Notre Dame's evolving vyper role challenges Isaiah Foskey to do more

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The vyper position on Notre Dame’s defensive line predates new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.

Defensive line coach Mike Elston adopted the name for the position that was previously described as a drop end in former coordinator Clark Lea’s defense. Think Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes — the defensive end lined up in a two-point stance typically on the same side of the line as the defensive tackle.

The position required speed that could be converted into chasing a quarterback in pass rush or tailing a tight end in pass coverage. The vyper role has carried over to Freeman’s version of Notre Dame’s defense, but the responsibilities may have expanded even more.

At least that’s how Isaiah Foskey, the junior slated to be Notre Dame’s starting vyper, described it.

“With Marcus Freeman coming here, he made the vypers into more like a linebacker/defensive end type of position,” Foskey said, “so I’ve been working on a lot more drops and a lot more covering, but I can still pass rush.”

The pass rush remains a priority for the 6-foot-5, 257-pound Foskey. He finished last season second on the team in sacks (4.5) and quarterback hurries (5) behind NFL-bound Adetokunbo Ogundeji (7 sacks, 7 hurries) despite playing as the backup vyper behind Hayes. Foskey accomplished that without being as technically sound as he’d like.

“I need to be more consistent with pass rushing, trying to get around the blocks or going through the blocks,” Foskey said.

Foskey registered more tackles (20) than any defensive lineman other than Ogundeji (23) and made his presence felt in some of the biggest games of the season against North Carolina (four tackles and one sack) and Clemson in the regular season (four tackles) and ACC Championship (three tackles).

Now Foskey might have a chance to add more pass breakups (one in 2020) to his stat line too with the evolving vyper role. He’s trying to do his best impression of defensive backs in practice.

“I always see corners doing it with chasing the hip and staying with the man,” Foskey said. “It always looks easy when they do it, but when you actually go out there, it’s a little bit more challenging.

“There’s just a little bit more stuff I have to work on like getting hands on the guy when he’s about to break on a route, staying close to his hip, being more aggressive at the point of attack.”

Foskey, who blocked two punts in his first two seasons with the Irish, already started campaigning to remain on special teams as well. He was utilized on the punt return, kick return and kickoff units last season.

If special teams coordinator Brian Polian has any say in the matter, Foskey will likely have a role at least on punt return.

“Frankly, he’s good at blocking kicks because he’s so long-levered,” Polian said. “He doesn’t have to pop clean. You think about the (blocked punt) at Pitt, he came clean because we got lucky and we schemed it up. But when you think back to a year or two ago, at Stanford, he blocks that punt. He has a defender on him, but he gets his arm over the top and he’s so long, he blocks the punt.

“His length, combined with how explosive he is as an athlete, makes him hard to handle on special teams.”

Length and speed are coveted on just about every inch of the football field, so it’s no wonder Foskey’s so popular. With Foskey being asked to do so many different things, head coach Brian Kelly wants to be careful with putting too much on Foskey’s plate.

“This year he’s getting a lot more reps, so we have to look at how he responds to more of a workload,” Kelly said. “We have to do some things a little bit differently with him. We’re kind of right in the middle of that process of molding him into the kind of player that we want him to be physically.”

Even with that caution, Kelly described the goal for Foskey as becoming an elite player in the fall. Elston sees opportunities to move Foskey around in the defensive formation as well including the opposite defensive end position and defensive tackle on passing downs.

Ogundeji moved inside at times last season too.

“Foskey is a guy who could do a lot on the field,” Ogundeji said. “He’s someone who really improved himself this past season. I expect him to get better and better this season. He’s a guy who could do multiple things. He can rush the passer very well. He could set the edge very well.”

In other words, be a vyper.

Notre Dame defensive end Isaiah Foskey, right, finished last season second on the team in sacks with 4.5 including this sack of Georgia Tech’s Jeff Sims.