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2023 Notre Dame depth chart projection: Irish face major losses along defensive line

The Notre Dame defensive line loses both of their vypers from 2022 along with two of their regular defensive tackles. They’ll look to replace that production and spearhead a strong Irish defense in 2023. 

2022 Summary

Defensive line started out as a confounding nonfactor early on in the season for the Irish. In Notre Dame’s disastrous 0-2 start to the season, the Irish managed just two total sacks. Generally, in games where the Irish struggled, the defensive line struggled with it. Against Stanford, the defensive front again managed just one sack, and against Southern Cal, it registered just two. 

But aside from the Southern Cal blemish, Al Washington’s unit eventually grew into the strength it was expected to be over the latter half of the season. Senior Isaiah Foskey breaking the all-time Notre Dame sack record set by Justin Tuck was a notable high point. Keeping South Carolina, Clemson, Boston College and Syracuse under 100 rushing yards proved instrumental to Irish victories in those games. Junior Jordan Botelho’s two sack performance against South Carolina provided a nice glimmer of hope for 2023 to cap off the year.

Key Departures

Where do you start? In Isaiah Foskey, the Irish lose their 2022 leader in snaps at the position, all-time leader in sacks and a first round talent at a spot where it’s unclear if Notre Dame has a natural replacement (more on that later). Graduate student Jayson Ademilola perhaps wasn’t as prolific on the statsheet as Foskey, but he was a consistent presence in opposing backfields operating in the interior of the defensive line. Graduate student Justin Ademilola finished second in total snaps on the Irish defensive line, rotating in and out opposite Foskey on the edge. In graduate student Chris Smith, Notre Dame loses a dependable presence at nose tackle who emerged as a key member of the rotation when injuries shortened the Irish’s depth. All told, Marcus Freeman and Al Golden will need to replace the vast majority of the team’s 2022 statistical production on the defensive line.

Transfer Portal Additions

Javontae Jean-Baptiste was Notre Dame’s lone transfer portal addition at defensive line, adding experience to what is set to be a young unit in 2023. Jean-Baptiste’s time at Ohio State was characterized by solid if not necessarily flashy play. He served as a rotational member of a top-tier defensive front that he never locked down a starting role on. At 6’5, 250 pounds, Jean-Baptiste figures to be an addition at the “big end” position (should Notre Dame play the same defensive scheme as last year, which is not a guarantee), as opposed to the vyper role that Foskey came to define. The Irish likely saw value in Jean-Baptiste’s senior year production, which was the strongest of his career. He posted four sacks in limited snaps.

Freshman Additions

The Irish added four players at the defensive line position in their 2023 class. Brenan Vernon, Boubacar Traore, Devan Houstan and Armel Mukam signed with Notre Dame. Only Houstan will be enrolling early and as such be on the inside track to early playing time. Vernon is perhaps the most interesting name to keep an eye out for as spring camp progresses. Standing 6’5 and weighing 275 pounds, Vernon should be physically ready for the adjustment from high school to college football. Earlier in the cycle, Vernon was seen as a five-star caliber recruit before ending as a high four-star. 247 Sports’ Gabe Brooks noted that he stood out in particular for his high floor as a prospect. Such a high floor could prove key for the Ohio native to find playing time early.

Projected 2-deep

DE: Jordan Botelho, Nana Osafo-Mensah

DT: Howard Cross, Gabriel Rubio

DT: Rylie Mills, Aidan Keanaaina

DE: Javontae Jean-Baptise, Junior Tuihalamaka

At defensive end, starters 1a and 1b will likely be Jordan Botelho and Javontae Jean-Baptiste. It remains to be seen what specific defensive configuration Notre Dame will use, be it a recreation of last year’s system or a new setup to fit new personnel. Both Botelho (who was the clear next man up for the staff when Foskey opted out of the Gator Bowl) and Jean-Baptiste (who holds four years of high-level game experience) have resumes that stand out among other potential options. Behind them, the picture becomes less clear. Senior Nana Osafo-Mensah enjoyed a career-best year in 2022 and could be set for an even bigger role as a graduate student. And a breakout spring camp from someone on the younger end of the roster (the primary candidates likely being freshmen Joshua Burnham or Junior Tuihalamaka) could likely thrust them into the rotation as well.

