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Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Notre Dame at Ohio State

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 03: Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) looks to pass as Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Rylie Mills (99) applies pressure during the first quarter of the college football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Ohio State Buckeyes on September 3, 2022, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, OH. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Listed measurements: 6-foot-5 ⅛, 296 pounds
2023-24 year, eligibility: A senior, Mills has two seasons of eligibility remaining since playing nine games as a freshman in 2020 did not take away from his eligibility clock.
Depth Chart: Mills should start every game he is healthy in 2023, lining up alongside fifth-year nose tackle Howard Cross in the middle with only unproven depth backing up Mills.
Recruiting: Mills could have gone to Alabama, Clemson or Georgia. A consensus four-star recruit and the No. 155 overall prospect in the class, per, Mills was the rare blue-chip recruit for whom Notre Dame had a distinct geographic advantage, thanks to Mills hailing from the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Ill.

The pandemic season required all levels of depth to be constantly ready. Mills was, but that did not yield any moment of glory. His first such chance came at Virginia in 2021 when defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa was sidelined by illness. Mills stepped outside into Tagovailoa-Amosa’s role and tallied three sacks, though only two were officially credited to him that Saturday night.

That led to largely playing defensive end in 2022, helping create depth there while Cross and Jayson Ademilola manned the interior. Mills played his best at North Carolina, taking down star quarterback Drake Maye twice, while starting nine games.

2020: 9 games, 1 start; 7 tackles with two for loss including half a sack.2021: 13 games; 16 tackles with three sacks.2022: 13 games, 9 starts; 24 tackles with six for loss including 3.5 for loss.

This never would have come to mind if Mills had not shared it on his Twitter, tagging former NFL star defensive end JJ Watt and tweeting, “Great number, Couldn’t have said it better”. Given the Notre Dame tie to this Saturday Night Live clip — and hey, that’s an NBC show, it’s available on Peacock! — let’s acknowledge good comedy and a chance for Mills to perhaps reenact this at some teammate’s expense in the Irish locker room.

Frankly, if name, image and likeness rights had been allowed back in early 2020, perhaps some Notre Dame players could have been part of this skit. There is some degree of coincidence to it, that Watt wore No. 99 in a skit where he was playing a character named “Rylie” before Mills had a number publicly assigned to him.

Bouncing between positions like Mills has could set some players back, but at both tackle and end, his positional responsibilities have hinged on his overall length. With that in mind, it is no surprise he continued to impress in spring practices.

“From the older guys, there’s been improvement,” defensive line coach Al Washington said this spring. “Like [fifth-year end Nana Osafo-Mensah and] Rylie Mills, who is inside now, has really done a fine job of embracing that role.”

“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 (Justin) 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 may not have been a clear breakout star in 2022, but he was a defensive starter on an underrated defense. Notre Dame ranked No. 23 in the country in passing yards allowed per game at only 198.0 as well as No. 23 in passing yards allowed per attempt at 6.5. The Irish were No. 37 in rushing yards allowed per game with 131.3 and thus No. 21 in total yards allowed per game at just 329.3, not to mention No. 39 in scoring defense with 23.0 points per game.

Some of that credit goes to Mills. Frankly, some of it goes to every starter and to defensive coordinator Al Golden. It was a defense that got better as the season went along, even if it struggled to stymie USC’s high-flying offense.

Mills’ stats did not suggest he was a key part of that, but recording six tackles for loss was tied for third on the Irish defense, behind Isaiah Foskey’s 14 and Jordan Botelho’s 6.5. Mills was a playmaker, at least as much as anyone else on the Notre Dame defense aside from a second-round draft pick and school career sacks record-holder.

Moving inside should help that cause. Mills will find himself in plenty of offensive backfields, long able to absorb a block while using his length to disrupt beyond that engagement. Focus on that ability in 2023. If Mills can near his career totals of 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks, then the Irish defense should again be on pace to routinely hold offenses in check.

In that respect, tackles for loss in college football are not applauded enough. They are not as dramatic as a turnover and obviously not as definitive, but robbing an offense of a play while lengthening its yards to gain on the next snap serves as a drive-killer more often than not.

Mills will have another year of eligibility after the 2023 season. It would be his fifth in college, though not a typical fifth-year given he will presumably play in all five, but it would not stick out like any sixth-years do.

Mills would have to dominate in 2023 to have burgeoning NFL hopes, and no team looking to contend for the first year of the expanded College Football Playoff will ever turn away a proven defensive lineman. So if Mills wants a fifth season in South Bend, he will assuredly be welcomed back.

The summer countdown begins anew, Rylie Mills to Deion Colzie
No. 99 Rylie Mills, senior defensive tackle, moving back inside from end
No. 98 Devan Houstan, early-enrolled four-star defensive tackle
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, junior defensive tackle, one of three Irish DTs with notable experience
No. 95 Tyson Ford, sophomore defensive tackle, up 30 pounds from a year ago
No. 93 Armel Mukam, incoming freshman defensive end, former Stanford commit
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a senior defensive tackle now ‘fully healthy’ after a 2022 torn ACL
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, sophomore defensive end, former four-star recruit
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, the next starter at ‘TE U’
No. 87 Cooper Flanagan, incoming freshman tight end, four-star recruit
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, senior tight end coming off a torn ACL
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, junior receiver, probable No. 1 target in 2023
No. 79 Tosh Baker, senior tackle, again a backup but next year ...
No. 78 Pat Coogan, junior interior offensive lineman
No. 77 Ty Chan, sophomore offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, first-team All-American left tackle
No. 74 Billy Schrauth, sophomore left guard, likely starter
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, fifth-year right guard, likely starter
No. 72 Sam Pendelton, early-enrolled freshman offensive lineman
No. 70 Ashton Craig, sophomore interior offensive lineman
No. 68 Michael Carmody, senior offensive lineman
No. 56 Charles Jagusah, incoming freshman offensive lineman, four-star recruit
No. 55 Chris Terek, incoming freshman offensive lineman, four-star recruit
No. 51 Boubacar Traore, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 17 Brenan Vernon, incoming freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 13 Holden Staes, sophomore tight end, up 20 pounds in a year
No. 12 Penn State RB transfer Devyn Ford gives Notre Dame newly-needed backfield depth, experience
No. 4 Rhode Island transfer safety Antonio Carter gives Notre Dame desperately needed backline depth

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