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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Roster Review | Defensive Tackle

February 22, 2023

For the first time in five years, Jayson Ademilola won’t be playing defensive tackle for Notre Dame. Al Washington also has to replace Chris Smith and with Jacob Lacey deciding to transfer after four games last season, it’s the least experience the Irish have had returning at the position in quite some time.

One player returning with plenty of experience is Howard Cross. Cross was arguably the best defensive lineman on the team in the first ⅓ of the season, but an ankle injury took him out of the lineup and had him playing nowhere close to 100% for several weeks after. Doing that while being undersized playing nose tackle isn’t an ideal situation.

Everyone familiar with Irish Sports Daily knows that I’ve pounded the table for Cross to play as a 3-technique rather than a nose, but he might be the best at both spots on the roster next season. He’ll play where he is needed and be a valuable player who punches above his weight class.

The next most experienced player on the interior is Rylie Mills. He played about equal snaps at end and defensive tackle last season, but was pretty much a full-time defensive tackle in the bowl game when Ademilola was out.

Expectations were high for him in 2022 and many projected a breakout campaign, but it didn’t quite happen for him. He still has plus pass rush ability when matched up against guards and Notre Dame needs him to be a consistent presence versus the run.

Mills is going to be an important player and Gabriel Rubio is as well. He cracked the rotation last fall and made significant progress from his first year on campus, but still has plenty of room to grow his game. That growth needs to be evident as they need him as a big body who can hold the double team inside.

Tyson Ford is going to have an opportunity to earn plenty of snaps as a 3-technique defensive tackle. Reports on him as a freshman were very positive as he made the transition to playing inside. He’s near the top of the list of young defenders to watch this spring.

Jason Onye was able to get plenty of reps last spring and showed he was also making strides. His motor and length really stuck out in the brief periods we had a chance to watch him at practice. A developmental pick up when he signed with the Irish, it would be big if that development started to take off now that the runway is clear at the position.

There was a big change in Donovan Hinish’s older brother Kurt from year one to year two at Notre Dame. We’ll see if the same thing occurs with the younger Hinish. His biggest obstacle will be whether or not he is big enough to play as a nose.

Did he add enough weight to get into the mix? The answer to that question will likely determine whether or not we are talking about Hinish as a factor or not at any time in his Notre Dame career.

Aidan Keanaaina is the biggest enigma of the group because, frankly, he’s about to enter his fourth year in the program and he’s played exactly 50 snaps, primarily in garbage time. Injuries have played a large part in it, but it’s pretty rare for someone like him to go from not playing at all to even finding a reserve role in year four.

Devan Houston being an early enrollee might give him a chance to play as a freshman with so much uncertainty on the depth chart. It’s more likely this will be a year to learn to play defensive tackle full-time (he moved around the line for his high school).

Brenan Vernon is arriving in the summer and it’s going to be a bit of an adjustment period for him to play inside as well after playing more defensive end in high school. Him and Houstan both have the potential to make a large impact at Notre Dame. It’s just not likely to be immediate.

The defensive line is young in general. The development of players like Rubio, Ford, and Onye is going to largely determine the ceiling for the group as a whole.

Al Washington has a big challenge ahead of him and if enough of these players make that next step to become key players and legitimate NFL prospects, then it can help take the defense to a much higher level in 2023.

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