Notre Dame DE Isaiah Foskey isn't consumed by records chase or NFL Draft consideration

Tyler James
ND Insider
Notre Dame's Isaiah Foskey (7) holds off Purdue's Greg Long (69) during the Notre Dame vs. Purdue NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — The numbers haven’t really mattered to Isaiah Foskey. 

Notre Dame’s star defensive end didn’t know the program record for individual sacks in a season until a reporter told him about Justin Tuck’s 13.5 sacks in 2003 earlier this year. Just the other day while perusing Twitter, Foskey learned the Irish were quickly approaching the program record for team sacks too: 41 in 1996. 

Prior to that, Foskey was more awestruck by nose guard Kurt Hinish’s program record in career games played (59 and counting). 

“He’s played the most games in Notre Dame history,” Foskey said. “I can say that to my kids now. I played with a Notre Dame legend.” 

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound junior started to carve out a pretty impressive legacy for himself this season. With 10 sacks in 11 games, Foskey moved into a tie for fourth in Notre Dame single-season history with Bertrand Berry (1996) and Mike Gann (1984). Only Victor Abiamiri (10.5 in 2006) and Stephon Tuitt (12 in 2012) stand between Foskey and Tuck. 

“If I actually got it, that would be something great being that your name is in the Notre Dame history book,” Foskey said. 

Whether he unseats Tuck atop the Notre Dame record book or not, Foskey will have a decision to make after the season about entering the NFL Draft early. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said the Irish already started recruiting Foskey to stay about a month ago. 

A successful pitch from Notre Dame’s staff will require convincing Foskey that he can improve his draft stock with one more season in South Bend. That’s not an unreasonable concept either. Even with his impressive junior season, Foskey might not have pushed himself into the first round yet. But another dominant season could push him into the top 10. 

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When weighing his options and receiving an evaluation from the NFL’s College Advisory Committee, Foskey said he’d lean on defensive line coach Mike Elston and his father, Terry, for guidance. 

“(Elston) knows the whole process since he sent a lot of people to the NFL Draft,” Foskey said. “He’d be the first person I would talk to about evaluation. But me going to the draft or not, I thought about it a little bit but not a whole bunch. I’m not dwelling a lot on it.  

“The first person I’ll probably talk to is my dad. He’s the biggest mentor in my life. He always steers me the right way. Talking to him will make the right decision for me.” 

Foskey’s focus has remained on the task at hand. This week that’s a return trip to California's Bay Area to play Stanford (3-8) on Saturday (8 p.m. EST on FOX). 

Foskey made his mark the last time Notre Dame played at Stanford. In the last of four games Foskey was permitted to play to preserve a redshirt season in 2019, Foskey blocked a punt and recorded two tackles as a backup defensive end. The former four-star recruit took advantage of the opportunities given to a freshman that day by Elston and special teams coordinator Brian Polian. 

Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey (94) blocks Stanford’s Ryan Sanborn (27) from punting as Stanford’s Andrew Pryts (25) tries to block him during Notre Dame's 45-24 victory at Stanford in 2019.

“That was great,” Foskey said. “Coach Elston gave me — even though that wasn’t his call to put me on special teams — a shot that game starting on third downs. That’s when everything happened. Even though I didn’t get a lot of production that day on defense.  

“Making a big play on special teams when coach Polian put me on there, that was a great way to end off the season. Especially since I was back home too. Put on for the family basically.” 

Foskey expects plenty of family and friends to be in attendance this Saturday. Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif., is about a 75-mile drive from his hometown of Antioch and an even shorter trip from his alma mater De La Salle in Concord. 

Despite being ranked among the top 15 weakside defensive ends in the country for the 2019 recruiting class by Rivals and 247Sports, Foskey admitted his pass-rush skills were pretty rudimentary when he arrived at Notre Dame. Because he was bigger and stronger than most high school offensive tackles, Foskey relied on his power with a bull rush and a push pull move. 

Foskey’s pass-rush inventory has increased over the last two years. Now he relies on a long-arm technique as his go-to move with a number of counters that spawn from it. Last year, former teammate Adetokunbo Ogundeji, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft, spent countless hours with Foskey sharpening their craft. 

“He was the first one to actually get me out of bed and work out almost all the time,” Foskey said. 

Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey (7) celebrates during the Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Ogundeji, who led the Irish last season with seven sacks, preferred the long-arm technique too. When executed correctly, the defensive end quickly gains ground on the offensive tackle with a fast start at the snap and drives his nearest arm into the opponent’s chest. The extended arm allows the defensive end to use his speed and strength while preventing the offensive tackle from gaining control of the defender with his hands. 

It’s a move utilized often by some of the best pass rushers in the NFL like Chicago’s Khalil Mack and Cleveland’s Myles Garrett. 

“If you’re doing it right, there’s not much they can do about it,” Foskey said. “They can knock it down, but if I have my hands on you it’s kind of hard to even knock it down. There are counters to it.” 

Before Foskey disclosed his counter moves, he cut himself short as to not give any secrets away to offensive tackles smart enough to read stories about him. 

Foskey has been so dominant that Virginia spent most of its 28-3 loss to Notre Dame earlier this month with an offensive tackle and a tight end assigned to slowing down Foskey’s pass rush. It was the ultimate sign of respect for Foskey’s ability. 

“I’ve seen it on some plays, but at Virginia it felt like it was a ridiculous amount,” Foskey said. “If you watch the film, I’m one of the first people to celebrate with someone who gets a sack. I’m always excited. For me getting double-teamed and everyone else getting pressure and sacks, I’ll keep doing that all the time.” 

The plan didn’t exactly work for the Cavaliers. Notre Dame’s defense still racked up seven sacks even though Foskey didn’t record one, which has only happened in three games this season. After consecutive games against Navy and Virginia without a sack, Foskey rebounded with a big performance against Georgia Tech. 

He was credited with only one sack on which he stripped quarterback Jordan Yates and fellow defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa returned the fumble for a touchdown, but Foskey’s pressure also led to an interception by rover Jack Kiser which was also returned for a touchdown. 

The threat of Foskey can result in any number of bad outcomes for opposing offenses. Whether Foskey is the one taking down the quarterback or one of his teammates gets the glory, the impact remains the same. 

The Irish can bring pressure in a number of different ways. That’s why 15 players have sacks this season. Foskey sits atop the list as an outlier with as many sacks himself as the next three leaders on the sacks list: defensive end Justin Ademilola (4), nose guard Howard Cross III (3) and defensive tackle Rylie Mills (3). 

Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey (7) takes down Purdue's Jack Plummer (13) during the Notre Dame vs. Purdue NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Notre Dame needs 3.5 more sacks to set a new school record. The 38 sacks this season are already the most since the 2003 team with Tuck tallied 39. The record has certainly become attainable if not yet inevitable. 

Regardless, Foskey won’t be counting. He’ll likely be dancing instead. Whether he took down the quarterback or not. 

“It’s fun seeing any D-lineman getting to the quarterback or a linebacker or corner getting a sack,” Foskey said. “You know that’s a big loss of yardage. You get to celebrate.”

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.