Position Breakdown: Defensive Tackle
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, April 9, 2021
While Notre Dame’s defense has a few more questions than they entered 2020 with, the Fighting Irish are bolstered by a pair of their top defenders returning at defensive tackle, making the position one of the strongest on that side of the ball.
Last year, Notre Dame boasted an elite run defense, as they particularly showcased their abilities in regular season clashes against Clemson and North Carolina, holding well-regarded NFL Draft prospects Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams to a combined 56 yards on 29 carries. Their strong linebacker room and edge pressure was a massive contributing factor to this success, with the Irish’s own top draft prospects Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Ade Ogundeji terrorizing opposing offensive lines.
This year, look for Notre Dame’s success to be centered on their strong foundation at defensive tackle, where fifth-years Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will make their presence felt. Throw in hybrid defensive end/defensive tackle sophomore Rylie Mills (previewed here in our defensive end breakdown), a bevy of other players who have produced in limited minutes over the course of their Notre Dame careers, plus one dynamic recruit, and Notre Dame is shaping up to be a force at defensive tackle in 2021.
2021 Depth Chart
Fifth-year Kurt Hinish, fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, senior Jayson Ademilola, junior Jacob Lacey, junior Howard Cross, sophomore Rylie Mills, sophomore Aidan Keanaaina, freshman Gabriel Rubio.
Hinish elected to use his COVID-year of eligibility, returning for a fifth season with the Irish, and he’ll be a veteran leader on the interior defensive line. Hinish was an All-ACC Honorable Mention last season, and while he won’t be able to improve upon that honor given Notre Dame’s return to independence, he will look to improve his statistical output as one of the Irish’s top defensive returners. In his senior season, Hinish posted a career-high 19 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss in 12 games, bringing his career totals to 55 tackles and 14.5 TFL in 50 career games. A fringe draft prospect, almost certainly a Day Three selection if picked at all, Hinish has elected to push off his professional career for another season and will line up at nose guard once more for the Irish.
Another fifth-year, Tagovailoa-Amosa is really only playing in his fourth full season, after missing much of his sophomore campaign with a broken foot. He posted 17 tackles — six for loss — as a key contributor on the defensive line last season, and he should be back in full force for 2021. Tagovailoa-Amosa is a ball magnet on defense, with three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble over his past two seasons, including a near touchdown return against Virginia in 2019. He also gets to the quarterback on occasion, recording 2.5 sacks and a pair of QB hits in the season. With less established talent on the edge, look for Tagovailoa-Amosa to be a bigger factor for the Irish in the pass-rush, while also tag-teaming with Hinish to strengthen Notre Dame’s customary stingy defense.
Other Key Players
The Irish won’t have to solely rely on Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa, as they have a few other returning role players, along with some promising up-and-coming talent. Senior Jayson Ademilola has appeared in 28 games over three seasons, although only five in this past campaign. Ademilola has not ever been much of a pass-rushing threat, with only 0.5 career sacks, but he does have 5.5 tackles for loss to his name, along with three QB hits. Ademilola’s role in the upcoming spring game will be one to watch for whether Brian Kelly expects him to compete for a starting role, or at least key snaps off the bench.
Junior Jacob Lacey is another potential contributor, after appearing in 18 games over his first two seasons with the Irish. After 13 tackles in 10 games as a freshman, Lacey was less impactful in his sophomore season, posting just four tackles in eight games. He recorded zero sacks or QB hits, and has just 2.5 TFL for his career. However, Lacey has an opportunity to move higher on the depth chart this season, but he’ll need to showcase more than he has recently to garner significant playing time.
Keanaaina and Cross have combined for just two career games, so the expectations are not particularly high for production there. But again, with a new defensive coordinator and a series of losses on that side of the ball, there’s opportunity for increased snaps, so they’ll be among the players to keep an eye on in the spring game as well.
Then there’s the new guy on the block: Gabriel Rubio. Rubio was the fifth-best recruit in Notre Dame’s 2021 class, and one of just two additions to the defensive line. A top-10 prospect at DT, Rubio checks in as a four-star, 6’5, 305-pound beast that could be an immediate impact player as a freshman. At just 17 years old, Rubio already looks smooth as a pass-rusher on film, and his violent play style makes him an intriguing addition to the Irish line. With a blend of talent and technique, Rubio is an exciting name to watch, and Irish fans may get a chance to watch him at the spring game, as the Missouri product enrolled early at Notre Dame.
Emily DeFazio — Associate Sports Editor
While we have strong talent returning in Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa, the fact that we added only two recruits to the defensive side of the ball this cycle does not give much hope for an influx of new talent to bolster the position, or the defensive line in general. That being said, the hire of Marcus Freeman — who will undoubtedly be a breath of fresh air in the development of the defense — and the amount of experience in this position could prove to be a leg-up for the team. I think time will tell whether that leg will simply be one to stand on, or one that allows the program to push off towards bigger and better things. Regardless, the defensive tackle position should be one that remains relatively solid throughout the season.
Aidan Thomas — Sports Writer
Overall, I anticipate this being a bit of a top-heavy position group for Notre Dame. I don’t doubt the abilities and production of Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa, but who’s stepping up behind them? My money is on Rubio to be a big name down the stretch for the Irish, but I’m honestly not used to relying on freshman to be big contributors. The questionable depth at the position keeps this from being an A grade, but should Notre Dame find some key role players to fill the gaps around Hinish and MTA, then this could be the strongest defensive position group for the Irish. For now, I’ll give them a cautiously optimistic B+.