Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, rushing off of opposite ends, were a big part of the Notre Dame defense last year with 17 tackles for loss and 101/2 sacks between them.
The two are now playing on Sundays in the NFL and productive rotation end Jamir Jones has also graduated, but after its season opener, it looks like Notre Dame might be just as fearsome off the edge. The No. 7 Irish don't have many new faces at the position, but what they do have is familiar faces, old and young, taking on much larger roles.
The story of the rebuilt defensive line has to start with fifth-year senior Daelin Hayes, a former four-star recruit who announced his commitment in a video that parodied a spy movie. Hayes seemed to be on his way to a career year in 2019 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. The injury was a devastating blow at first, but Hayes leaned on the support system he's developed at Notre Dame.
“I would've been broken,” Hayes said of what would've happened if the injury occurred earlier in his career. “I would've been discouraged. Like it would've been too much like for me to handle. But I relied in my brothers. I relied on my family. I relied on my coaches. I relied on my faith and I stand before you today.”
His time off from football inspired him to spend his time working in the community. What began with the 6-foot-3, 270-pound defensive end volunteering at an elementary school in South Bend grew into a passion for social justice that culminated in his organization of a march against racial injustice on Juneteenth. His leadership in that area and his commitment to change impressed his teammates, who voted him one of Notre Dame's five captains this season.
“There's nothing in my life that I've been more proud of, aside from choosing to come to Notre Dame,” Hayes said of being named a captain. “When you choose to come to a place like this that's so special and then you're given the opportunity to serve your teammates as a captain, your organization, your university, it's a great honor. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me.”
Hayes is not only valuable as a leader. He is also a standout edge rusher who was named a preseason All-American this year by The Sporting News. Hayes is a terrific athlete, capable of laying out big hits on the quarterback and also dropping in coverage when the need arises. He opened the 2020 season with two tackles and a quarterback hit against Duke as the Blue Devils paid him special attention.
Duke's focus on Hayes opened up opportunities for the other Irish edge rushers to make plays. One who made the most of his chances was 6-5, 260-pound redshirt freshman Isaiah Foskey, a revelation in the pass rush against the Blue Devils. Foskey had 11/2 tackles for loss, including his first career sack, and three quarterback hits in his first extended playing time after getting in four games last season.
Foskey, who played mostly tight end in high school, studied under starting defensive end Ade Ogundeji during the summer, working on getting stronger with his hands and getting extension so he doesn't get locked up with opposing offensive linemen. Once he beats the lineman across from him, Foskey is focused on doing damage.
“(Defensive coordinator) Coach (Clark) Lea has a turnover (drill) we work on and says, 'Try to go for that ball,'” Foskey said. “I'm looking at the ball, looking at the quarterback, going for the ball, trying to get a turnover or bat the ball down. ... If I get a sack, I get a sack, but I'm trying to go for the ball, get a turnover and get us off the field.”
Ogundeji was impressed with the work ethic of Foskey and other young defensive ends such as Ovie Oghoufo over the summer and their ability to step in and produce immediately. It wont be easy to replace what Kareem and Okwara provided, but with the leadership of Hayes and Ogundeji and the improvements from Foskey and others, the Irish will still make plenty of quarterbacks uncomfortable off the edge this season.
“We still have Daelin and Ade, they came back as fifth years, so we're not losing any momentum,” Foskey said.
vs. South Florida
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend
Records: No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0), South Florida (1-0)
TV: USA Network
Radio: 1380 AM, 100.9 FM