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Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, still talented but now with unproven depth

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

For the first time in a few years, Notre Dame does not have the trusted depth along its entire defensive line that made shift changes viable. What the Irish do have is a set of veteran starters, of whom a majority could have jumped to the NFL this spring and instead chose to chase further development.

Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish will go down in Irish lore as two of the most underappreciated pieces of the winningest five years in Notre Dame history. Neither was a heralded recruit. Neither was expected to play right away. And neither was viewed as a surefire long-term contributor, either.

Hinish left with more appearances in a gold helmet than anyone in history. Tagovailoa-Amosa left as one of the most genuine leaders in program history, a platitude that is not offered lightly. Both left as captains.

The statistical impact of losing Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa may be diminished; each was increasingly part of a timeshare in 2021, and not solely because former Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston so relished those hockey-style line changes. But consider this one last chance to acknowledge the loss of Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa as notable ones.

2021 STATS
Isaiah Foskey: 52 tackles with 12.5 for loss including 11 sacks; six fumbles forced with two recovered.Jayson Ademilola: 49 tackles with eight for loss including 3.5 sacks; one fumble forced.Justin Ademilola: 35 tackles with six for loss including five sacks; one fumble forced with one recovered.Kurt Hinish: 28 tackles with 5.5 for loss including two sacks.Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa: 25 tackles with six for loss including two sacks and a team-high 11 quarterback hurries; one fumble forced with one recovered and returned for a touchdown.Howard Cross: 22 tackles with 4.5 for loss including three sacks.Rylie Mills: 16 tackles with three sacks.Nana Osafo-Mensah: 13 tackles with 2.5 for loss including two sacks.Jacob Lacey: 12 tackles with two for loss.Alexander Ehrensberger: 3 tackles with one sack.Gabe Rubio: 1 tackle in one game.Will Schweitzer: 1 tackle in three games.Aidan Keanaaina: 1 tackle in three games.

Foskey and the Ademilola twins are known and trusted abilities. As they announced their 2022 returns within a week in January, they immediately raised the Irish floor for this fall. Those are the names new defensive line coach Al Washington knew before he even arrived at Notre Dame.

But behind the ends and alongside fifth-year defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola questions arise. That latter query may be one with no bad answer, as rising junior Rylie Mills and senior Howard Cross have both shown they are more than capable. Mills even flashed on the outside in place of Tagovailoa-Amosa at Virginia in November, notching two sacks and showing a quickness not usually expected from someone this large.

If Mills or Cross establishes himself as the fourth starter — creating a front line of Isaiah Foskey, Jayson Ademilola, Mills or Cross, and Justin Ademilola — then Washington will be able to spend this spring tinkering with his second unit. There are plenty of formerly-touted recruits or long-term projects nearing development to try out, just none that have necessarily proven themselves.

Take rising senior Nana Osafo-Mensah, for example. He preserved a year of eligibility in 2019 before a knee injury sidelined him for all of 2020. Two seasons of silence rendered Osafo-Mensah largely an afterthought, despite once being considered a recruiting coup. Backing up Foskey, Tagovailoa-Amosa and Justin Ademilola — along with rising junior Jordan Botelho, then more a defensive end than a linebacker, a ratio that should flip this year — kept Osafo-Mensah’s 2021 contributions to a minimum.

Osafo-Mensah has only two multi-tackle games in his career as he enters his senior year, but at what point was that because he fell short? Yet, at what point has he shown enough to believe in him as Justin Ademilola’s complementary piece?

For Osafo-Mensah, along with longer-term development thoughts such as end Ehrensberger or tackle Keanaaina, bringing in a new position coach may be a boon. Washington has few judgments on them, particularly since there is so little game film to grade.

“Getting the chance to get around them and watch them work has definitely been something I find valuable in understanding who they are,” Washington said last month. “Everything is going to lead up to spring ball.”

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