Normally when you sign five defensive ends in a single class, you’re hoping that two or three of them really hit. You figured one, maybe two, ultimately transfer for more playing time since you can’t start five defensive ends. You don’t expect them all to hit, all to finish their careers at your program, and all make NFL rosters. That is exactly what Notre Dame did with its defensive haul from 2016 after they all made rosters for 2021.
Notre Dame and Mike Elston loaded up on defensive ends in the class of 2016. They signed headliners Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem, two solid prospects with upside in Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara, and one developmental prospect in Ade Ogundeji. Even the eternal optimist would have said the best case was the headliners hitting, one of the two solid prospects hit, and that the developmental prospect would turn into a solid rotational piece. This group had other plans.
Daelin Hayes had a 5-star rating on some services when he was a USC commitment before he flipped to Notre Dame. Khalid Kareem was a consensus 4-star who was committed to Alabama at one point. Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones were ranked outside the top 200, but still had 4-star ratings on some services. Ade Ogundeji was originally a Western Michigan commitment who the staff targetted as their project.
By 2018, Kareem was a front-line starter while Okwara and Hayes split time in the lineup. Ogundeji was just starting to scratch the surface of his talent and Jones was primarily a reserve. By 2019, the group hit its stride so much that the staff had actually hoped to make it through the season with Jones redshirting so that he could step into a starting role in 2020. Daelin Hayes’s early-season injury forced Jones into the lineup, but ended up bringing Hayes back in 2020.
Okwara and Kareem both were drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft – Okwara in the 3rd round and Kareem in the 5th. Both made rosters last year already. Jones tried to catch on last year, but without a Pro Day (canceled due to COVID-19) he didn’t have many opportunities. He was in training camp with Houston, but didn’t make the final cuts.
Hayes and Ogunedji returned for 5th years in 2020 to anchor the Notre Dame defensive line last fall before hearing their names called in the 2021 draft – both 5th round picks. Fifth-rounders aren’t locks to make a roster, but both survived final cuts for Baltimore and Atlanta. Jones caught on with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was one of the bigger surprises of training camp for the Steelers.
The fact that all five ended up being hits is a testament to Elston’s ability to identify defensive end talent. The fact that they all stayed is a testament to his – and the entire staff’s – ability to create a culture that players want to stay in as opposed to transferring just for more playing time. The fact that they all made it to the NFL is a testament to Mike Elston’s ability to develop talent.
Elston has continued to have success landing elite players for his defensive line. He’s already got two of the nation’s top defensive ends for 2023 committed. He’s also continued to prove his eye for identifying talent by offering Aiden Gobaira before most other major programs and before Gobaira started to rocket up the rankings. Notre Dame also has highly rated Tyson Ford committed for 2022 with several other elite defensive line targets left on their board.
In short, Mike Elston is a damn boss and every Notre Dame fan should be grateful to still have him on the Irish staff after all of these years.