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Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart, an exercise in second-level flux

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01: Oklahoma State Cowboys quarterback Spencer Sanders (3) is sacred by Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey (7) during the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl college football bowl game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Oklahoma State Cowboys on January 1, 2022 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Marcus Freeman may consider multiple-look defensive fronts as vital as oxygen, and while the Notre Dame head coach insists new defensive coordinator Al Golden can run his own defense, it is a near-certainty those varied looks will return in 2022.

With them comes flexibility in the defensive depth chart, primarily among defensive ends and linebackers. Spring practices, commencing in just a few weeks, should shed some light on which players will be relied upon to disguise defensive looks, but just go ahead and pencil in junior end/linebacker Jordan Botelho among them, along with star senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey (pictured at top).

— Senior (as of next season) Isaiah Foskey (two years of eligibility remaining) turned down a possible second-round draft selection to chase the Irish season and career sacks records, both held by Justin Tuck.— Senior Osita Ekwonu (three years) needs to prove he is fully recovered from an Achilles injury.— Early-enrolled freshman Tyson Ford, the highest-rated defensive end recruit to land at Notre Dame since Foskey.— Early-enrolled freshman Aiden Gobaira, perhaps more of a project than Ford.

— Fifth-year Justin Ademilola should work opposite Foskey, though at times Foskey will drop into coverage, making that opposite designation nominal at most.— Senior NaNa Osafo-Mensah (three years) has been somewhat forgotten over the years, in large part due to a 2020 injury and then overall success up front in 2021, but he has never done anything to genuinely garner doubt.— Junior Rylie Mills (three years) may fit better at defensive tackle, but depth there could push him to the outside this season, a spot he ably filled at Virginia when Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa was sidelined by the flu. Mills made two sacks that night, memorably earning then-defensive line coach Mike Elston’s first-class seat for the flight back to South Bend.

— Junior Alexander Ehrensberger (three years), always a project, the German import may be closer to a notable impact than was once expected from him this soon.— Sophomore Will Schweitzer (four years), deep down the depth chart.

— Fifth-year Jayson Ademilola will lead the way whether in a three-down or a four-down front, capable both rushing the passer and stopping the run.— Senior Howard Cross (three years), though Mills would likely fit in ahead of Cross if not for those end considerations.— Senior Jacob Lacey (two years), reliable when healthy.— Sophomore Gabriel Rubio (four years), a player once described as “wide as a Volkswagen,” a quote too good to lose to time even if Brian Polian is no longer at Notre Dame.— Junior Aidan Keanaaina (three years), and someday typing out that name will not require triple-checking its accuracy.— Sophomore Jason Onye (four years) and summer arrival freshman Donovan Hinish round out this depth.

Sorting out the linebacker depth will be one of Golden’s priorities this spring. There is not much depth and even less healthy experience. Figuring out who he can rely on and at what positions will loom large. Consider these designations the roughest among all these depth chart ponderings.

— Senior JD Bertrand (three years) should start at middle (Mike) linebacker. Nearly doubling any other Irish defender with 101 tackles last season should assure that much.— Fifth-year Bo Bauer is not the fleetest of feet, but his instincts more than make up for that. Bertrand’s success may depend on Bauer as a backup, given how beat up Bertrand was by the end of the 2021 season.

— Senior Marist Liufau (three years) was back in practice in December after suffering a dislocated ankle in August. If as dynamic as he looked last preseason, Liufau should slide right back into the starting Will spot he held back then.— Sophomore Prince Kollie (three years) was once recruited to be Notre Dame’s next Rover, but with a particular freshman now in the fold, Kollie may jump to the other side of the field.

— Senior Jack Kiser (three years), an Indiana product that has found his niche at Rover.— Early-enrolled freshman Jaylen Sneed, the Rover of the future.

— Junior Jordan Botelho (three years), arguably the optimal end/linebacker hybrid and a flex piece for both Golden and Freeman to enjoy.

— That leaves the remaining early-enrolled freshman trio of Joshua Burnham, Niuafe Tuihalamaka and Nolan Ziegler to further depth.

— Senior Cam Hart (three years), presumably now fully recovered from the banged-up hamstring that nagged him in the Fiesta Bowl.— Junior Clarence Lewis (three years), who should still start even after getting exposed in the Fiesta Bowl faceplant.— Fifth-year TaRiq Bracy, returning this spring even if there was never a big moment for that announcement this winter.— And a mess of players with four years of eligibility remaining: sophomores Ryan Barnes, Philip Riley and Chance Tucker, early-enrolled freshman Jaden Mickey and incoming freshman Benjamin Morrison.

— Senior Brandon Joseph, a Northwestern transfer with immediate eligibility because it is now 2022 and two years of eligibility remaining.— Fifth-year safeties DJ Brown and Houston Griffith, who will once again compete for a starting spot next to an All-American, a duel Griffith won last preseason.— Juniors Ramon Henderson and Xavier Watts, a pair of converted receivers with three years of eligibility remaining apiece and who shined in November moments.— Sophomore Justin Walters and incoming freshman Jayden Bellamy, both with four years of eligibility remaining.

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