’21 Outlook: Notre Dame Football Looks to Reload, Find Depth at Defensive End

Notre Dame is about to send a pair of defensive ends to the NFL Draft for the second year in a row – something that seemed almost unthinkable in years past. That makes for a tall order for Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston and new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman this spring. While they have some talent to work with, questions remain on how they will ultimately fill out their depth chart. Here’s an overview of the position heading into spring football.

Defensive Ends Out

  • Daelin Hayes – 9.0 sacks, 20.5 TFL (career)
  • Ade Ogundeji – 10.5 sacks, 15.0 TFL 
  • Ovie Oghoufo (Transfer)

Losing both starting defensive ends is not ideal by any means for Notre Dame football in 2021.  Neither Daelin Hayes nor Ade Ogundeji turned into dominant, game-wreckers in 2020 as some had hoped, but both were still very good football players for the Fighting Irish.  Hayes had 3.0 sacks while Ogundeji paced the Irish with 6.0.  Interestingly enough, Hayes was a 5-star recruit by some, while Ogundeji was a developmental project with mainly MAC offers out of high school.  He leaves Notre Dame with 10.5 career sacks to Hayes’s 9.0

On top of losing both starters, Notre Dame lost a potential 2021 starter when Ovie Oghoufo decided to enter the transfer portal.  He ended up selecting Texas – the only Notre Dame football transfer this off-season to move on to a big-time program.  Had he stayed at Notre Dame, he would have seen a lot of playing time this fall even if he didn’t start over junior to be Isaiah Foskey,  

Defensive Ends Back

  • Isaiah Foskey – 4.5 sacks, 5.0 TFL
  • Justin Ademilola – 1.0 sack, 3.5 TFL
  • Jordan Botelho – 0 sack, 0 TFL
  • Nana Osafo-Mensah – 0 sack, 0 TFL
  • Alexander Ehrensberger – 1.0 sack, 2 TFL

Unlike the last two seasons, Notre Dame is not returning a ton of experience at defensive end.  In 2019, the Irish returned starters Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara.  In 2020, Notre Dame brought back Hayes and Ogundeji, who both played a ton in 2019.  In 2021, Notre Dame’s returning defensive ends have combined for just 6.5 career sacks combined. 

Isaiah Foskey has the looks of not just a starter but a potentially dominant edge rusher.  As a reserve last year, Foskey was second on the Fighting Irish defense with 4.5 sacks. His snaps will increase in 2021, and so too should his production.  

Notre Dame has had several ends over the last few years that looked like they could become dominant players who never took the final step – Kareem, Okwara, Hayes, and Ogundeji.  All were very good players, but none took that final step.  Foskey has the size and physical tools to do it, perhaps more so than his predecessors, but it remains to be seen if he will. 

Behind Foskey, sophomore Jordan Botelho and junior Nana Osafo Mensah will battle for reps in the rotation.  Botelho might not have the prototypical size for the VYPER position, but he plays with a nastiness and intensity that leads you to believe he could be a menace on the edge.  Osafo-Mensah missed all of 2020 with an injury and redshirted in 2019, so this will be a pivotal spring for the Texas native. 

Over on the strong-side, things are a bit more interesting.  Justin Ademilola has been a solid role player for the Irish the last three years and looks ready to step into a starting role.  Behind him, though, the only returning strong-side end returning is Alexander Ehrensberger. The German native reported to Notre Dame in 2020 extremely raw, though, so it’s unclear how much of a role he will be ready for.  In limited action during mop-up duty, Ehrensberger showed the raw ability that earned him a scholarship.  

There’s been some chatter that a returning interior player could get a look at SDE this spring.  Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who announced he was returning for a 5th year, has been one named mentioned, but to me, that would seem like a bit of a waste of his size.  Sophomore Rylie Mills makes more sense to me because he’s got a bit more length than Lord Myron.  Either way, look for Mike Elston and Marcus Freeman to either give some inside players a look at SDE or for Notre Dame to pursue a grad-transfer. 

Defensive Ends Entering

  • Jason Onye – 3-star, #627 overall
  • Devin Aupiu – 3-star, #582 overall
  • Will Schweitzer – 3-star, #582 overall

Notre Dame added three defensive ends in the recruiting class of 2021, and all three of them fall into the category of developmental prospects similar to Ogundeji.  Aupiu and Schweitzer are already on campus and will take part in spring practice, so they’ll get a chance to play some sort of rotational role, but none of the three are expected to be instant impact type players.  That isn’t to say they won’t be good players in the future.  Ogundeji took until his third year to crack the rotation and led the sacks team last year. 

The Notre Dame football program has had success taking players like this trio and developing them, but that takes time – more time than one spring and fall camp. Don’t be surprised if we hear that either Aupiu or Schweitzer flash in the spring, but, likely, we won’t know for another year or two what the Fighting Irish really have in either. 

Long term, Onye could be headed to the interior of the line if he continues to grow into his frame the way some feel he will. 

2021 Outlook

If Foskey and Ademilola are the starters in 2021, there shouldn’t be a huge drop-off for Notre Dame, even if Hayes and Ogundeji are both collecting NFL paychecks in the fall. Foskey has star potential and, maybe it’s my Jersey bias but, Ademilola is has been one of the more underappreciated players on the defensive roster the last few years.  I think back to him making plays in the Cotton Bowl three years ago.  Now that he has a starting role in his sights, I think he takes a big leap. 

Where there might be a substantial drop off, though, is the depth behind them.  Notre Dame had Foskey and Ademilola – and Oghoufo, for that matter – ready to play roles in 2020.  As of today, they don’t have that luxury heading into 2021.  That is why there is Spring football, though. 

Jordan Bothelo played some in 2020 and has the looks of a player who could make a big jump.  If that happens, it’s a significant piece of the puzzle along the defensive line for Elston and Freeman.  We don’t know what the Irish have in Osafo-Mensah either since he lost the 2020 season to injury.  In a perfect world, he would have spent last year getting some quality reps in preparation for being in the rotation.  That obviously didn’t happen.  However, that isn’t to say that he won’t be able to play a role this year. 

With all of the question marks on the edge of the line, I’ll be shocked if we don’t see either a graduate-transfer or some experimentation with an inside player at SDE.  Rylie Mills specifically seems like an obvious candidate to me since Notre Dame is so deep on the interior of the line with both MTA and Kurt Hinish returning for 5th years.  He’s got the length for the edge, and he showed as a freshman in 2020 that he has the potential to be a special player.  It might not be ideal to have him learn a new position – especially with his future on the interior – taking away some from his development, though.  

Howard Cross was initially recruited by some as an SDE, so he’s an option as well, but like Mills, his future looks like it’s inside.  A graduate-transfer here really could be an ideal scenario. 

Mike Elston has proven that he can develop talent along the defensive line over the last ten years, so even with some question marks heading into the spring, Notre Dame fans shouldn’t be overly worried at the moment.  

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