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Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end

Wisconsin v Notre Dame

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 25: Rylie Mills #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against Cormac Sampson #62 and Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers at Soldier Field on September 25, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Notre Dame defeated Wisconsin 41-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Listed measurements: 6-foot-5 ⅛, 283 pounds.2022-23 year, eligibility: A junior, Mills has three years of eligibility remaining thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver.Depth Chart: Mills may have established himself as the starting “Big” end for Notre Dame’s defensive line. If not, he will supplement fifth-year Justin Ademilola there while also leading the way at tackle. Mills’ versatility will allow defensive coordinator Al Golden’s front to have some multiplicity within its primary package.Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and the No. 155 overall prospect in the class, per, Mills could have gone to Alabama, Clemson or Georgia, not to mention Michigan, Florida or Oklahoma. Coming from the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Ill., the greatest threats to his Irish commitment may have been from Midwest powers Ohio State and Wisconsin, but his early enrollment plans always made it clear that Mills would not waver from his Notre Dame pledge.

Mills is best known, at least to this point, for his two-sack performance in a spot start at Virginia last November. In the moment, it seemed Mills got three sacks, but the third was officially credited to linebacker Bo Bauer. When Mills learned he would be starting in place of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (flu), he bet then-defensive line coach Mike Elston he would notch three sacks. Elston said if Mills did so, he could have the coach’s first-class seat on the flight back to South Bend.

Elson upheld his end of that bargain. In retrospect, Mills may have missed a chance at a quick sponsorship opportunity with whatever make of charter plane the Irish fly.

Mills had the size to play right away for Notre Dame in 2020, though he did not amass gross stats. As a sophomore, it was that flash at Virginia that revealed just how good Mills may become. Up until then, he had been a reliable piece of interior depth, but against the overmatched Cavaliers, he revealed he could excel on the edge, just as Tagovailoa-Amosa did in his position move last season.

2020: 9 games, 7 tackles with two for loss including half a sack.2021: 13 games, 16 tackles with three sacks.

As spring practices went along, Mills worked on the edge more and more. Clearly, he was impressing there.

“Rylie is another one who is having one of the better springs out of the entire group,” new defensive line coach Al Washington said. “To single him out for a simple fact, he’s really taken the next step.”

“The idea of Mills cross-training brings up Tagovailoa-Amosa again. Though he has a few inches on the veteran, Mills’ game is similar to Tagovailoa-Amosa’s, who has always played longer than his 6-foot-2 ½ frame. Both showed an ability to penetrate into the backfield early in their career, a byproduct both of their length and of their quickness.

“Defensive linemen with notable length and quickness find their way to the end, as often as not. If nothing else, giving Mills some work at ‘Big’ end will provide Notre Dame more flexibility along its best position group.”

Not to sound hyperbolic, but Mills may be the piece that can elevate the Irish defense from very good to great. Usually, the possibility of that level-up gets attributed to playmaking linebackers like Jordan Botelho or Marist Liufau, and understandably so. If they reach their maximum potential, Notre Dame’s defense will enjoy some speed it has long needed, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s 2020 aside.

But a defensive end serving as the bookend to senior Isaiah Foskey would give the Irish the type of pass rush that makes a Playoff contender. Why were the types of people that were so confident in Clemson in 2018 just as confident in Georgia in 2021? Their defensive fronts were NFL-ready.

Mills is not NFL-ready, but if he approached those heights, suddenly the Irish would have a force on their hands. Quarterbacks would have nowhere to go to escape Foskey, who is already NFL-ready.

But that is the ideal. The more realistic level for Mills in 2022 is as a multi-positional luxury that allows Golden to put opposing offensive lines in constantly compromised positions. On obvious passing downs, Mills can move inside to three-technique, with Ademilola at Big end. That will give Notre Dame three defensive linemen with their ears pinned back, and with just that front, it should be able to create pressure on the passer.

If three rushers are enough to hassle a passer, it no longer much matters if they get to him. Eight defenders covering at most five targets is an obvious math problem for that quarterback.

This will be the barometer for Mills’ success. How often do the Irish need a fourth or fifth pass rusher on third downs? If rarely, that is a credit to his ability to disrupt from the middle, an ability that could help cover for Notre Dame’s worries in the defensive backfield.

Mills might have the size right now to consider the NFL after 2021, but such a jump from a defensive lineman is usually seen from a year away. He has not yet shown the dominance necessary to look at that possibility with sincerity, not that he has had much of a chance to date, with only 411 career snaps. He may be one of the five players seeking an evaluation after the season, but that should be to confirm what is expected, that he will return in 2023.

At that point, Mills should be Notre Dame’s primary pass rusher, with Foskey a rookie in the NFL. That will be Mills’ star turn.

From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anewNo. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer

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