On the interior, the story is similar. There’s a decent amount of buzz that junior Rylie Mills, who looked out of place as a defensive end early on in 2022, could move full-time to a more interior role for 2023. Should that be the case, he stands out as an immediate starting candidate. Howard Cross III has not officially confirmed he’ll be returning for a fifth season. But if he does, the graduate student who’s been in the nose tackle rotation for three years would likely be primed for his first season as an every-game starter. After Mills and Cross, there’s less definitive production to consider for backups. Two names to keep an eye on as spring practice buzz begins to emerge, though, are sophomore Gabriel Rubio and junior Aidan Keanaaina.

Contact J.J. Post at jpost2@nd.edu.

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Gator bowl grades: Irish defensive line flashes sneak peak of 2023

While on the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame looked to replace All-American junior Michael Mayer at tight end, they had a couple of major holes on the defensive side as well. The Irish were missing four defensive starters during Friday’s Gator Bowl, including two on the defensive line.

Senior vyper and projected first-round pick Isaiah Foskey, the Notre Dame record holder for career sacks, opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the draft. Additionally, graduate student defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, a staple of the defensive line over the past two seasons was ruled out this week with an injury. Ademilola notched five tackles for loss and three sacks in 2022, and he’s been projected as high as the fourth round in mock drafts.

The Irish got their first look at what their defensive line could look like without arguably their two best players of the past two seasons. Notre Dame rolled with eight primary defensive linemen during their clash with South Carolina. A few linebackers took snaps at edge rusher — the Irish have made a habit of crosstraining their linebackers at the vyper position to add versatility to various defensive packages. Here’s a look at standouts from the day, along with an overall drive-by-drive analysis.

Quarter 1

The Irish went down 21-7 in the first quarter, while playing three defensive possessions. The opening drive was a tough start for both the line and the defense as a whole. South Carolina drove 75 yards in 10 seemingly effortless plays for an opening score. The Irish largely rolled with juniors Jordan Botelho and Rylie Mills, senior Howard Cross and graduate student Justin Ademilola on the line. They struggled to generate really any pressure against a high-tempo offense. They allowed an early 13-yard run to spark the drive. Botelho, Foskey’s main replacement at vyper, took advantage of his first major opportunity, sacking South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler on a read-option play.

From there, the line play improved, as the Irish rolled with their second rotation, featuring senior Nana Osafa-Mensah, graduate student Chris Smith, sophomore Gabriel Rubio and freshman Junior Tuihalamaka. The Irish defense generated a turnover, courtesy of a forced fumble from the secondary. But the line played a minimal role in the drive. South Carolina would score on their final drive of the quarter, going 75 yards once more. Again, the Irish defensive line struggled to make much of an impact. The Gamecocks flew down the field to the edge of the red zone. The Irish did force a fourth down, but South Carolina faked a field goal and scored anyway.

After a South Carolina pick-six, the Gamecocks led 21-7. Throughout the quarter, the Irish defensive line generated virtually no pressure, and a very comfortable Rattler hit on most everything.

Grade: 3.0/10

Quarter 2

After a hot start, the Gamecocks slowed down in the second quarter, as the Irish new-look defensive line continued to try and find a groove. On their first play of the second quarter, Ademilola and Cross combined for a big play, surging through the line to force a three-yard loss on a first-down fun. However, South Carolina managed to move the chains again. Out near midfield, Botelho notched his second impact play of the game. He again read a read-option play well and notched a quarterback hit, forcing a rushed screen pass which was stuffed for no gain.

Although they didn’t directly notch much pressure, the Irish managed to collapse the pocket a few times, forcing more throws on the run. They held South Carolina to a field goal, keeping the deficit within two possessions. That seemed to be a momentum switch, as the defensive line began to generate more havoc throughout the game. The Gamecocks punted and threw an interception on their final two possessions of the half.

