At the close of the 2021 season, defensive end Isaiah Foskey opted to return to Notre Dame rather than head to the NFL. In January, Foskey gave several reasons why he intended to stay.
“I believe in Coach Freeman and I just believe in the whole team that we can actually win a national championship,” he said. “I believe that we can actually do that. The best of both worlds: I can come back, develop as a defensive end, not just as a pass rusher, but as an all-around defensive player. But I feel like this team can really win a national championship, that’s the main reason I came back.”
That reason to stay mirrored Foskey’s original reason for joining the Irish in 2019. While visiting Michigan, Foskey said proximity to South Bend was his only reason to swing down to Indiana, and he visited Notre Dame on a whim. That whim ended up a perfect fit for the California native, who chose to stay in South Bend because of a culture he says the team still embodies today — even now under Freeman.
“I feel like everyone has been getting a lot closer because we’ve been carrying on FTB, For the Brotherhood, and I feel like everyone is really for the brotherhood,” Foskey said. “That was the same thing in my high school, which is another reason why I came here. There was always something, and when I first visited, it was always about the Brotherhood and [even now] everyone’s close-knit, everyone’s tight, everyone’s always doing something for each other. Pretty much what we’ve been doing now is we just keep growing and growing. It’s been cool to actually be part of it.“
Now, although the Irish started the season 0-2 and a championship title seems firmly out of the question, Foskey has continued playing as a force to be reckoned with on the Irish defense. The defensive end finished last season with 52 tackles — 12.5 of them for a loss — and 11 sacks. This season, Foskey has already amassed 39 tackles, 10.5 of them for a loss with 8.5 sacks. Although he started the year a little slower than he wanted to, Foskey says dedication and focus in practice were the keys to his improvement.
“I feel like it was just my mindset and working after practice,” Foskey said. “Not just working on the run game part of it, but working on pass rush. Going into the season, everyone was knocking me off for my run defending, so I was really working on run defending throughout the season. Once I finally worked on pass rush, that’s when it started clicking.”
Foskey has found another role on the Irish roster to boost his impressive resume and continue working: He has become a special teams stud under Brian Mason, earning two punt blocks against UNLV and helping to force another in the first Clemson drive of Notre Dame’s most recent home game.
Playing on special teams has contributed to Foskey’s confidence in both himself and the defense he said, especially in terms of setting the tone. He said he knows it’s not just him who needs to succeed but the whole unit, on defense and on special teams.
“I know it wasn’t me who made that play or made that ‘perfect move,’ it was pressure going up the middle,” Foskey said. “That’s why I give a lot of props to my teammates.”
Foskey noted the defense’s most collaborative performance was during the Clemson game. The punt block on the Tigers’ opening drive was the moment Foskey felt the Irish had the game in the bag. There, he saw the Clemson offense just wasn’t as prepared as the Irish defense mentally. So, when Ben Morrison ran the ball back for a pick-six two quarters later, Foskey said he just took it all in.
“I was on the field, I saw it happen,” Foskey said. “At that exact moment I just flipped a switch to block one guy, and then I see him just running straight down the sideline. Running down with him was just exciting … I knew he was going to get into the end zone, so I could just jog a little bit and take in everything. I’m not the one with the ball, they’re not chasing me. So, I saw the student section going crazy, I looked in the family section, they’re going crazy, everyone’s on their feet, everyone’s pretty much going crazy. It’s a cool experience.”
It’s being able to switch gears in moments like that which has contributed to Foskey’s playing. From going after the ball to protecting the man who has it, Foskey has a mind for the game. Against Syracuse, he was able to run down Sean Tucker, the star running back for the Orange, and make the tackle 35 yards downfield. As a defensive end, that tackle wasn’t his responsibility, but it was a testament to his intense combination of speed, strength and skill.
Foskey credits the defensive linemen of rosters past with shaping him into the player he is today and says he wouldn’t be who he is on or off the field without them.
“Since freshman year, I’ve been watching the older guys lead and been under their wing,” Foskey said. “Khalid Kareem, Daelin Hayes, Julian [Okwara] and Ade [Ogundeji], just being under their wings as a defensive end and learning from them to be one of the older guys is something to look back at and see like, ‘Wow, I really came a long way.’ Especially being a captain now, people really look up to you, not just your position, but everyone on the team. It’s just something you look forward to, even from freshman year. I would’ve never thought freshman year coming here that I’d want to be a leader, but coming here you just really want to become a leader and that’s what I became.”
Foskey continued, “The biggest thing I learned from them was taking care of the people around you. Those people that I mentioned, they always took care of the defensive linemen. They always invited them over if they didn’t have a place to watch the Super Bowl or something like that. Or to watch a game, they’d always invite the younger guys over, and that’s something that I’ve been doing. I just always hang out with the younger guys nowadays. They’re always fun to joke around with and to hang around with them.”
One of the strongest relationships Foskey has formed with the younger guys outside his position has been with Audric Estime. The defensive end and the running back both don number seven for the Irish and relish in that fact.
“It’s great, because we’re both wearing number seven — that’s pretty much how the relationship started, we always say ‘Okay, let’s go seven’ and say it back and forth to each other,” Foskey said. “So it’s always great we always root for each other.”
Foskey started the season oriented around a national title. While that hope has fallen out of reach for the Irish, Foskey said he has faith in Freeman and the program and is just looking to perfect his craft. Tied with Justin Tuck for the University sack record, Foskey seems to have done just that: perfected his craft.
But he’s not done. With three games left, Foskey has the opportunity to break the record, but his focus is on something else.
“I think about the sack record, yeah, but I don’t go in the game thinking, ‘I need to get one more sack to get the sack record.’ I just go in and focus on myself and my technique and try and dominate every single play,” he said. “I don’t really go in a game and say, ‘I’m gonna work this pass rush move to try and get the sack, and once I get the sack I’ll celebrate and do this.’ I don’t really think about that. I just think about doing my job every single play.”