Notre Dame is replacing two multi-year starters along the defensive line in 2020 with Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem chasing NFL quarterbacks this summer. Despite losing the pair, who also served as captains in 2019, the defensive line should still be a strength – maybe the biggest strength – for Notre Dame in 2020.
It’s been extremely rare for Notre Dame to lose defensive linemen to the NFL and not miss a beat the next season, but this year they replace Okwara and Kareem with 5th-year seniors Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji. There won’t be any drop-off with those two assuming both remain healthy all season.
Daelin Hayes looked like Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman a year ago before falling to a season-ending injury in September. At the time, he was looking more like the potential high NFL Draft pick instead of Okwara who started the year very slowly before succumbing to his own season-ending injury in November.
Like Hayes, Ogundeji was playing at or above the level of the player he was behind on the depth chart by the end of the year. Khalid Kareem gutted it through the second half of the season playing through an injury that would have kept many players out. Because he played through it though, it gave Ogundeji a large role in the rotation and left no drop-off.
There were times in 2019 that Ogundeji was Notre Dame’s most disruptive force on the defensive line including a 2-sack, 3-TFL performance on Senior Day against Boston College. He added two more against Stanford and another against Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl to end the season on a high note. If he and Hayes pick up where they left off in 2019, Notre Dame could very conceivably replace two starters that were drafted in the first five rounds and be better at the position.
Depth Is A Strength on the Interior of the Line
On the inside of the line, Notre Dame returns steady starters Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, but the players behind them are in large part why the defensive line will be a strength this year. Ten years ago, a lineman like Jayson Ademilola would be entering his third year of starting at Notre Dame because he would have been forced into action way too early. That hasn’t been the case over the last few years. Instead, Ademilola is still waiting in the wings, but his talent is too much to keep on the sidelines too long so there is a good chance that he plays just as much, if not more than Tagovailoa-Amosa this year.
The same might be true at nose tackle where sophomore Jacob Lacey looks like he could be primed for a larger role this year and should push Hinish. It shouldn’t shock anyone if both of those positions are 50/50 splits at a minimum. Behind Lacey, there is also junior Jamion Franklin. After losing all of 2018 with a serious injury, Franklin returned last year, but, as expected, he was not totally back to full strength due to all the time he lost in the weight room. He will be this fall.
Notre Dame is Deep on the Edges As Well
Depth across the entire defensive line is at almost unprecedented levels for Notre Dame – at least by the standards of the last 25 years. Ogundeji and Hayes have plenty of talented players behind them as well. Justin Ademilola was impressive as a freshman in 2018 in limited action. Isaiah Foskey has the looks of future superstar written all over him. Expect both of them to play a lot in 2020 as well (you know, assuming there is a season). Foskey especially will be impossible to keep off the field much similarly to how Ogundeji and Hayes, prior to his injury, played nearly as much as the starters in 2019.
Some youngsters are waiting in the wings who might not play in 2020 but will provide similar depth in the future like freshman Jordan Botelho who might have been tasked with playing as a frosh in other years. Howard Cross could force his way onto the field at defensive tackle this year as well. Even if he doesn’t, he will be a significant factor in 2021.
Mike Elston has done a fantastic job of building depth on the Notre Dame defensive line we haven’t seen in years, and he’s continued to stock the line with more talent over the last few recruiting cycles. That work will pay dividends for Notre Dame on the field by allowing the Irish to utilize a deep rotation of players. It will also come in handy this fall, again assuming all games are played, given the potential for availability issues due to COVID-19.
It may sound off, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Notre Dame defensive line is actually better this year despite losing two players to the NFL from last year’s unit.