Rubio showed impressive pursuit in helping shut down a reverse and wide receiver pass attempt that turned into a three-yard loss. Botelho punctuated a strong first half with consecutive quarterback hits on the final two plays. The second led to an underthrow and an interception, ending South Carolina’s hopes of extending their 24-17 advantage.

Overall, the defensive line was much improved in this quarter, stuffing several runs and trick play efforts while finally making Rattler uncomfortable. They minimized big plays and gave a slow-moving offense a chance to start generating yards and points.

Grade: 8.0/10

Quarter 3

The Irish defense had a much stronger showing in the second half. They generated early pressure in forcing a three-and-out on the first South Carolina possession of the half. Osafa-Mensah shed a block to earn a second-down tackle. Botelho helped collapse the pocket on third down, forcing an incompletion.

South Carolina scored just once in the quarter, via a 42-yard scoring pass from Rattler, who faced heavy pressure from Mills on the play. The Irish didn’t allow another first down on any of the three more South Carolina drives in the quarter. The Irish featured some new looks in the third quarter on the line. Freshman linebacker Jaylen Sneed then started lining up at vyper a few times. On occasion, the Irish put Ademilola and Botelho on the same side of the line, trying to generate mismatches by overloading their primary edge rushers. The varied looks kept the Gamecocks flustered and struggling on offense.

Late in the quarter, the Irish managed to flip the field at a crucial time. Ademilola pressured Rattler on first down and forced an underthrow on a deep shot. On third down, Ademilola and Botelho both broke through, with the latter notching his second sack of the evening. That quarter ended with the score tied 31-31.

The Irish started to make things uncomfortable for the Gamecocks in the third. However, the actual production was limited to one sack and some quarterback hurries.

Grade: 6.0/10

Quarter 4

The Irish needed to take the field just twice as a defensive unit in the fourth quarter. On the first, they netted another three-and-out. Tuihalamaka offered strong pursuit on a two-yard loss on first down. Tuihalamaka and Cross added second-down pressure as Rattler was forced to scramble.

A long pick-six by the Carolina defense meant that the Notre Dame offense was on the field for much of the quarter. When the defense re-took the field, the Irish led 45-38. They needed to hold the Gamecocks one more time, and with the help of a strong pass rush, the Irish defense obliged. For this final drive, Notre Dame called on Botelho, Ademilola and Cross for every snap. Sneed (five snaps) and Tuihalamaka (two snaps) alternated rushing off the edge.

The Gamecocks moved the ball quickly to start, getting all the way to the Notre Dame 35. However, the Irish pass rush stepped up. On second down, Mills showed excellent patience, spinning off a block that forced Rattler to take an intentional grounding penalty, putting the Gamecocks into a 3rd and 21. Cross and Admeilola brought pressure on third down, and Rattler fired incomplete under heavy duress. Finally, on fourth down, Ademilola broke through one more time, chasing Rattler toward the sideline and forcing him to heave it while rolling left. The pass fell incomplete, securing the Gator Bowl victory.

On eleven fourth-quarter snaps, the Irish generated heavy pressure on about half of them. They forced a tackle for loss and held Rattler to two completions on six attempts, passing for 20 yards. Additionally, the Irish defense notched a sack and forced Rattler to scramble out of a collapsing pocket twice. Beyond allowing some positive yardage on the scrambles and a personal foul on Sneed, it was absolute dominance from the defensive line when it counted.

Grade: 9.0/10

Overall, the new-look Irish offensive line started slow but improved drastically. An extremely comfortable Rattler looked frazzled and discombobulated throughout the second half. The Irish maybe didn’t get home as much as they would have liked. But Botelho did notch two sacks, and Mills added a key one on the final drive.

The middle of the line was stout against the run, but the pass rush struggled. Sneed committed two personal fouls, while Tuihalamaka was a virtual non-factor in his 24 snaps. Despite an inconsistent effort, the Irish made South Carolina one-dimensional, made a few big plays and stepped up when it mattered.

