I had the privilege of witnessing Billy Joel rock out Notre Dame Stadium this summer. COVID-19 obviously sucks, and it’s a testament to him that his performance was so great it made the two-year delay worth it.
So in honor of Mr. Joel, here are the 2022 Notre Dame defensive ends presented as his songs. But there’s no Piano Man. If you have a problem with it, go ahead with your own life, leave me alone.
No. 7 Isaiah Foskey — “The Entertainer”
Foskey is the most entertaining player on Notre Dame’s defensive line — probably on the entire defense* — so he is “The Entertainer.” And, of course, how could one of the stars of the Shamrock Series “Hangover” parody uniform reveal not be The Entertainer? (Though he’s got nothing on Michael Mayer’s acting chops).
Foskey finished his junior campaign with the third-most sacks in a single season by a Notre Dame football player (11), bringing his career total to 15.5. He also led the team with 12.5 tackles for loss to pair with six forced fumbles in 2021. He elected to return to South Bend for one more year pursuing a national championship and a shot at Justin Tuck’s single-season (13.5) and career (24.5) sack records.
Foskey is a de facto All-American contender for the Irish this season. He’s got a chance to not only be a Day 1 NFL Draft pick, but a green room invitee. And if he breaks (or even sniffs) Tuck’s single-season sack record, Notre Dame has a legitimate shot at a College Football Playoff bid.
No. 99 Riley Mills — “Pressure”
This comp isn’t meant in the sense that Mills will constantly be getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It’s meant in the sense that the pressure is on Mills to step up this season and become a dynamic defensive end opposite Foskey.
Mills’ 3.0 sacks last season tied for fourth-most on the roster. But two of those came in one game against Virginia and the other was in the season opener at Florida State. As talented as Foskey is, his impact isn’t going to be as great against the teams it needs to be great against if those teams can double team him with no regard for Mills.
At 6-foot-5 and 292 pounds, the physical tools are there for Mills to be a matchup nightmare. It’s a matter of consistently forcing defenses to respect him if Notre Dame’s pass rush is going to make an impact when it matters most.
No. 9 Justin Ademilola — “A Matter of Trust”
Ademilola decided to return to South Bend as a fifth-year senior to bolster his resume for a potential pro career. His numbers have steadily improved throughout his Notre Dame tenure as he finished 2021 with career marks for tackles (35), tackles for loss (6), and sacks (5).
With a guy like Foskey headlining the edge rushers and Mills a young name on the rise — not to mention a twin brother on the defensive line — it feels like Justin is perpetually overlooked. But he was second on the team in sacks last season, and at this point, “It’s a Matter of Trust” that he’ll continue to do his part to make the Irish pass rush dangerous. And if he keeps surpassing his previous numbers, the pass rush won’t just be dangerous, but lethal.
No. 31 Nana Osafo-Mensah — “Keeping the Faith”
Last year was the most productive of Osafo-Mensah’s career by far. After redshirting as a freshman and missing all of 2020 with a meniscus injury, he recorded 13 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks last season.
The native of Fort Worth, Texas is an often-unsung member of the Irish D-line, and he’ll likely never be a household name. But Notre Dame has a track record of developing defensive ends for the pros (see: all four defensive ends in the 2016 signing class were drafted). If Osafo-Mensah keeps his faith in the Irish coaches and program, he can be an impact rotation player over the next two years and have a decent shot at cracking an NFL roster.
No. 90 Alexander Ehrensberger — “Vienna”
I hope this isn’t offensive considering that Ehrensberger is from Germany, but Austria was the closest thing available in Joel’s catalog. I hope it also isn’t offensive to call him the “Stout Kraut,” but rhyming is just so much fun. Entschuldigung, Alex.
Ehrensberger hails from Dusseldorf, Germany. With tantalizing physical length at 6-foot-7, the Irish took a flyer on him as a developmental player. Now entering his third year in the program, he’s up to over 260 pounds and could be an X-factor coming off the edge. But with a lack of proven production against quality competition — just 3.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks to his name, predominantly in garbage time — a breakout season from Ehrensberger may not be in the cards just yet.
No. 34 Osita Ekwonu — “Big Shot”
To date, Ekwonu hasn’t exactly been a big shot for Notre Dame (not that the former four-star recruit was necessarily expected to be one). On the flip side, his brother Ikem probably qualifies as one after the NC State offensive tackle went No. 6 overall in this year’s NFL Draft.
Bringing that up isn’t meant to rub Ikem’s accomplishments in Osita’s face, only to say that there is genetic potential there for the golden domer in the family. But Ekwonu has yet to make any real impact with the Irish, both because of the players ahead of him and an achilles injury that cost him all but one game in the 2021 season.
Recruited and slotted as a linebacker during his first two seasons with the Irish, Ekwonu redshirted as a freshman but appeared in nine games in 2020, recording 3.0 total tackles and a blocked punt against South Florida. (And, just as an interesting aside, he was discussed as a potential goal-line running back during the 2020 season before Kyren Williams obliterated all concern at the position).
Like Osaka-Mensah, Ekwonu is a rotational player who can continue to develop in the program and potentially have a bigger role when Foskey and Justin Ademilola move on.
No. 98 Tyson Ford — “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
When it came to criticizing Brian Kelly for his effort (or lack thereof) on the recruiting trail, the flames of frustration didn’t start with Ford. They technically began with wide receiver Jalen McMillan and safety Lathan Ransom, as former South Bend Tribune reporter Carter Karels highlighted in his story about how the Irish missed on those 2020 targets because Kelly wouldn’t develop a relationship with them. But Ford’s recruitment stoked those flames once again in the 2022 class.
As Pete Sampson of The Athletic reported, Ford estimated that during his recruitment he talked with then-Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley 10 times. He didn’t talk to Brian Kelly once. A recruitment that initially seemed destined for the Irish had been all but lost to the Sooners until Marcus Freeman was hired as defensive coordinator and convinced Ford to choose Notre Dame.
Only time will tell if the 6-foot-4, 275-pounder out of St. Louis was worth the hassle. But given the neck-and-neck nature of his recruitment with Oklahoma, plus with an offer sheet that included Clemson, Georgia and Texas A&M, hopes are high for what Ford can be down the road for Notre Dame.
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira — “Worse Comes to Worst”
If worse comes to worst injury-wise, Gobaira is a solid option in the back pocket. Obviously you don’t want a true freshman to have to play significant minutes — and Gobaira likely won’t have to. But the four-star out of Chantilly, Va. rose from No. 344 to the No. 168 prospect in the 247Sports Composite rankings during his recruitment, so the potential is there.
Again, it’s unlikely Gobaira will be called upon to produce substantially this season. But there’s promise in what the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder can bring to the defense in the coming years.
No. 40 Joshua Burnham — “The Stranger”
Burnham is a bit of a stranger among the defensive ends seeing as he was part of Marcus Freeman’s inaugural linebacker recruiting haul and has already moved to vyper. It’s a testament to his work ethic in the weight room, and coaches and players were reportedly raving about how well he handled the strength program as an early enrollee this past spring.
Irish defensive line coach Al Washington just recently said that Burnham is training with both the D-Line at vyper and the linebackers at rover, so he hasn’t completely changed positions. Either way, the Irish are deep enough on the line that Burnham, Ford and Gobaira probably won’t see significant time this season.