Notre Dame Football's 'Extremely Deep' Defensive Line Exits Spring Practice As A Clear Team Strength
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Notre Dame’s ‘Extremely Deep’ DL Exits Spring As A Clear Team Strength

For someone barely four months into a new job, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman sure seemed comfortable speaking in absolutes about his unit’s long-term identity.

"We've always been and will always be a defensive line-driven program,” Freeman said in an April Zoom press conference. “That means as our defensive line goes, our defense will go.”

Listen closely, and there’s a hint of excitement detectable in his answer — as if he knew what the public would soon get to see from his defensive front.

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football defensive linemen Kurt Hinish and Jayson Ademilola
Kurt Hinish (left) and Jayson Ademilola are Notre Dame's likely starters at defensive tackle. (Notre Dame Athletics)

If Notre Dame’s spring game is any indication, its defense is in steady hands if the line is the head of the snake. All the tropes and clichés about winning games at the line of scrimmage feel like fitting descriptors of Notre Dame’s defensive mindset.

Notre Dame’s defensive line was its deepest position in 2020. It entered spring as the position with the fewest questions, the most sure things and considerable upside. It exits having made a statement that it’s the Irish defense’s best position and may play 10 linemen once again.

In the Blue-Gold Game May 1, the defensive line combined for eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Starters were split across both teams, but without any prior knowledge of them, it would’ve been hard to discern first-team players from second-stringers. Nearly everyone who played flashed some disruptive ability.

“They've done an excellent job,” Freeman said. “They've done an unbelievable job. They're extremely deep at the position. As they continue to play well, it makes our job behind them that much easier.”

Even with the loss of two starters who were drafted, there’s a degree of certainty and a high floor when discussing the defensive line. All six players who saw meaningful snaps on the interior are back. The replacements for 2020 starting defensive ends and fifth-round picks Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji have upside that could make them even more productive than those two were.

Isaiah Foskey’s 2020 season as Hayes’ backup at vyper unearthed more signs of an impact rusher with rare athletic traits. He has spent the offseason trying to harness them and prepare for a starter’s workload.

“When I first got here, everyone said, ‘He’s the potential first-round pick,’" Freeman said. "He has done a great job. He’s working on it."

The spring game was the first extended look at sophomore-to-be Jordan Botelho, whose speed, bend and burst were on display in several one-on-one pass-rush wins. He seems destined for 20 to 25 snaps per game and a role as a sub-package starter – much like Foskey’s 2020.

This spring offered optimism that Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s move from defensive tackle to strong-side end will result in little drop-off from Ogundeji and perhaps strengthen two positions. His move opens up a starting tackle spot for senior Jayson Ademilola, who had the highest pressure rate of any Notre Dame interior lineman in 2020 and posted arguably his two best performances in the postseason.

Elsewhere, nose tackle Kurt Hinish used the NCAA’s COVID-19 blanket waiver to return for a fifth season. His No. 2, junior Howard Cross III, impressed with his gap-shooting ability and quickness in his 166 snaps. Classmate Jacob Lacey, a two-year contributor, will return to action this fall after missing the spring due to a shoulder injury.

All told, that’s a lot of mouths to feed — an ideal problem for defensive line coach Mike Elston. Notre Dame’s strength will be in its numbers more than its individual star power. It might not have an obvious early-round pick or an All-American right now, but it can reasonably think its two-deep consists of two starting-caliber units.

“We’re going to play hopefully 10, 11, 12 guys,” Elston said. “What that does – the culture you create, the buy-in during the week, the effort and energy they put into the practices and meetings. Everyone is bought in because they know they have a chance to play. If you’re not bought in, you’re not going to play.”

“It’s an accountability piece. It’s also a reward. ‘If I work hard and play winning football, coach is going to try and find a way to play me.’”

Elston mastered the art of juggling an 11-player rotation of last season. The key to it was planning in advance and giving everyone an understanding of their role before the game started.

“Every meeting on Friday, we go through series one of the game,” Elston said. “Here’s who is going to go out there for series one, and here are the four guys who, if it goes over four plays, are going to rally in. We call that our rally team.

“Then it’s the second series. Who’s going to start the second series and who’s going to be the rally group? Sometimes Kurt Hinish, who’s a starter, is in the rally group and Howard Cross would run out and start the drive.

“I tried to script it where the starters are going to get more reps. But if we’re even at a position like defensive tackle like we were with Myron and Jayson, if we finish the game and have one guy had 49 reps and one guy had 48 or 50, that’s a win. That’s good. There are positions where we’ve played three guys.”

And if all four positions prove to be three-deep this year, Elston and Freeman would be happy to take on the extra work of finding everyone some snaps.

“I don’t want to take a guy off the field and we have a drop-off,” Elston said. “But if we can do it, if we can put a guy in and play the same level, we’re going to do it.”

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