Final Grade: 7.3/10

Looking ahead to 2023

The Irish featured nine players that took snaps on the defensive line (including Sneed’s snaps at edge rusher). They did it almost entirely with a set of players sure to return next season. Of the nine, the Irish return seven of them. Smith is out of eligibility and will depart. Ademilola is the only question mark, as he could return for a sixth year and has not made an announcement.

Botelho made his case to be the starting vyper in a big way, delivering an impactful performance on Friday. Mills and Cross are likely locks for the starting lineup, although Ademilola’s decision could affect where Mills plays. Osafa-Mensah, Sneed and Tuihalamaka also present options off the edge. Rubio put together a solid game at defensive tackle.

So, with one major decision pending, Notre Dame showcased a majority of their 2023 defensive line at the end of 2022. Overall, they put together a promising effort, showing they are capable of not missing a step despite some key departures.

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‘This is what you come to Notre Dame for’: Liufau ready to take on Clemson

In summer of 2021, no one could get enough of then junior linebacker Marist Liufau. He had flashes of of success in camp, became the talk of the town and was seemingly unblockable. Then, his season ended before it could start. Liufau suffered a broken ankle midway through camp, ultimately keeping him from a season’s worth of play. 

“I missed running around with my teammates,” he said. “I missed being out there with them. I felt not as involved because I couldn’t practice and play but I missed the people too.”

Now a senior, Liufau is back in full swing and racking up tackles left and right while stepping up as a leader for the defense. 

To start the season, Liufau eased back into football. He took about half the reps for each appearance but slowly worked his way back up through camp. In his time off the field, Liufau said he began to study the game a lot more and it put things back into perspective for him. 

“Things can be taken away from you in an instant so being out here every day — I am just grateful to be out here every day I can,” Liufau said.

Out on the field now, Liufau has reclaimed what would have been his starting opportunity last year within the linebacker corps. He has been instrumental to the success of the Irish defense recording 32 tackles on the season, 12 of them alone and three for loss. Additionally, he’s assumed a role as an extra pass rusher. During Notre Dame’s confrontation with UNC, he brought enough pressure to force a sack. For the first time on Saturday though, Liufau broke into the top tier of defensive statistics. 

Against Syracuse, the Irish defense dominated and Liufau played a major role. With three tackles on the day, the crowning jewel in his Saturday afternoon came during the third quarter when he snagged an interception. 

“It was awesome,” Liufau said. “It was my first one so it was really exciting and it was a good point in the game as well. Anything that helps your team makes you feel good.” 

The pass from Syracuse backup quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson was tipped by junior defensive lineman Howard Cross. Liufau dove forward to make the catch once the ball was off course. The second Liufau came off the field he said he was thanking Cross. 

“I don’t think I would’ve gotten it without the batted ball,” he said. 

Liufau also said he knew how important any interception could be so it was exciting to be the one to reel one in. 

“It’s a big change of momentum really. It gets everyone going, gets everyone’s hopes high and gives everyone energy,” he said. 

The Irish are looking to carry that energy into this weekend as they prepare to take on Clemson this Saturday. 

“It was a great feeling to win away but we know this week is a new week,” Liufau said. “We emphasized that early on and we know that we have to earn a win on Saturday by our hard work in practice this week.”

 In terms of taking on the higher-ranked opponent though, Liufau says the preparation remains the same. 

“It’s always attack everything full speed and work our game plan,” he said. “Every opponent we respect. We prepare the same way for everyone. There’s always a high urgency around here every week.”

Liufau says he’s excited to play in a physical game like this on Saturday. Echoing sentiments from Freeman earlier in the week, he said “this is what you come to Notre Dame for” — to play in games like this one. 

That being said, he also acknowledged the tall order that is the Clemson Tigers.

“They’re a very good offense,” he said. “They have a great quarterback, good running back, and threats at wide receiver as well. They’ve just got a lot of weapons all around.” 

The linebacker said he isn’t too worried though, he trusts the defense to step up to the plate behind one mantra:

“Relentless. We like to pride ourselves on being relentless and attacking without stopping,” he said. “I think we’ve improved a lot since the beginning of the season and I’m really proud of the way we work every day.” 

