelin Hayes sidelined nine games with a season-ending shoulder injury.

The next evolutionary step collectively for the position group is toughening up against the run.

In fact, it’s the missing piece to the Irish morphing into a truly elite defense.

Just once during Kelly’s first 10 seasons at ND have the Irish finished in the top 35 nationally in that category, that being a No. 11 ranking for the 2012 team that played for a national title.

In terms of national championship metrics, run defense remains historically and contemporarily essential.

All seven of Notre Dame’s post-World War II national championship teams featured a run defense ranked No. 20 or better. Six, in fact, were in the top 10.

Since the Irish won their most recent national title in 1988, among the 31 teams nationally that finished atop the AP poll in the interim only three finished below 25th in run defense and none were lower than No. 40 at season’s end.

The Irish were 60th last season.

That’s actually quite an accomplishment, given ND was 120th out of 130 FBS schools two weeks into the season, after getting gashed by Louisville and New Mexico’s ground games, and 81st heading into November following a 303 rushing-yard trampling by Michigan on Oct. 26.

Conversely, the Irish were fifth in pass-efficiency defense in 2018, 18th in total defense, 12th in scoring defense and eighth in fewest yards per play allowed.

“We have to trust the structures that are in place,” third-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea said in July. “We have to have 11 guys doing their job. And when we do that, what we saw last year was that that was good enough to stop some really good teams. So we want to build.

“Obviously, I look at the rush defense and I think that we didn’t finish. The importance we place on the element of playing defense didn’t reflect in the rankings.

“So you go back and try to unpack each game and try to figure out where we fell short and where we can get better: What we can do schematically, how we can adjust and adapt to make it where we have the tools in terms of the scheme necessary. And then how do we coach better to better position our players to finish plays? It’s all of that.”

Improving the run defense isn’t the exclusive domain of the defensive line, but that’s where it will start if it happens, as expected.

One of the biggest reasons for optimism is the star power in ND’s projected second wave of defenders. And D-line coach Mike Elston may have the confidence to rotate a third unit in with some regularity this season.

As for the No. 2s, that’s sophomore end Foskey, junior end Justin Ademilola, twin and junior defensive tackle Jayson Ademiola and sophomore nose guard Jacob Lacey, with junior end Ovie Oghoufo’s strong summer putting him parenthetically in that group. The line between the 1s and the 2s is perhaps thinnest between Jayson Ademilola and incumbent starter Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

“We don’t just set depth charts based on what they were before and then just moving everyone up a rung,” Lea said. “So I expect (Ademilola) to continue his development on and off the field.

“I expect him to once we get on the practice field, that he’ll be driven and motivated and again put us in a situation where we have a good problem, where we have a guy that is competing for the job he wants and then making a really hard decision on us.”

Among the potential starters, only Hayes was ranked higher than a three-star prospect coming out of high school. But as has been typical since Elston returned to coaching defensive line in 2017, both projects and prospects have tended to play well above their recruiting pedigree.

The player development template and stellar hit rate in recruiting is a stark contrast to the first two full recruiting cycles under VanGorder (2014-15).

In total, 10 defensive lineman transferred out from those two classes, with only Georgia grad transfer Jay Hayes having played anything close to meaningful snaps before his departure, and to a much lesser extent Texas Tech transfer Kolin Hill.

In the five D-line classes since, only Jonathon MacCollister (UCF) has exited the Irish roster.

More impressive have been some of the transformations. Interior starters Kurt Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa were contributors as early as their freshman season and have steadily progressed, but fifth-year end Ade Ogundeji’s ascent last season was as unexpected as it was dramatic.

A player poached out of Western Michigan’s recruiting class in the 2016 cycle, Ogundeji finished last season with 34 tackles, seven tackles for loss including 4.5 sacks, five QB hurries, three forced fumbles and a recovered fumble he returned for a TD against Virginia.

Although Hayes has garnered some preseason All-America support, Ogundeji may be the most complete player in a position group that will profoundly affect ND’s bottom line in 2020.

Defensive end Ade Ogundeji (91), who made big plays with regularity as a rotational player in 2019, moves into the Notre Dame starting lineup in 2020.


9 Daelin Hayes 6-4 270 Gr.
7 Isaiah Foskey 6-5 255 So.
29 Ovie Oghoufo 6-3 232 Jr.
17 Jordan Botelho 6-3 248 Fr.


95Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa 6-3 286 Sr.
57 Jayson Ademilola 6-3 279 Jr.
56 Howard Cross III 6-1 265 So.
99 Rylie Mills 6-5 259 Fr.


41 Kurt Hinish 6-2 296 Sr.
54 Jacob Lacey 6-2 293 So.
55 Ja'mion Franklin 6-1 310 Jr.
92 Aidan Keanaaina 6-3 303 Fr.


91 Ade Ogundeji 6-4 252 Gr.
19 Justin Ademilola 6-2 248 Jr.
18 NaNa Osafo-Mensah 6-3 249 So.
47 Kofi Wardlow 6-2 240 Sr.
98 Alex Ehrensberger 6-7 247 Fr.