Position Group Breakdown: Defensive End
Observer Sports Staff | Wednesday, March 31, 2021
Entering his third year as defensive line coach, Mike Elston will have tough decisions to make, as none of his returning players have extensive experience in the starting lineup. However, the defensive line depth chart is filled with talented former four-star recruits, which indicates that this unit has the potential to be elite. The scarcity of veteran leadership will bring growing pains, but the young talent should eventually build chemistry with one another and gain experience as the season goes on.
Position Group: Defensive End
2021 depth chart: senior Justin Ademilola; juniors Isaiah Foskey and Nana Osafo-Mensah; sophomores Jordan Botelho, Rylie Mills and Alexander Ehrensberger; incoming freshmen Jason Onye, David Aupiu and Will Schweitzer
The Irish will certainly miss Daelin Hayes and his veteran leadership built off of 5 years of collegiate experience. Before arriving at Notre Dame, Hayes was an impressive four-star prospect, who was considered to be one of the most athletic defensive players in his class. He lived up to his strong reputation by being a key defensive contributor every season, with his best stretch of play being in his sophomore and junior campaigns, where he averaged around 30 total tackles per year. In 2020, Hayes recorded a career-high three sacks, including a key tackle against DJ Uiagalelei, which helped give the Irish the edge in overtime against No. 1 Clemson. He also had 16 total tackles, two forced fumbles and one interception in this same season. Hayes’ impressive career at Notre Dame has also contributed to interest from several NFL teams, as he is projected to be selected on the third day of the NFL draft.
By all accounts, Ade Ogundeji exceeded expectations at Notre Dame as he developed into an elite defensive presence after entering college with a prospect grade of three stars. He gained valuable experience from the bench in his first two seasons, but once he received meaningful playing time, Ogundeji proved to be indispensable to the Irish defense. In his last three seasons, Ogundeji recorded 25, 34, and 22 total tackles respectively while averaging an impressive 5.5 sacks over the past two seasons. He also forced six fumbles in his career while earning an All-ACC Honorable Mention for his efforts. Ogundeji has a bright future ahead with his draft projection being placed as high as the second round, and the Irish will certainly be hard-pressed to effectively replace his consistency and athleticism on the defensive line.
Notre Dame will also be losing a key depth player, as senior Ovie Oghoufo is transferring to the University of Texas in 2021. He committed to the Irish as a three-star prospect but was never able to carve out a spot in the starting lineup. In his two years of on-field action, Oghoufo averaged 5.5 total tackles per season along with about a sack each year. He was also known for making the most of his playing time while bringing a high level of energy to every game. The absence of Oghoufo might not be immediately felt by the Irish, but a few injuries could force a younger, underprepared player into the spotlight, which would dampen the effectiveness of the Irish defense.
Justin Ademilola brings three solid years of experience to the Irish’s defensive line. He was signed as a three-star recruit and was ready to play on the collegiate level immediately, which was shown when he was given playing time during his freshman year. After recording nine total tackles in both of his first two seasons, Ademilola improved in 2020, collecting 16 total tackles and his first collegiate sack. He is now one of Notre Dame’s most experienced defensive linemen and will need to emerge as a leader to help guide the younger players further down the depth chart. All signs seem to indicate that Ademilola will continue on his trend of upward development, which will be essential for the Irish’s defensive success this season.
After a strong sophomore season, Isaiah Foskey finally seems set to enter the starting lineup. He entered Notre Dame as a four-star recruit with high expectations, and he definitely showed glimpses of his true potential in 2020. In this campaign, Foskey collected 20 total tackles and 4.5 sacks, which was particularly impressive given his limited role as a depth player. He is considered to be a very physical defender, and his sack statistics prove that he is one of the most agile and explosive players on the defensive line. The jump into the starting lineup will give Foskey added responsibilities and pressures, but his past performance indicates that he should be up to the challenge. I believe that Foskey could be a breakout player for the Irish, and is certainly someone to watch out for next season.
Although he remains unproven against college-level opponents, Nana Osafo-Mensah is an extremely intriguing player with a high potential talent ceiling. He was recruited by Notre Dame as a four-star prospect and is known as a quick pass-rusher with active hands. After receiving some playing time as a freshman, Osafo-Mensah’s sophomore season was derailed by an injury to his lateral meniscus, which prevented him from taking the field that year. There seems to be a certain level of mystery to Osafo-Mensah, as he has not had much of a chance to showcase his true abilities just yet. However, he has been training extensively for 2021 and bulked up from 224 to 249 pounds, which should help him be a more physical defender. If given the opportunity, Osafo-Mensah could certainly garner national attention and be a breakout player for the Irish.
