Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 12, 2022

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM NOV. 12, 2022 7 BY PATRICK ENGEL T he popular offseason characteriza- tion of Notre Dame's defensive line remains accurate, albeit with a slight dip. The Irish are still deep enough up front and employ an eight-man rotation when at full health, even after senior defensive tackle Jacob Lacey departed four games into the year. The versatility, though, has been just as noticeable eight games into the season. Notre Dame has used the same start- ing defensive line grouping in consecu- tive games just once between the win over California Sept. 17 and the victory at Syracuse Oct. 29. That's not because injuries have shipwrecked the position. Senior defensive tackle Howard Cross III is the only lineman to miss a game in that span. (Graduate student defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola was a game- time decision vs. UNLV but played). The shuffling is not as simple as toss- ing a substitute in for a game. Graduate student Justin Ademilola has started two games at strong-side end, but otherwise has been senior Isaiah Foskey's primary backup at vyper. Junior Rylie Mills, the normal starter at strong-side end, played mostly inside during Ademilola's two starts (at North Carolina and at Syracuse). Senior Nana Osafo-Mensah has been a mainstay behind both as the No. 2. Elsewhere, graduate student Chris Smith, Jayson Ademilola and Cross each played at least 17 snaps at nose tackle in the first eight games, in addition to their usual three-technique alignments. Sophomore Gabriel Rubio, elevated into a rotation role after Lacey's early Octo- ber transfer portal entry, has played just about every interior line spot. Tackle depth was stretched to its maximum with Lacey leaving the team and the injuries to Cross and Jayson Ademilola, but the Irish have the luxury of having a collection of talent to withstand that kind of attrition. It amounts to a line with several inter- changeable parts that defensive coordi- nator Al Golden can mix and match each week, depending on the opponent. For example, Justin Ademilola's two starts were against teams with quarterbacks who are legitimate running threats. "It speaks to the depth of the position," head coach Marcus Freeman said. "But two, it speaks to the technical side of Coach Golden. What do you want to do with Ry- lie Mills? How do you want to play Justin Ademilola? Guys who can be inside and outside, you can do some different things. We can move these guys to multiple spots." More recently, freshman linebacker Ju- nior Tuihalamaka has added vyper to his duties and played all 6 of his snaps there in Notre Dame's win over Syracuse. He and junior Jordan Botelho were Foskey's backups when Justin Ademilola slid over to strong-side end vs. the Orange. Botelho responded with 2 sacks in 13 snaps. Ademilola shifting sides created an opening. Botelho ran through it because his week of practice swayed the coaching staff. It was a breakthrough, but only for a week. Nothing beyond it was guaranteed. "The ability at certain positions to have that healthy competition that we don't know who's going to start," Free- man said. "We'll decide after the week of practice. We don't know who is go- ing to be the second vyper in the game. We'll decide off the way we practice, and it's a way to continue to remind those guys how important practice is." Foskey isn't leaving the starting lineup or moving off vyper. He entered play against Clemson tied for fourth in the FBS with 7.5 sacks this season and has played 68 more snaps than any other Notre Dame defensive lineman. Nearly everyone else, though, has multiple routes onto the field or just needs one good week of practice to snag a starting spot. Starter or not, someone the second unit usually plays a lot. Seven defen- sive linemen logged between 182 and 362 snaps in the first eight games. Ru- bio played at least 19 snaps in three of the first four games after filling Lacey's spot. But he saw just 3 against Syracuse, squeezed out by Mills mainly playing tackle in the rotation. At the same time, Freeman and Notre Dame's defensive staff know that ex- planation only goes so far with a player. "You're not just one group deep," Free- man said. "You have to give them oppor- tunities to play, get them on the field and let them produce. That's the one thing the transfer portal will do. You see a lot of un- happy guys who are maybe good enough to play that decide to go in the transfer portal. "You want to try to wear teams out, but if guys are good enough to play, you have to find ways to get them in the games." ✦ UNDER THE DOME INTERCHANGEABLE PIECES Notre Dame's defensive line has added versatility to its depth Junior Rylie Mills (99) has played inside and out- side on Notre Dame's defensive line this season. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER

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