Notre Dame’s Vyper DE Position And An Offseason Full Of Change
Marcus Freeman arrived at Notre Dame in January and heard the murmurs.
A defensive end who didn’t even start last season kept coming up in conversation as the first-year Irish defensive coordinator learned about his new personnel. Look for No. 7 when you watch last year’s film, he was told. That player, junior Isaiah Foskey, has rare natural gifts that were evident in a 2020 part-time role.
“When I first got here, everyone said, ‘He’s the potential first-round pick,’” Freeman said.
He has since learned the other player at Foskey’s vyper defensive end position — sophomore Jordan Botelho — has a mean streak unmatched by any teammate.
“He plays with the effort, attitude and reckless abandon that we need everyone on defense to play with,” Freeman said. “That’s why you’ve seen him flash, why you’ve seen him make some havoc plays.”
Those two former four-star recruits are the enticing starter kit for Notre Dame’s 2021 pass rush. Despite their relative lack of experience, they feel closer to two linchpins rather than starter and backup despite playing the same position. There’s enough buzz about their potential to think Notre Dame can avoid drop-off at that spot after losing fifth-round pick Daelin Hayes.
But first, they endured a spring of education. Freeman is keeping the vyper role from predecessor Clark Lea’s scheme. He is, though, tweaking its responsibilities. Foskey and Botelho spent the spring learning new duties in addition to building on their pass-rush skill.
“He’s putting the vypers into more linebacker/defensive end positions, so I’ve been working on a lot more drops and covering,” Foskey said in April. “But I’m still a pass rusher. I’m working on technical stuff, working with my hands, being physical at the point of attack.”
The Blue-Gold Game and spring practice footage Notre Dame released the last few weeks offered a peek at the vyper usage. They will still be important pass rushers, of course. Freeman will also ask them to drop into coverage more. In some snippets of the three-minute practice video, the vyper was aligned on the second level.
“It’s a little more multiple in coverage,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said. “We do a lot with that position now. We didn’t do as much dropping that guy, and a lot of it was zone or matchup. There are a lot of different coverages we execute with them now.”
Foskey and Hayes combined for 72 coverage snaps last year, per Pro Football Focus. Even if that number doesn’t go up too much — this is still a pass rush position with two of the defense’s best athletes, after all — coverage was a spring emphasis.
“I see corners doing it, chasing the hip and staying with them,” Foskey said. “It looks easy when they do it, but when you go out there it’s more challenging. That’s just more stuff I have to work on — getting hands on a guy when he’s about to break on a route, staying close to his hip.”
If the spring game is any indication, many of the vyper’s coverage snaps will be disguised or not obvious pre-snap. At times — mainly on third downs — a linebacker and three defensive linemen rushed while the fourth lineman dropped into the flat to cover. Often, that cover man was Foskey or Botelho.
On one second-quarter play in the spring game, Botelho took two steps toward the rusher and then dropped into underneath coverage, picking up running back Chris Tyree. Quarterback Tyler Buchner’s pass to a blanketed Tyree was incomplete.
But pass rushing production is still the priority. Foskey and Botelho each had a sack in the spring game. Botelho’s came one-on-one against tackle Tosh Baker. Foskey’s was on a stunt where he looped inside.
As tantalizing as their physical skill sets are, neither is close to fully developed or boasts loads of experience. Foskey played 23.5 snaps per game last year and has only 336 in his career. Botelho saw action on defense in one game as a freshman.
A starter’s workload is more than a 50 percent increase of Foskey’s 2020 usage. Hayes played 433 snaps in 12 games in 2020. Julian Okwara, the vyper before Hayes, played 571 snaps in 13 games in 2018. Botelho feels like a sub-package lock and could surpass Foskey’s 2020 usage as a backup. It’s likely they will be deployed together on third downs.
Foskey still finished second on the team with 4.5 sacks last season, but some of those were when he came unblocked. For Notre Dame’s pass rush to push upward from three straight years ranked between 30th and 40th nationally in sacks per game, it needs both vypers to win one-on-ones with frequency.
“Foskey hasn’t played a whole lot of football,” Freeman said. “That’s a point of emphasis. We need to continue to get his football intelligence up and get him reps and reps and reps.”
Botelho’s development, meanwhile, requires harnessing his motor in addition to refining pass-rush technique and learning other spots.
“We talk about being disruptive,” Freeman said. “Jordan is one of the leaders of being disruptive. He’s playing extremely fast. He plays with a violence that sometimes you have to say, ‘Slow down a little bit.’
“He’s a guy we’ll use at multiple positions. We’ve experimented with him at linebacker, at vyper. He’s a guy you can move all over the field.”
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