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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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TaRiq Bracy, Rylie Mills prepared to lead Irish defense this season

Although the Irish came up short in last week’s season-opening loss in Columbus, there were plenty of positive takeaways, especially on the defensive side of the football.

The Irish secondary held a potent Ohio State offense to 223 passing yards, compared to the Buckeyes’ 683 passing yards against Utah in last season’s Rose Bowl.

One of the leaders who emerged on Saturday night was graduate student cornerback TaRiq Bracy, who finished the game with four tackles — three of which were solo.

Head coach Marcus Freeman acknowledged that Bracy has always been talented but has become more consistent as he matured as a football player.

“From the minute I got here, he was talented. There was no question to how talented TaRiq Bracy is,” Freeman said. “But what he has shown us is that he is able to be consistent and perform at a really high level every day.”

Freeman praised Bracy for his ability to play multiple positions and step into a big role as a senior.

“We have used him at multiple positions. It’s impressive for him to be able to play nickel and then go out to corner and then go back to nickel and to be able to ask him to do different things,” Freeman said. “He’s really performing right now as a senior should, and he is a guy that we are really going to depend on. I couldn’t be more pleased with his performance.”

Bracy was proud of the secondary’s performance Saturday, and he emphasized the importance of competing with any opponent.

“The message we sent is that we are here to play ball,” Bracy said. “Any time we play, we want to come out and compete at the highest level. We are ready. It doesn’t matter what team we play or who it is, we just want to compete.”

Bracy emphasized the importance of limiting explosive plays, which the Irish did well for the most part against the Buckeyes.

“The receivers are going to catch the ball. That’s part of football, but we want to limit their explosive plays and limit the yards after catch,” Bracy said.

Another player who stood out for the Irish on Saturday was freshman cornerback Ben Morrison, who finished the night with three total tackles.

Bracy praised Morrison for his ability to step into his first collegiate game and make an impact.

“We knew what he could do coming in. We saw him ball out in our fall camp,” Bracy said. “We were 100% confident in his play, and it showed on the field.”

Freeman also praised Morrison and freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey for their performance on Saturday.

“To have Jaden Mickey and Ben Morrison play and perform at the level that they did in that game as true freshmen, they are going to be special,” Freeman said. “Both of those players are going to be special for our football program for years to come.”

Bracy also praised graduate student safety Brandon Joseph for being a captain of the Irish secondary.

“He’s a smart player, very athletic and can change the game,” Bracy said. “Having a guy like that along with the rest of our safeties is very helpful playing that nickel and corner position and knowing you have help over the top.”

Despite the secondary’s success against the Buckeyes, the Irish came up short, and Bracy knows his team can learn from this loss.

“It’s football. You are going to win some and lose some. There has to be a winner, and there has to be a loser,” Bracy said. “And if you lose, you have to learn from it and bounce back.”

Bracy is excited to return home this weekend and feed off the crowd’s energy.

“It feels great to be back at home with the fans supporting us. We are ready to move on and play the next game,” Bracy said.

Bracy emphasized the importance of the Irish focusing on this week’s upcoming game against Marshall and not dwelling on the past.

“It’s about the next game,” Bracy said. “Coach Freeman says all the time, ‘one play, one life.’ If things don’t go your way, on to the next week. Get in the film room, practice hard and get ready for next week.”

Junior defensive lineman Rylie Mills, who finished Saturday’s game with three tackles, is also one of the anchors of the Irish defense.

Despite the loss, Mills felt that the defense competed well against the Buckeyes and that the Irish could get another shot at Ohio State in the playoffs if they continue to improve and take care of business.

“The biggest takeaway is that we are right there. And if we take care of business and do what we can do day in and day out the rest of this season, I have no doubt that we will play that team again,” Mills said.

Mills emphasized the importance of constantly improving as the season progresses and competing every day in practice.

“As we go on this season, we have to trend upwards,” Mills said. “We have to go out and dominate every day of practice.”

When asked about finishing games strong this season, Mills stressed the importance of working hard towards the end of practices.

“When we get to later periods of practice, are guys getting tired and wavering off, or do we still have the same intensity as when we came out there?” Mills said. “There’s things like that where, as we get to the tougher part of practice you have to keep up with the same intensity that you started.”

Mills also mentioned that he and his teammates have meticulously watched the film from Saturday’s game to look for areas that they can improve.

“For me specifically, I noticed that I have to work my pad level lower and work my moves better,” Mills said. “I’m my harshest critic, so every time I come away from a game like that and watch the film, I notice some highlights and things I did okay. However, there are things that I look at and realize I can do better. I just look at those and I know if I can really perfect that, I can be that much greater next week.”

Mills acknowledged that the defense was firing on all cylinders in the first half of Saturday’s game, and he hopes that the defense can replicate that performance going forward.

“The biggest positive is for the first half of football, we were stopping them. We were stopping the run and dominating the guy in front of us and working moves to get to the quarterback,” Mills said.

Mills believes the Irish are capable of bouncing back this season and getting another shot at Ohio State in the playoffs.

“If we just keep preparing and being intense in practice and focusing on finishing, at the end of the season we will play those guys again,” Mills said. “I know we will be way more prepared and ready to go.”

Like Bracy, Mills is excited to be back in front of the home crowd this Saturday.

“I’m super pumped for it. It’s always great when you are at home and you have the crowd on your side,” Mills said. “Last week they weren’t cheering when we were moving down the field, so it will be nice to have that.”

Nate Moller


Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu