DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji transforms into sack leader in final Notre Dame season

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Adetokunbo Ogundeji dressed for his first football game in Notre Dame Stadium 1,546 days ago.

Then a 6-foot-4, 240-pound freshman defensive end, Ogundeji watched from the sideline as Notre Dame won its 2016 home opener 39-10 against Nevada. The Irish already had lost the season opener in double overtime the week before at Texas and would go on to lose eight games that season.

Even though the Irish were bad, Ogundeji still didn’t play. He came to Notre Dame as a raw, three-star project out of Walled Lake (Mich.) Central and watched the other three recruited defensive ends in the freshman class — Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes — make their college debuts that season.

Four years later, Ogundeji and Hayes are captains and graduate students for the Irish. They will play their final game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday against Syracuse (1-9, 1-8 ACC). Following a chase for a national championship, both Ogundeji and Hayes will participate in the Senior Bowl in late January and attempt to join Okwara and Kareem in the NFL.

“It’s been a very long journey,” Ogundeji said. “I’ve been very blessed to be in this position with so many guys that came through here. Definitely within my first year it was a struggle, but we continued to get better as a team and myself continued to get better.

“That’s what it comes down to in life — growth throughout the whole time. It was a great time for me. I’m happy to be around great people, people I’m going to be with for life.”

That freshman class that Ogundeji was a part of in 2016 experienced more losses in one season than any Notre Dame team since 2007. But for those who have stuck around the program, the turnaround has been dramatic. The Irish lost only six games the next three seasons and have yet to lose a game this season.

On Saturday (2:30 p.m. EST on NBC), No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) can complete its third straight season without a home loss. The fifth-year seniors celebrating Senior Day this Saturday witnessed four home losses in 2016 alone.

There will be time to reminisce about all of that with their teammates and families on the field after Saturday’s game, though it will be different with no students at the game due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The semester ended before Thanksgiving and most students already have returned home.

“To be playing right now is a blessing,” Ogundeji said. “It’s been an amazing time to be around the young guys and also be around the veterans out here, all the fifth years. It’s been a great time. I appreciate every moment that we have.”

It’s easier to appreciate those moments after the waiting Ogundeji went through as a freshman and even as a sophomore, when he played in only five games.

“I just took that and used it as motivation for myself,” Ogundeji said, “and to try to push myself to be able to get on the field and make a play.”

Ogundeji started to make a couple plays as a junior, then he saw his role increase as a senior. But Ogudenji still started only one game last season — while playing defensive tackle at Stanford — despite the Irish missing Okwara and Hayes to close out the season.

In the final three games of the season, Ogundeji tallied all 4.5 of his sacks with at least one coming in each game. He finished the season with Notre Dame’s second-best grade from Pro Football Focus across the entire defense. The only player with a higher grade was the man he couldn’t unseat as a starter — Kareem.

But the Irish coaching staff and his teammates recognized Ogundeji’s value. He was named one of the team’s five captains earlier this year despite only one career start on his résumé. Not bad for a former Western Michigan commit.

“Once Notre Dame offered me, I knew that I was able to play here,” Ogundeji said. “I don’t think I ever started or ever thought I couldn’t be here and play here.

“That was a blessing for Western Michigan to offer me, but when Notre Dame offered me, I had an expectation that they offered me for a reason. I took that expectation and tried to go with it. I never thought that they thought I was too little or this or that.”

Ogundeji was too little as a freshman though. His roster listing of 240 pounds was almost certainly generous. He changed his body with the help of director of football performance Matt Balis, who was hired in January of 2017.

“That was a big turning point for us, because he brought in a discipline to our team but also a strength and conditioning and mental side of it too,” Ogundeji said. “When we had that new staff and new change, we all knew that this was a new program.

“We’re going to go somewhere that we haven’t been before. We’re going to push ourselves like we haven’t pushed ourselves before.”

Notre Dame made it to the College Football Playoff semifinal following an undefeated regular season in 2018, but the Irish couldn’t hang with Clemson in a 30-3 loss. If Notre Dame returns to the playoff this season, it will do so with at least one win over Clemson from November and potentially a second later this month in the ACC Championship.

Ogundeji registered his first full sack in that 2018 matchup with Clemson. He’s certainly come a long way since then, but he feels that the entire defense has too.

“There are some different schemes that we did differently that 2018 season. But for the most part, I feel like we kind of have the same skill set,” Ogundeji said. “We kind of have the same guys. We just understand it better. When you have a lot of guys that have been in the program for five, four years to understand the playbook, you can get a better grasp of what’s going on.”

The progress has been clear in Ogundeji. He currently leads the Irish with 5.5 sacks this season — the same number Kareem finished with in 13 games last season. But taking over the starting role wasn’t always smooth sailing.

Head coach Brian Kelly said the Irish coaching staff recognized earlier this season that Ogundeji needed better conditioning to handle the starting role and be as productive as he was in a limited role last season.

“It was a different pace than I wasn’t used to. So I had to get used to it,” Ogundeji said. “Then I realized that in practice I have to go twice as hard as I usually do, because we’re going to be in a game twice as much.”

Ogundeji looks comfortable now. He recorded a pair of sacks last week against North Carolina. He’s playing his best football, Kelly said, and that’s bad news for Syracuse. The Orange have allowed the second-most sacks (37) in the FBS this season.

“You really can see that in his play,” Kelly said. “There’s so much more energy. He’s playing with that same vibrant kind of emotion that he played with last year.”

Ogundeji won’t have to look far for emotion Saturday. His parents and brother will be in the stands supporting him the same way they supported him well before he was patiently waiting on the sideline four years ago.

“I’m blessed to have them right there by my side,” Ogundeji said. “They’ve always been there for me. It’s going to be an emotional and great time for me.”

Defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji (91) led Notre Dame with 7 sacks in 2020
Notre Dame defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji (left) takes down Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims in the 31-13 Irish win in October.