Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, suddenly inexperienced and unproven
Javontae Jean-Baptiste is not Isaiah Foskey. He is also not Justin Ademilola. Fittingly, his game may represent a mix of the two defensive ends Notre Dame is looking to replace.
The Ohio State graduate transfer is not as big as Foskey or as stout as Ademilola, but he brings years of experience to the Irish defensive line room that is otherwise somewhat lacking in proven commodities, certainly in proven defensive ends. He may start at Vyper end, where Foskey set Notre Dame records in his career, or at “Big” end, where Ademilola split time with part-time defensive tackle Rylie Mills. Jean-Baptiste has both the range (standing 6-foot-5) wanted from the Vyper end and the pass-rush ability (emphasized by his flexibility) wanted from the “Big” end.
That wide-ranging possibility may have been part of what drew Jean-Baptiste to South Bend. He pondered declaring for the NFL after five seasons at Ohio State which included four years of part-time work, but part-time work does not yield the kind of statistics that generally catch the NFL’s eye.
“It was just a long evaluation with my family and thinking about what truly was the best step for me and for the path I want to take in my future,” Jean-Baptiste said earlier this month, adding that his decision came down to Notre Dame, Mississippi and Texas. Of those three, clearly only one is in the Midwest, with Jean-Baptiste not only coming from Ohio State but also originally a New Jersey product, not to mention a program with multiple Playoff appearances.
The Irish are also the only program among the three that could boast multiple coaches Jean-Baptiste already knows. Defensive line coach Al Washington used to coach the Buckeyes linebackers, and defensive line graduate assistant Nick Sebastian came with Washington from Columbus a year ago. Jean-Baptiste may not have been in Washington’s position group at Ohio State, with a one-game exception, but he still knew him well. Defensive front-sevens need to work together, obviously.
“The familiarity with coach Wash and even coach [Sebastian] did a lot for me,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I’ve been with them for three years, just knowing them and how they treat their players and their guys, seeing them in action, let me go play for them.”
Whatever the reason he ended up in South Bend, Notre Dame needs Jean-Baptiste. Not to replace Foskey or Ademilola, but perhaps to be a bit of both of them.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Losing three defensive line starters this winter will make this position group a distinct springtime question mark for the first time in a few years.
It had not been a worry the last few because the Irish knew they had an All-American in Foskey at one end and the Ademilola twins providing enough consistency across the rest of the line to give Notre Dame’s reserves and youth time to grow into their roles. And that worked.
Foskey may not have had the dominant senior season that summertime headlines previewed, but he racked up double-digit sacks for the second year in a row, setting the career Irish sacks record. Justin Ademilola had been a quiet producer along the defensive line since his freshman season in 2018, one of the only Notre Dame defenders who looked up to the task against Clemson in that College Football Playoff. And defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola played through repeated shoulder injuries to be one of the most-clutch Irish defenders the last two seasons, memorably telling head coach Marcus Freeman not to worry at the most stressful moment against BYU in October and then proceeding to make the game-sealing tackle.
Notre Dame’s defensive line depth was not as trusted in 2022 as in recent years, but the presence of those three proven and productive veterans made it an asset, nonetheless.
A cynic (me): Isaiah Foskey needed four years to get to 26.5 sacks. Justin Tuck needed only three.— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) December 9, 2022
Me, looking at their careers: Eh, were Foskey's first four games really chances for sacks? If not ...
Tuck: 0.68 sacks per game
Isaiah Foskey: 12 games; 45 tackles with 14 for loss including 11 sacks, plus six quarterback hurries. One forced fumble and one fumble recovered.Justin Ademilola: 13 games; 39 tackles with 3.5 for loss including 3 sacks, plus four quarterback hurries. One fumble recovered.Howard Cross: 12 games; 33 tackles with 2.5 for loss including 2 sacks, plus five quarterback hurries. One forced fumble.Jayson Ademilola: 12 games; 29 tackles with 5 for loss including 3 sacks, plus four quarterback hurries.Rylie Mills: 13 games; 24 tackles with 6 for loss including 3.5 sacks.Chris Smith: 13 games; 17 tackles with 0.5 for loss. One forced fumble.Gabriel Rubio: 12 games; 17 tackles with 4 for loss, plus two quarterback hurries.Nana Osafo-Mensah: 13 games; 14 tackles with 1 for loss, plus two quarterback hurries.Jordan Botelho: 13 games; 11 tackles with 6.5 for loss including 4.5 sacks, plus three quarterback hurries.Jacob Lacey: 4 games before transferring; 5 tackles including 2 sacks.Aidan Keanaaina: 1 game; 3 tackles.Osita Ekwonu: 3 games/ 2 tackles.Alexander Ehrensberger: 12 games; 2 tackles.Jason Onye: 1 game; 2 tackles.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
There is talent on hand for the Irish. Losing two NFL draft picks in Foskey and Jayson Ademilola does not render Notre Dame at an absolute loss, not to mention Justin Ademilola’s chance of testing his way into the draft.
In fact, the Irish starters should elicit some thoughts of a strong line. Rising senior Jordan Botelho shined in the Gator Bowl in his first moment as a clear defensive end, rather than a hybrid linebacker. In 48 defensive snaps against South Carolina, he tallied two sacks, adding two more quarterback hurries. Whether it is Jean-Baptiste or fifth-year Nana Osafo-Mensah (pictured at top) opposite Botelho, Notre Dame will be turning to a one-time stout recruit who has been beaten out by eventual NFL players the last few years, not someone who has fallen off in his own regard.
Rising senior Rylie Mills will presumably move back to tackle after dabbling at “Big” end last season, a reflection of both the Irish defensive alignment — more 3-4 fronts than 4-3 — and the lack of thorough depth than anything else. Mills will work with fifth-year Howard Cross, one of the most physical players on the entire roster.
The springtime questions will focus on Jean-Baptiste’s and Mills’s primary positions, but regardless, that group of five should give Notre Dame enough confidence up front.
Then add in rising junior Gabriel Rubio at tackle, rising senior Alexander Ehrensberger at end and rising sophomore Junior Tuihalamaka possibly at end and there is depth on hand, just not known commodities among it.
If one of them were to emerge as a clear contributor by the end of April, it would be a surprise, but it also would not be the greatest of shocks. Such a step forward would bolster the Irish defensive front to a level nearing comfortable long before preseason practices commence.
FUTURE DEPTHOnly defensive tackle Devan Houston has enrolled early this semester among Notre Dame’s four defensive line signees. The consensus four-star prospect could be called upon in 2023 for some rotational reps, think in the vein of Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa both needing to back up veteran starters in 2017, the two freshmen surprising in tandem.
With only Mills, Cross and Rubio the clear contributors at tackle, Houston will be in direct competition with Onye, Ford and Hinish to be that fourth piece of the needed rotation.