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Notre Dame Football

Will Notre Dame's Defensive Line Ascend to Even Greater Heights in 2022?

August 12, 2022

In 2021, Notre Dame tied a single-season school record with 41 sacks. The 1996 squad previously matched this mark.

The vast majority of the pass-rush production in 2021 came from the defensive line. Irish defensive backs and linebackers combined for just six sacks total. 

Even after losing defensive stalwarts and team captains Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa to the NFL, the Irish defensive line is poised to level up this fall.

By national standards, there’s room to improve. The Irish averaged 3.15 sacks per game, which was tied for 13th among teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But Notre Dame still finished 16 total sacks behind Oklahoma State.

When it comes to sack production, the line is led by senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey. He’s a projected first-round pick, and his 11 sacks in 2021 is the third highest single-season mark in program history. 

While it may seem tempting, the players are doing their best to avoid sharing specific statistical goals, unlike Julian Okwara’s 18.5-sack proclamation prior to the 2019 season. 

“I kind of know the goals I want to set for myself,” Foskey said. “When I play throughout the season, when I have fun, that's when all this stuff comes to me. I'm just one of 11. Coach Freeman says all the time, just do your job and the play we'll come to you.”

Brothers Justin and Jayson Ademilola also return for their fifth seasons in South Bend. They finished second and third on the team in sacks in 2021.

In fall camp, they’re pushing each other harder than ever. 

“He's my biggest competition,” said Justin Ademilola, “and I know if I make mistakes, I'll hear from my coach, but hearing my brother, that's the worst.”

Both made significant strides in pass-rush production as seniors. They went from a combined 1.5 sacks in 2020 to 9.5 sacks in 2021. 

“We've always been trained on pass-rushing, but last summer, I started picking up little nuances here on there and it showed dividends,” said Justin Ademilola. “But everything I did last year, that doesn't matter anymore. I've got way higher standards this year.”

It’s easier to hold yourself to a higher standard when surrounded by several defensive linemen with NFL potential. In addition to training with his brother and Foskey, he’s also pushed by junior defensive end Rylie Mills and senior defensive tackles Howard Cross and Jacob Lacey. 

Mills had three sacks last year and is poised to breakout as the starting strongside defensive this season. The better he plays, the less opposing offenses can focus on Foskey and the Ademilola brothers.

“The goal every day is just to set the standard,” Mills said. “I love seeing Foskey out there, because every time he makes a sack, that's a sack for the defense, and I'm always pumped up.”

The unit’s potential to dominate extends beyond the past rush. Foskey, for instance, returned to Notre Dame in order to improve as a run defender. 

Additionally, graduate student Chris Smith transferred to Notre Dame from Havard in the offseason. He checks in at 6-foot-1 and 310 pounds, stout enough to hold the point of attack in short-yardage situations and against double teams. 

Iron Sharpens Iron

It may be a cliché every college football coach in America says to the media, but the iron sharpens iron mantra is popular because there’s truth to it.

When physical and technically sound offensive and defensive lines face off every day in practice, it leads to improvements on every rep.

“Every day, it's attack mode,” said defensive line coach Al Washington. “It is clean, but we know this: nobody's going to push our o-line like us, and nobody's going to push us like o-line. So that unity through that friction is what we're after.”

But in 2021, the offensive line struggled, especially early in the season, which left the defensive line without as much of a challenge in fall camp. 

At least thus far, the offensive line appears to have significantly improved their technique, while increasing their physicality. 

“All of the d-line see it, but their run blocking and pass blocking has improved, especially Joe Alt and Blake Fisher,” Foskey said. “I just see like a big difference with them.”

In one-on-one reps between the lines at Friday’s practice, Foskey matched up with Fisher, who knocked the talented edge rusher back. 

“He basically put me on the ground in pass pro,” Foskey said. “He's got a good little punch, but that's a credit to [offensive line coach] Hiestand.”

After enduring some good-natured smack talk from Fisher, Foskey returned to his place in line and evaluated his mistake. 

“That's an example of how iron sharpens iron,” Washington said. “The best thing about it is you get up and you say, 'this is what I did [wrong].’ Then you come back and that’s what Foskey did. He made the adjustment and won the next rep.”

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