Finding Foskey: Unpredictable vyper alignment adds wrinkle to Notre Dame's defense

Tyler James
ND Insider
Isaiah Foskey, right, has a knack for chasing down quarterbacks, like Georgia Tech's Jeff Sims last season. But Notre Dame's starting vyper has added more linebacker duties to his defensive end role.

Isaiah Foskey didn’t run into the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year on accident. 

The Notre Dame junior vyper knew there was a pretty good chance St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald would be working out at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex in Pittsburgh when Foskey went there for a workout of his own in May.. 

One connection – Foskey’s father making a trip to Pittsburgh to visit an old friend from the Navy – led to another – fellow Irish teammate Kurt Hinish working out with Donald’s speed trainer, DeWayne Brown – to put Foskey in a position to meet the five-time All-Pro. 

“It was surreal seeing him in person,” Foskey said. “You see him on TV and see how big he is. Then you see him in person, he’s way bigger (6-foot-1, 280 pounds) than I can even imagine. It was a great experience.” 

The 6-5, 260-pound Foskey was smart enough to not interrupt someone as intense as Donald during his workout, but he didn’t want to leave the encounter simply being starstruck. He wanted to pick Donald’s brain, so he introduced himself and peppered Donald with questions after the workout. 

Foskey asked Donald how he prepares himself for games, studies offensive linemen and decides which techniques to use in the moment. Donald said he identifies a couple of moves that should work against the opposing offensive linemen based on film study. An abundance of moves isn’t required if he picks the right ones. 

“I’ve been working on that,” Foskey said. “Try to simplify my game. Try not to do anything spectacular just for the look of your highlight. If I do a good swipe, a good chop, a good long arm, it’s still going to get the tackle, it’s still going to get the job done.”

That advice helped Foskey prepare for Sunday’s season opener at Florida State, in which he tallied eight tackles and a game-high two sacks. But Donald’s advice didn’t apply to the new linebacker responsibilities given to Foskey and his fellow vypers in defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme. 

On the first defensive play in Notre Dame’s 41-38 overtime victory at Florida State, Foskey lined up four yards off the line of scrimmage behind defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola. Not only was he playing a linebacker role, but he was farther inside than an edge defender. 

After a full offseason of preparing for a new wrinkle in his game, Foskey said he started to feel comfortable in it only two or three weeks prior to the season opener. He learned to be patient that far away from the line of scrimmage rather than rushing into the backfield like he was so used to at defensive end. 

The linebacker alignment is harder than playing defensive end, Foskey said, because of the amount of information he’s asked to process. 

“At linebacker in the middle of the field, you have to see basically everything,” Foskey said. “It opens up my eyes. At defensive end, my eyes are at the tackle and transitions to the quarterback and guards pulling. But at linebacker you see everything. You have to have an open vision to see everything going on.” 

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Yet somehow the game felt slow to Foskey, even though he had never played a game at linebacker prior to Sunday night. 

“The game looked pretty slow because of all the repetition me and Marcus Freeman have been going through,” Foskey said. “The game’s pretty slow. Guards pull and I can see it and react off it.” 

The Foskey on display Sunday night was a glimpse of what the Irish coaching staff had seen from Foskey throughout the preseason. But those preseason impressions quickly get replaced by game action. 

“This was a game that he needed to be in,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game Sunday night. “This was dropping into the flat, covering the back leaking out. They wanted to throw a throwback screen and he's in good position.” 

The coverage responsibilities are certainly a challenge for a player previously asked to pursue quarterbacks in the backfield rather than cover his passing targets. That doesn’t mean Foskey isn’t already confident in the task. 

“I’m more concerned with covering, but now I’m excited when I see a tight end I’m about to cover, a receiver I’m about to cover or a running back I’m about to cover,” Foskey said. “I already know I can stick with them and get my hands on them and stay with them.” 

Despite the added responsibilities, Foskey’s best contribution to No. 8 Notre Dame’s defense remains as a pass rusher. That’s why Foskey was so insistent on learning from Donald. 

But when Foskey recorded his two sacks of Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis, he didn’t have to use any complicated moves. On both plays, pulling guards from the opposite side of the field were foolishly asked to try to block Foskey. He buzzed right by them with little resistance. 

Maybe Foskey’s different alignments confused the Florida State offensive line. He seemed to believe that. 

“With me going back and forth and faking I’m going up and going back, I saw the tackle getting a little confused and shifting his weight,” Foskey said. “I saw a big difference with that.” 

Kelly reiterated Thursday that Foskey’s main role in the Irish defense will be as an edge defender. But the smile that crept onto Kelly’s face while answering a question about how Kelly reacted to Freeman’s pitch to give Foskey some linebacker assignments may have indicated how much Kelly enjoys the thought of Foskey confounding opposing offenses with his alignment. 

“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” Kelly said. 

At least that’s probably what Kelly and Freeman want Toledo (1-0) to think heading into Saturday’s game (2:30 p.m. EDT on Peacock Premium). 

“Isaiah Foskey is going to help us and his position will kind of settle itself where he's going to play off the edge of our defense,” Kelly said. “Will he play a little bit somewhere else? Certainly. There'll be some uncertainty in terms of where he lines up, but at the end of the day, he's going to be on the edge of our defense." 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.