SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Each season a defensive player comes along -- always a lineman and/or edge rusher -- who forces the Notre Dame offense to place special attention during game-plan preparation.
Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan was one. So was Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald. Stanford’s Trent Murphy and Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin fit the mold.
Add Ohio State’s Joey Bosa to the list.
In fact, put him at the top of it.
“Coach (Brian) Kelly uses the phrase for offensive players – game wreckers,” said associate head coach Mike Denbrock Monday from the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz., as No. 8 Notre Dame continued its preparation for the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl against No. 7 Ohio State.
“Bosa’s a game wrecker on the defensive side of the ball. He’s an incredible talent, both defending the run and rushing the passer. Great with his hands, tremendous leverage, plays with a motor that just doesn’t shut off…He’s taken a lot of our attention preparing for this game.”
The 6-foot-6, 275-pound Bosa is a prototypical pass-rushing defensive end. But to narrow the focus on just that one aspect of his game would be to shortchange one of the truly dynamic defensive football players in the country.
After earning freshman All-American honors with 7.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, six quarterback hurries and 44 tackles in 2013, Bosa became a bona fide star as a sophomore while helping lead the Buckeyes to the 2014 national title.
Bosa had 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks for a Buckeye defense that finished seventh in the country in sacks (45) and fifth in tackles for loss (110).
The numbers don’t quite stack up this year. Through 12 games he has “just” 16 tackles for loss and a mere five sacks. It would be safe to say Bosa has faced more double teams in pass rushing situations than one-on-one blocking.
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford scoffed at the notion that Bosa has been less effective this year when you consider just how many times the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., product has made contact with the opposing quarterback.
Bosa has more quarterback hurries in 2015 (14) than in his two previous years combined (10).
Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell says there’s no comparison between Bosa the sophomore and Bosa the junior.
Bosa the junior – despite the lagging stats – is the more well-rounded football player.
“I can tell you this, he’s a lot better football player right now than he was last year,” Fickell said. “In every way. He sees the big picture.”
Now the Irish will have to factor in another component to Bosa’s game. With tackles Adolphus Washington sidelined due to suspension and Tommy Schutt out with a broken foot, Bosa is spending more time inside, allowing talented sophomore Tyquan Lewis and freshman Sam Hubbard to get more time off the edge while Bosa can attack the center and two guards with athleticism.
“As an offensive lineman, you look at the defense a little differently to know where (Bosa) is,” said Irish center Nick Martin. “When it comes down to it, you’ve got a play call and you’ve got to execute it, no matter who’s in front of you. But with Bosa, we put a little more (awareness) on him.”
Bosa admits that he feels the stress and pressure to live up to last year’s outrageous sack/tackle for loss numbers.
“I’ve got to have 10 sacks a game or I suck,” said a soft-spoken Bosa.
Slamming between the defensive ends against interior offensive lineman is a challenge for a guy who frequently gives away 35 or more pounds to a center/guard. But he’s also a matchup nightmare for interior offensive linemen.
“He brings that athleticism that he shows on the edge of the defense into the middle of the defense,” Denbrock said. “Tackles are tackles for a reason. They’re more athletic than guards.
“Tackles have trouble blocking him. Now you move him inside and he’s matched up in a three-technique against an offensive guard and you’ve got your hands full.”
Fickell will have to decide between keeping Bosa at his most comfortable position – defensive end – or slipping him inside, allowing Lewis and Hubbard to come off the edge, and limiting the snaps for young interior defensive linemen such as sophomores Donovan Munger, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill, as well as infrequently-used senior Joel Hale.
Bosa shows ample respect towards Notre Dame’s offensive line, particularly left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who, like Bosa – provided Bosa bypasses his senior year at Ohio State – is a sure-fire upper-half first-round draft choice.
“He can run, he’s athletic, he’s long and I can tell he’s getting better every week,” said Bosa of Stanley. “You watch him pull and run downfield…it’s pretty crazy watching a guy like that. He’s rated as high as he is for a reason, but I get to go against the best in the country every day in practice.”
One way or another, wherever he’s aligned, Notre Dame will know where No. 97 will be. For the past 40 games, a majority of the time, it’s been on the other side of the line of scrimmage.