Jordan Botelho's turnaround helps fuel Notre Dame's defensive line renewal
SOUTH BEND — Suddenly last summer, the breathtaking athleticism that the Notre Dame coaching staff calculated would allow one of the nation’s top high school linebackers to evolve into an elite college defensive end didn’t matter anymore.
Jordan Botelho so consistently got in his own way as a freshman early enrollee and even more so as a persistent violator of the Irish football team’s COVID-19 protocols when the players reconvened on campus last June, he was put on a plane and sent home to Honolulu.
The prevailing reason the 6-foot-3, 248-pound sophomore-to-be 10 months later is one of Notre Dame’s most convincing spring feel-good stories is his buy-in.
Eventual. Gradual. And now total.
"Jordan had a long way to go in maturity and accountability,” Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston said Thursday after ND’s practice No. 9 of 15 this spring. “The best thing for him was that he was sent home.
“He realized that we're here about a holistic development. And this isn’t just about him getting sacks on Saturday, which he’s going to be able to do, because he's a very talented player. But not to compromise the rest of our group and coach (Brian) Kelly's culture inside the program.”
Elston’s actual official title at Notre Dame this season encompasses 14 words, not counting his own name. Most significantly, what the only assistant coach who’s been with Kelly for all 12 springs at ND has done since Kelly’s own introspective coaching reboot four years ago is help build the defensive line into the ND position group that perennially most resembles that of a College Football Playoff team.
Through one of the best player development models anywhere. Through a culture that allows the Irish to roll 10-12 players deep across the front. Through uncompromising standards on and off the field.
Notre Dame’s 43-6 on-field surge since the 4-8 cratering in 2016 included a return of Elston to coaching the defensive line. One of his first stabs at gauging the cohesiveness and shared trust of a D-line unit that in 2016 was 65th out of 65 Power 5 teams in sacks (3) was to cram all of them, including Elston, into an escape room (beyond its preferred capacity of 12, no less) that following offseason.
Elston termed what ensued as a disaster, as he and the players struggled to follow the series of puzzles and riddles that led to clues on how to escape from the locked room within the one-hour time limit.
Months later, chemistry became the calling card for that very same group and still is today.
Which is why Botelho’s second chance extended to him in August was conditional after tanking his first (team) chemistry test.
“It was a reality check,” Elston said of the Honolulu Saint Louis High product’s time away. “He came back and had a few bumps in the road. Then he and I had a really good heart-to-heart.”
That was midseason of 2020, with Botelho’s role limited to special teams. He ended up playing in 11 games, more than all but three members of his freshman class, and amassed four tackles and a special teams TD on a blocked punt.
“I shared a story with him, a personal story,” Elston said of the midseason meeting. “And honestly from that moment forward, Jordan has just turned the corner.”
There are plenty of other spring breakthroughs among Elston’s group, which is why there’s so much collective optimism in the face of losing probable NFL Draft picks Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes, and transfer Ovie Oghoufo to Texas.
Defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has so taken to an experimental shift to defensive end, he’s become the D-line’s most productive player this spring, per Elston.
There’s so much productive depth among all four positions that midyear freshman enrollees Gabriel Rubio, Devin Aupui and Will Schweitzer can incubate instead of pushing through growing pains.
And even with Jacob Lacey out of the mix because of shoulder rehab, the nose guard position has surged in part because of Howard Cross III’s dramatic development.
“Howard Cross is just a dynamic accelerator,” Elston said. “Speed off the ball. Low pad level. He finds ways into creases and gaps.
“He's always in the backfield and he's quick with his hands. He's got good speed and really good agility. He's been a load to block. He's going to have a breakout season.”
So it also appears will junior Vyper end Isaiah Foskey, who is thriving in new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s multiple fronts. Foskey is able to play the big defensive end spot as well as kick inside at times to defensive tackle, which allows him and Botelho to be on the field at the same time in certain situations.
Now that Botelho has earned that kind of trust.
“He's not on any lists of bad decisions and he's taking care of his business off the field in schoolwork,” Elston said. “You know, he's not a finished product yet, but definitely the maturity is showing through and I'm super proud of him and I love him for it.
“The connection we have (is) because we've gone through the trials and tribulations together, and more to come, but he's a very special young man. And he's made a lot of growth and I'm excited for him."