Blue and Gold Illustrated

April 2023

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

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM APRIL 2023 5 C onsider this new territory for Notre Dame. Or at least territory it forgot existed. The Irish's defensive line hasn't un- dergone a rebuild in recent years. Even calling its last few offseasons reload- ing feels like a slight stretch — rotation players were often ready-made start- ers who stepped in for departing first- teamers. Eventual draft picks replaced outgoing draft picks. That autopilot feeling is over for now, though. Notre Dame's defensive line is not only in transition, but it also feels un- likely to be the team's best unit on that side of the ball. The loss of all-time sacks leader Isaiah Foskey sparked that idea. Justin Ademilola's NFL Draft dec- laration threw more kindling on the flames. Maintaining a high floor while keeping a high ceiling was former de- fensive line coach Mike Elston's spe- cialty. Al Washington couldn't realisti- cally have reached that status one year into his tenure in the job. That's not to say the Irish are doomed up front in 2023. There's a realistic path to success. But they need a productive offseason of development from under- classmen who haven't seen the field. That's a big step. Notre Dame is look- ing for multiple players to make it. Add- ing former Ohio State defensive end Ja- vontae Jean-Baptiste from the transfer portal was a necessary move because it injected a higher level of certainty. Jean-Baptiste, a part-time player for the Buckeyes the last four seasons, has the floor of a reliable rotational piece. Washington oversaw an above-aver- age defensive line in his first season as its position coach. The personnel for a great one in 2023 might not be on the roster, barring Jean-Baptiste becoming a high-end starter and multiple breakouts. Fielding a line that has a reliable eight- man rotation and produces at about the same level as 2022 would be a successful outcome given the circumstances. Right now, Notre Dame has a sturdy interior core in Howard Cross III and Gabriel Rubio. Rylie Mills is the mov- able chess piece who could continue his hybrid role, shift back to field end full time (where he began 2022) or return to tackle (where he spent 2020-21). The third option is the most logical on paper. Cross is a proven commodity and the Irish's best interior disruptor without Jayson Ademilola around. Rubio looks like he's on the rise after breaking into the rotation this past season. Mills' 2022 production and steadiness didn't match his traits, but the ceiling with him is still hard to ignore. On the edge, junior Jordan Botelho's 2-sack game in the Gator Bowl feels even more important in light of Justin Ademilola's departure. He had to build a case as a viable option at vyper, and the bowl helped that. Senior Nana Osafo- Mensah has been the No. 2 field end the last two seasons, but is there another gear there? Jean-Baptiste can play ei- ther edge spot, though. He and Botelho feel like the ideal starting combination. After those five returners and Jean- Baptiste, Notre Dame's other 12 schol- arship defensive linemen have played a combined 265 career snaps. Rising sophomore and likely linebacker-to- vyper convert Junior Tuihalamaka ac- counts for 87 of those, most of which came at linebacker. Four of those 12 are incoming freshmen. Four others are sophomores-to-be who each logged 1 snap on defense in 2022. In past years, identifying the rotation player to bump up to starter or the edge- of-the-rotation member to elevate was easy in January. Foskey, for example, played 282 snaps the year before he be- came a full-time starter. Defensive end Ade Ogundeji logged 348 snaps one sea- son before taking over a starting job in 2020. Both Ademilolas were multi-year rotation players before starting. Now? It feels more like a guess un- til spring. That lack of experience is why Jean-Baptiste is here and why the Irish pursued defensive tackle trans- fers in January. Even Jean-Baptiste and Botelho must turn an intriguing ceiling into reality. Botelho will be one of the more cap- tivating players to follow throughout spring. He ended the year on the trajec- tory you want to see from a next-season starter. On the interior, rising sopho- more Tyson Ford warrants careful mon- itoring. The Irish have clear choices for starters at tackle, but they have usually gone four or five deep there. The fourth or fifth will be a rotation newcomer, be it an underclassman or a transfer. Ford, a top-105 overall recruit like Ru- bio, ideally follows Rubio's developmental path of redshirting (2022) to contributor (2023) to starting-caliber player (2024). That would give the Irish the fourth ro- tation member on the interior line and inject some long-term upside into it. A starting unit of Botelho, two of Cross/Rubio/Mills and Jean-Baptiste has the potential be a strong line. But the idea of its success is rooted more in po- tential rather than the proven production recent Notre Dame defensive lines with turnover had this time of year. ✦ ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at Defensive line coach Al Washington is overseeing an offseason of much transition in his unit. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER Defensive Line Has A Crucial Offseason Ahead

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