The evolution of Isaiah Foskey gives Notre Dame's defense another imposing threat

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Isaiah Foskey knew there was a chance Duke wouldn’t block him.

As the Irish prepared for last week’s season opener, defensive line coach Mike Elston and defensive coordinator Clark Lea warned their defensive ends of Duke’s risky strategy.

So when Duke head coach David Cutcliffe dialed up a play-action fake with a bootleg for quarterback Chase Brice on third-and-goal from the two-yard line, Foskey wasn’t confused. He knew his assignment was to rush Brice and let his teammates take care of the rest.

Foskey didn’t need any help after all, he wrapped up Brice and forced Duke to settle for a field goal following a third-and-goal for the second time in the game.

“I was just lucky to be the one that was unblocked,” Foskey said. “They told us not to hesitate and go straight for a bee line right to the quarterback if one of us was unblocked. They made the right call for the situation, and it worked out.”

The play became Foskey’s first career sack, but only after officials reviewed the play to determine that Brice’s knee was down before he threw the ball away. Foskey said he didn’t know for sure it was going to count as a sack until he reached the sideline.

“It was electric,” Foskey said. “It was fun being out there to try to make plays. Coach Lea and coach Elston put me in the right position to make plays. I was just doing my job — one of 11.”

Last week should have given Lea and Elston plenty of reasons to trust Foskey as one of the 11 players on the field for Notre Dame’s defense. The 6-foot-5, 257-pound sophomore recorded two tackles, including one sack and 1.5 tackles for a loss, two quarterback hurries and one pass breakup. He became a pain for Brice and Duke’s offensive tackles despite only playing as a backup weakside (vyper) and strongside defensive end.

The rotation the Irish like to use on the defensive line should allow Foskey to continue to make an impact on Saturday against South Florida (2:30 p.m. EDT on USA Network) without being in the starting lineup. Notre Dame wants to continue to roll fresh players out across the line. The depth on the inside and the outside makes that palatable.

“We have a lot of depth at basically all the positions,” Foskey said. “We have people who played last year and people that redshirted just like me last year. We have people that have played in a college atmosphere. We have a lot of depth at vyper, D-tackle, nose and the end positions.”

Flipping the switch

Terry Eidson never questioned Foskey’s physical gifts.

From the moment the Concord (Calif.) De La Salle defensive coordinator met Foskey as a freshman in his lifting class, Eidson knew Foskey had the potential to grow into something special.

Eidson has coached for the California football powerhouse, which won 151 consecutive games from 1992-2004, for 40 years. So he’s seen his share of dominant high school football players.

But even as Foskey played tight end and defensive end on the varsity as a sophomore and junior, Eidson wasn’t sure if Foskey had the temperament necessary to take over games.

“We were looking for him to be aggressive and get after it,” Eidson said. “That’s what you like to see from a kid, especially one that you know has D-I potential. The first couple years we had him, that was our biggest concern about him, because we knew physically and athletically it was all there for him.

“His senior year, everything changed. He became that player that we always thought he could be. From that point on, we just knew the sky was the limit for him.”

As a senior, Foskey, a four-star recruit, decided to pursue defensive end rather than tight end in college. He secretly signed with the Irish during the December signing period before announcing his decision on ESPNU in February.

Notre Dame was happy to take Foskey as a defensive end, especially after he finished his senior season with 64 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception.

“If you make a play on defense, it’s a lot more electric for the fans and the people on the sideline,” Foskey said. “It’s more electric if you get a sack or get a fumble and get them off the field. That’s more electric than catching touchdowns.”

Foskey’s senior season ended with a 35-21 loss to Santa Ana Mater Dei in the CIF Open Division state championship. The apparent winning strategy against Foskey was to hold him and hope the officials wouldn’t repeatedly call a penalty.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid held more than him ever in a game in my entire life,” Eidson said. “It was a joke. The guy couldn’t block him. He would just grab. He would literally wrestle him to the ground.

“We were like, ‘Hold!’ They were like, ‘We can’t call holding every play.’ I was like, ‘Yes, you can.’ It was so awful.”

Yet Foskey never lost his cool.

“He’s just a nice, quiet kid,” Eidson said. “He’s not a volatile kid or anything like that. He’s just going to keep grinding and going at it. That’s the way he is. He keeps basically the same demeanor all the time.”

Making an impact

The defining moment of Foskey’s freshman season at Notre Dame came in the regular season finale at Stanford.

Because the Irish coaching staff wanted to preserve a year of eligibility, Foskey played in only four games last season. The fourth was left to be played at Stanford, which is located a little more than an hour away from Foskey’s high school.

Notre Dame fell behind early, but Foskey helped spark a comeback. With the Irish trailing 17-7 in the second quarter, Foskey blocked a punt that set up Notre Dame at the Stanford one-yard line. The momentum flipped as the Irish scored a touchdown shortly after on their way to a 45-24 victory.

“It was a great moment and perfect timing for everything to turn around,” Foskey said. “It was great to get that blocked punt, have Justin (Ademilola) recover it and have everyone celebrate on the sideline. It got everyone’s heartbeats back up.”

Foskey entered the offseason determined to have more than one great play as a sophomore. He spent the summer with fifth-year senior defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji working on explosion at the snap of the ball and being smarter and stronger with his hands.

Too many times in practice last year Foskey let offensive linemen take control of him. He’s learned how to combat that with his hands.

“That’s what limited me from being on the playing field as much as I was,” Foskey said. “Using my hands and being more explosive is having the determination to get to the ball every play. That’s what my mindset is this season coming in.”

The Irish lost three defensive ends to the NFL in the offseason — third-round pick Julian Okwara, fifth-round pick Khalid Kareem and undrafted free agent Jamir Jones. But Elston still has graduate students and captains Daelin Hayes and Ogundeji at defensive end along with Foskey and juniors Justin Ademilola and Ovie Oghoufo.

How do they replace that trio? For Foskey, it’s as simple as listening to the coaching staff.

“That’s exactly what we have to do now,” Foskey said. “We still have Daelin and Ade. They were here last year with them and came back as fifth-years. So we’re not losing any momentum coming back this year.”

Foskey can be a big reason why the defensive ends can continue to be a strength for the Irish. Soon offenses will take note too.

They might want to try a different strategy than Duke’s.

“I don’t,” Foskey said, “expect anyone to try that again.”

Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey (94) chases down a loose ball during ND’s 45-24 victory over Stanford, Nov. 30 at Palo Alto, Calif.
Notre Dame defensive Isaiah Foskey, left, credited defensive line coach Mike Elston, right, for putting him a position to make plays against Duke.
Notre Dame defensive end Isaiah Foskey starred as a tight end and defensive end at Concord (Calif.) De La Salle before narrowing his focus to playing defense in college.