Jordan Botelho is yet another young member of the defensive line with a lot of potential. He was recruited as a four-star prospect and was widely thought of as the best Hawaiian player in his class. Botelho was even nominated for the coveted Butkus Award and led his high school to a state championship in 2019. Last season, he was able to make an impact with very limited playing time as he recorded four total tackles. Known for his aggressiveness and pass-rushing ability, Botelho has also gained about 20 pounds of muscle, which should help him adapt to the college level. Regardless of his role this upcoming season, Botelho is sure to make an impact and should continue on his development path, which seems destined for stardom.
Rylie Mills rounds out the returning defensive ends by adding even more youth and potential. Like Jordan Botelho, Mills entered Notre Dame as a four-star recruit with a large amount of expectations. He is known for his high motor and strong hands as well as his imposing 273-pound frame. Last year, he was able to get a feel for the college game with semi-regular playing time. Mills recorded six total tackles and a half sack as a freshman, and he looks like he has the chance to become a dominant player in the coming years. He even gained some valuable postseason experience as he started his first game against Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semifinal. This fact indicates that the coaching staff has faith in him, and I would not be surprised if Mills becomes one of the most improved players on defense in 2021.
At 6 foot 5 and 260 pounds, Jason Onye certainly has the physical qualities to become an elite defensive lineman. He joins Notre Dame as a three-star recruit and was widely regarded as the best player in his class from Rhode Island. During his junior year, Onye collected 59 total tackles, 14 sacks and 12 tackles for loss while winning his second state championship. It is too early to tell how he will develop, but Onye’s work ethic is clearly strong, which should hasten this process. Due to the high concentration of young, talented linemen ahead of him on the depth chart, Onye will most likely receive limited playing time in his first few seasons, but he should eventually become a key contributor to the Irish defense.
Devin Aupiu is another three-star recruit, who will most likely spend the next couple of seasons learning from the veterans on the Irish defense. He stands at 6 foot 5 but will have to eventually add muscle to become more physical, as he only weighs in at 220 pounds. Aupiu’s 2019 high school statistics include 50 total tackles, three tackles for loss, eight sacks, five pass deflections and one forced fumble. He also led Pacifica High School to its first CIF 2A state title while qualifying to play in the Polynesian Bowl. Aupiu is set to add future depth to the defensive line and has the chance to develop into a talented collegiate player.
Will Schweitzer is the final defensive end recruit in this incoming class. He is coming to the Irish as a three-star recruit, who is considered to be a talented pass-rusher with the ability to perform tight coverage on short passes. At 6 foot 4 and 215 pounds, Schweitzer is undersized, but he probably will not have much trouble bulking up in the Notre Dame training system. He was one of the leaders on the Los Gatos High School team that made it to the CIF regional 3AA championship game and posted a stat line of 30 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sacks, 21 hurries and one interception during his junior year. Along with his fellow new recruits, Schweitzer will most likely have to pay his dues deep in the depth chart before becoming a key contributor later in his career.
Patrick Gallagher — Sports Writer
While the lack of starting experience is concerning, the Irish’s defensive line seems like it is filled with too much talent to fail. The loss of team captains Hayes and Ogundeji will sting, as they helped give the Irish the third-ranked rushing defense in the ACC last season. However, I believe that last year’s unit could have been more effective. Notre Dame’s sacking ability was middle of the road by ACC standards, as the defense ranked eighth in this category below several less-talented programs. In addition, no players from the Irish were able to break the top 25 in the ACC for total tackles.
These facts indicate that the 2021 defensive line has a lot of room to improve. Isaiah Foskey will certainly help increase Notre Dame’s sack totals due to his aggressive explosiveness, and I believe that one of the unproven younger players (Osafo-Mensah, Botelho or Mills) will develop into a star this season along with him. Justin Ademilola should bring this group together as the resident veteran, and I do see a very real path to an even better defense in 2021.
On the other hand, the inexperience of the defensive line gives the unit’s potential performance a “boom or bust” feel, and I feel like there is uncertainty regarding how these players will perform, which prevents me from giving an A grade. The lack of four-star recruits in the incoming class could also be problematic, but all of these players could develop into key contributors, so no judgments can be made on this front as yet.