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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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