From relative unknown to Notre Dame captain, DE Ade Ogundeji's rise is not done yet

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Understanding the leadership Adetokunbo Ogundeji will deliver as a Notre Dame football captain can be gleaned from his high school days.

Josh Perusse, Ogundeji’s position coach at Walled Lake (Mich.) Central, remembers how the defensive end handled adversity. Ogundeji played only four games as a senior before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

“But he still came to everything,” said Perusse, now the program’s head football coach. “When he wasn’t at physical therapy, he was at practice. And he was still there for pretty much everything. I think that showed his commitment to the team. It was his last year, and he could’ve just said, ‘I’m done with football. I’m just going to rehab.’ But he didn’t.”

Four other Irish players were named captains: quarterback Ian Book, offensive tackle Robert Hainsey, defensive end Daelin Hayes and safety Shaun Crawford. The announcement came on Tuesday, four days before Associated Press No. 10 Notre Dame hosts Duke (2:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday; NBC-TV).

Ogundeji garnering captain status may have been the biggest surprise among that group.

Book and Hainsey were captains last season. Hayes had emerged as maybe the most vocal leader on the team, especially with issues related to racial injustice. Crawford brings the most experience as a sixth-year graduate senior. Each of those four has started at least 12 career games and have combined for 68 starts. Ogundeji has started just one game in four seasons.

The 6-foot-4, 268-pound Ogundeji has come a long way since his freshman season. He arrived as an overlooked three-star recruit and at 210 pounds. Now a graduate senior, Ogundeji appears to be on a trajectory destined for playing on Sundays.

“It means so much,” Ogundeji said. “First of all, I would just like to thank God for getting this opportunity to play football. I just want to thank my teammates. It means so much that they voted for me to be their captain. It means a lot. I’ve been here for a long time. To see captains come here and lead the team, I understand what it means to be a captain.”

Should his rise reach seismic proportions this season and beyond, Ogundeji’s journey could serve as an inspiration.

“It’s such a great example of how hard work and humility can get you so far,” Perusse said.

Notre Dame’s defensive line needed saving after the 4-8 debacle in 2016. The position group finished second-to-last in sacks (13) among Power Five teams. The Irish had signed four defensive ends in their previous recruiting cycle: Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, Hayes and Ogundeji.

All four of them were eventually named captains.

Kareem, Okwara and Hayes finding success hardly came as a surprise. They garnered four-star status or better on 247Sports and Rivals. Ogundeji significantly trailed that trio in the rankings. 247Sports pegged him as its No. 40 weakside defensive end and No. 619 overall player in the 2016 recruiting class.

Ogundeji certainly brought the most questions among that group. He was a 17-year-old freshman with size 18-feet. He needed to gain so much weight that he had no chance of playing early. There was that injury, too. Ogundeji flipped his verbal commitment from Western Michigan to Notre Dame the July before his senior season. Oregon was one of the only other major programs to offer him a scholarship.

“It was scary, because you don’t know how the coaches who were recruiting him were going to handle it,” said former Walled Lake Central head coach Bob Meyer about his injury. “I will give all the credit in the world to (head) coach (Brian) Kelly, because he could have easily pulled his offer.

“We contacted him immediately to let him know what had happened. Ade wasn’t a five-star recruit. I know a lot of lesser coaches who would have pulled that offer and would have gone with someone else.

“And Notre Dame didn’t. I have been a Notre Dame fan ever since that day, because they stuck with him.”

Sticking with him paid dividends. Ogundeji’s development took off once he came to Notre Dame, even if he had no opportunities to prove it in year one. He did not see the field as a freshman before playing five games in year two and 13 as a junior.

Perusse recalls laughing the first time he saw Ogundeji after he left for Notre Dame as a freshman. Just a few months later, and Ogundeji had gained 30 pounds.

That Ogundeji broke out last season did not surprise Perusse.

“We saw that potential there,” Perusse said. “We saw a frame that we knew if someone could get him on a strict diet and just get pounds on him, he’s got the work ethic to work with that frame. And then the sky would be the limit.”

As a rotational strongside defensive end behind Kareem, Ogundeji proved to be efficient in his limited action. Pro Football Focus offered Ogundeji its second-highest grade (82.2) for members of the Irish defense in 2019. He recorded 34 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, five quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 13 games.

The last three games saw Ogundeji assume an increased role. Kareem played in limited fashion, suffering a torn labrum against Duke before undergoing surgery in January. With defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (leg) and Jayson Ademilola (ankle) sidelined with injuries, Ogundeji slid to the position and started against Stanford.

The versatility Ogundeji flashed in that game and how much he produced in his elevated role caught the attention of NFL Draft analysts. Scott Wright of told the Tribune in May he could envision Ogundeji being as high as a second-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft.

“Just his ability to get to the quarterback,” said Wright on what impressed him. “He was in the backfield all the time and wreaking havoc on the defensive line. He looks like a good athlete, too. He’s got good speed off the edge. Really intriguing. Couldn’t help but notice him. He was borderline taking over the game at one or two points.”

Ogundeji’s long arms are a plus and his minimal starting experience fuels the notion that his best days are ahead of him. Tapping into that potential meant becoming a more explosive player, Ogundeji said.

This offseason, Ogundeji focused on improving his get-off and how he uses his hands against offensive tackles. His well-documented physical transformation already had been complete for the most part.

Now it’s time for Ogundeji to show who he is mentally, as a full-time starter and as a leader.

“I think I’ve done a good job with my football I.Q, learning the plays and understanding what to do,” said Ogundeji on how he’s improved beyond the physical aspect. “My first year and even my second year, it took me a while to understand what the plays were.

“So I tried to take as much time to watch film, understand what the game plan was and understand how to run plays against opponents.

“My mental preparation for the game was definitely something that grew throughout my four years here.”

Notre Dame defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji (91) brings down Duke’s Quentin Harris (18) on Nov. 9, 2019.