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Notre Dame Football

Irish Edge Rusher Jean-Baptiste: Notre Dame’s new Quipster is Locked In, Ready to Flourish

February 14, 2023
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On Friday, I stood in the loft area of the Irish Athletic Center and pondered a riddle from new Irish defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste.

“What three-letter word starts with gas?”

I paused for a second and tried to focus on the question rather than the Notre Dame football press corps and their tape recorders surrounding me. 

“Gas,” I said, regretfully offering an evasive answer.

Several other beat writers immediately shouted ‘car,’ adding to my shame. 

Jean-Baptiste offered the riddle while discussing his habit at Ohio State of trying to stump teammates and coaches with riddles for videos on his Twitter and TikTok. 

Fighting Irish fans are accustomed to players interviewing teammates à la former walk-on running back Mick Assaf or safety Litchfield Ajavon, but Jean-Baptiste intends to put those in the Gug on the spot, whether its for Fighting Irish Media or his social media accounts. 

“Oh, it’s going to happen here,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I just didn’t pull it out yet.”

Sure, the riddles served as entertaining ‘gotcha! moments,’ with coaches and teammates often attempting to escape the view of Jean-Baptiste’s camera lens, but they also helped brighten Jean-Baptiste's outlook during difficult times. 

“Things were getting dim for me in the place where I was,” Jean-Baptiste said, “so I thought, ‘let me bring some joy to my day and bring some joy to the people.’ Then I just started asking riddles and questions and people really loved them.”

Jean-Baptiste experienced an up-and-down playing career while at Ohio State. 

As a four-star outside linebacker prospect from Bergen Catholic H.S. in Oradell, New Jersey, he redshirted as a freshman in 2018. From 2019-22, he served as a depth piece in the Buckeye’s rotation of edge defenders. He backed up several current and soon-to-be NFL draft selections like Chase Young, Tyreke Smith, Zach Harrison and Jonathon Cooper. 

In 2022, his effectiveness spiked. According to a source connected to Ohio State,  Jean-Baptiste created havoc in practice while going against Buckeye offensive tackles Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones, the former a projected first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. 

That translated onto the field. Last fall, he recorded four sacks (third at OSU) and 14 pressures in 131 pass-rush opportunities, per Pro Football Focus. His 16.0% win rate ranks second compared to every Fighting Irish edge defender of the last two seasons with at least 100 total snaps. 

His 2022 production ranks only behind Jordan Botelho’s 18 pressures and 24.0% win rate last year.

Even as Jean-Baptiste’s production increased, his playing time stagnated due to the emergence of former five-star prospects Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau.

Over Ohio State’s final three games in 2022, Jean-Baptiste played 20 total snaps to Tuimoloau’s 169. Rather than sulk, Jean-Baptiste served as an extra set of eyes from the sidelines against Michigan and Georgia and offered teammates feedback.

“You can't make it all about yourself because at the end of the day, you're on a team that has one goal and you can't put yourself before the team,” Jean Baptiste said. “In those situations where stuff may have not went my way, I made sure that I could do all for my brothers to help them while they were on the field and make sure everything goes their way.”

Still, with one season of eligibility remaining, he felt ready for a new opportunity and Notre Dame matched his desired profile.

“After you’ve been in the business five years — I really didn't care for the flash and whatever,” Jean-Baptiste said. “At the end of the day, it’s a real, clear-cut decision. I want to see how each program would be able to use me and help me to get better at the little aspects [of my game].”

Jean-Baptiste announced his transfer to Notre Dame and speculation ensued from the Notre Dame beat writers as to where the 6-foot-5 edge defender will line up in 2023. 

Will he replace Isaiah Foskey at Vyper or compete at Big End so Rylie Mills can spend more time playing defensive tackle? 

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I see one as more of a stand-up and the other is hand-in-the-dirt that can stand up occasionally. I’m good with showcasing either talent.”

He currently weighs 253 pounds, noticeably lighter than the 262 pounds Foskey checked in at in the Senior Bowl.

“My real goal this offseason is just to create more lean muscle and just drop my body fat. My body fat percentage when I first got here in January was around 15% and I'm looking to drop it back down to 12.”

His size may pose some concern, but Jean-Baptiste possesses different athletic traits that neither Foskey nor any other edge rusher at Notre Dame had over the last few seasons.

Foskey often won with power and speed.  Jean-Baptiste may lack Foskey’s strength, but he’s long and flexible and can dip his shoulders, bend around an offensive tackle and get home. He should be a menace off the edge no matter where he lines up. 

Jean-Baptiste, however, needs to become more physical at the point of attack against the run and when setting the edge, especially if he remains a similar size. He must become a heavy-handed technician. It’s an area where defensive line coach Al Washington can help Jean-Baptiste ‘flourish,’ according to the source connected to Ohio State. 

Of course, he and Washington built a relationship years ago when Washington coached linebackers at OSU, overlapping with Jean-Baptiste in Columbus from 2019-21.

The same goes for Notre Dame defensive line assistant Nick Sebastian, who worked at Ohio State for three seasons before joining the Irish in 2022. 

“That’s my dog. That’s really my guy,”  Jean-Baptiste said of Sebastian. “[I had] a lot of conversations with him while we were at Ohio State. The connection between me and him was very good, just going through things in the meeting room and in practice and having conversations about what I can do, like little tweaks and [critisms] on my game. 

“Even when I needed to come in and just talk to somebody about my every day, he was always there for me.”

Those pre-established relationships will serve him well as he navigates the inevitable culture shock of life at South Bend. 

Still, Jean-Baptiste should make fast friends with his new teammates and classmates. He’s friendly, cerebral and outgoing enough to ask strangers riddles on the spot. 

It’s just best that they don’t freeze like I did.

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