As much as he is leading that relentless charge, Liufau said he is learning from the rest of the linebacker corps as well and relying on their continued communication both in game and at practice. 

“Going out there and doing what you’ve got to do even when you don’t feel like it is the main thing they’ve taught me,” he said. “[We’re] just working hard every day.” 

Contact Mannion McGinley at mccginl3@nd.edu.

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Harvard transfer Smith prepares for bigger role

A year ago, Notre Dame’s defensive line was one of the deepest units on the team. But after star defensive linemen Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa graduated and junior Aidan Keanaaina suffered an ACL injury in the spring, it became clear the Irish needed reinforcements. 

When Notre Dame brought in Chris Smith, a graduate transfer from Harvard, he wasn’t expected to compete for a starting job. That was before Jacob Lacey unexpectedly announced he would be entering the transfer portal. 

Now, Smith must step up and take on a bigger role than he may have been expecting.

“The guys here have been great in helping me adjust,” Smith said after practice on Tuesday. “It’s felt like family since I’ve gotten here.” 

Against BYU last week, with senior Howard Cross III also absent due to a high ankle sprain, Smith saw a season-high 28 snaps. That was the second most among Irish defensive linemen, according to Blue and Gold Illustrated. Smith also saw 28 snaps in the season opener against Ohio State but his usage rate declined significantly since then. 

“I know every guy wants to play every single snap, but that obviously can’t happen, so just doing what we can,” Smith said.  

Smith steps up in larger role

Alongside sophomore Gabriel Rubio, Smith — who is listed at 6’1 and 310 pounds — will be expected to step up and fill the gap left by Lacey. Lacey’s best game of the season had come recently against Cal, where he racked up five tackles, including two sacks. The recent performance made Lacey’s abrupt departure surprising to many. 

“Anytime that happens, either departure or injury, you always feel badly for the young person that’s experiencing that,” defensive coordinator Al Golden said after practice this week. “But the other guys have an opportunity to step up. Certainly Gabe (Rubio) and Chris did that, and there’ll be others here as the season moves on.”

Smith was named to the 2021 First Team All-Ivy League team after posting 40 tackles on the year for the Crimson. The Ivy League does not allow graduate students to play, and Smith had a year of eligibility left because the Ivies canceled all sports for the 2020-21 academic year. 

He sought a transfer and was initially planning to enroll at Minnesota. But Smith flipped his commitment to Notre Dame in April after a visit to South Bend. It has turned out to be a wise decision for both Smith and the Irish. Through five games for the Irish, Smith has seven total tackles, including three solo stops, but his role is expected to increase in the absence of Lacy and with Cross continuing to battle an ankle injury. Cross is expected to play this weekend, but he may be in a limited role. 

Smith isn’t the only Harvard graduate transfer to play an important role for Notre Dame this year. He is joined by punter Jon Sot, his teammate for three seasons in Cambridge. Sot has been a revelation for Notre Dame this year, averaging nearly 43 net yards per punt. 

Defensive line seeks continued improvement

As a unit, Notre Dame’s defensive line has played well this year. The Irish have been stout against the run–except for the loss against Marshall. They have held dual-threat quarterbacks CJ Stroud, Drake Maye and Jaren Hall largely in check. At times, though, they have struggled to get pressure late in games. 

“I feel like we’ve been pretty successful so far,” Smith said. “Obviously we’ve still got a lot we can work on, still got a lot we can get better on. We’re not content with where we are. We think we can definitely kick it up another gear.”

Smith said the execution of the defensive line has improved since the start of the year. “In the beginning, you get a lot thrown at you, and then now, towards… the middle of the season, getting more adjusted to the roles we’ve been playing.”

Notre Dame’s defensive line will be critical to the team’s performance in the second half of the season. Smith will likely play a key part of the unit moving forward.

“You try to get better each day, I think is our goal,” Smith said. “We’re still not done, and being our best product.”

Contact Liam Coolican at lcoolica@nd.edu.