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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Displays DL’s Depth, Pass-Rush Potential in Blue-Gold Game

April 24, 2023
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The next wave of Notre Dame edge rushers and long and flexible interior players introduced themselves to Fighting Irish fans during Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.

Six defensive linemen recorded a sack between the Gold and Blue teams — a welcome sign for a program that must replace significant pass-rush production.

Notre Dame recorded at least 31.0 sacks in each of the last five seasons, including 38.0 sacks last fall.

                                         Notre Dame Sack Production from 2018-22
Year Total/Sacks Per Game National Rank
2022 38.0/2.92 T-13th
2021 41.0/3.15 T-12th
2020 31.0/2.58 T-15th
2019 34.0/2.62 T-33rd
2018 34.0/2.62 T-32nd

Yet the Irish lost three of the team’s top four pass rushers to the 2023 NFL Draft and must replace at least 20.0 sacks from the 2022 roster.

The largest hole to fill going forward is at Vyper, the program’s premium pass-rush position. Departed Vypers Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola combined for 14.0 sacks.

Three players are next in line: Jordan Botelho, Junior Tuihalamaka and Joshua Burnham. Each showed significant signs of improvement this spring and registered a sack on Saturday. 

“They all help each other,” defensive line coach Al Washington said. “Like you saw today, it was awesome to see. Those guys are capable of making plays, and they're capable of doing a lot of different jobs on the field. They're really smart, tough. I love the depth. I'm really excited about the direction of that position.”

The largest obstacle to overcome is their lack of experience. The trio of Vypers played a combined 215 defensive snaps in 2022. Additionally, Tuihalamaka began his Fighting Irish career at linebacker. 

Still, it’s a stretch to ask these three players to replace Foskey’s effectiveness alone, so keeping them fresh is vital.

“The one thing we try to preach and promote is depth,” Washington said. “To play at a high level, you need to have more than one wave in the course of the game, in the course of the season. Otherwise, you break down.”

Still, there’s a chance that all three could get on the field simultaneously.

“Then we factor in third down. Who's to say all three of those guys came on the field same time?” Al Washington said. “I think that's how we have to be creative about it, but they're all going to play.”

Washington isn’t just counting on a trio of inexperienced Vypers to step up. The Irish also added Ohio State’s Javontae Jean-Baptiste to the roster. He recorded four sacks in 2022 and will play the Big End position.

It’s also necessary for interior defensive linemen to step up and make more plays. 

Nose tackle Jason Onye played eight snaps in his first two seasons at Notre Dame but recorded three tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hit in the Blue-Gold Game.

“A year ago, when I first got hired on, he was one of those guys that was coming off injury and really hadn't had a chance to really have a full year or spring,” Washington said. “I think from a fundamental standpoint, he's grown. He's a tall guy, high-hip guy. If you watch him run, he has an unbelievable gate. 

“Interior guys, your paid to play low. So sometimes it's harder for a guy like him to play low, because you get bad spots if you're high.”

It pained Onye to watch every game from the sidelines, but he never made excuses.

In the offseason, he reshaped his body and is up to 292 pounds. He’s also refined his technique so that he’s able to leverage his length and explosiveness.

“For him, just the flexibility, the comfort of playing in a bend and it really learn to come out his hips,” Washington said. “Those are the things he's improved and the ability to use his hands. That's another area up front that is really important. 

“I think those are the major things he's improved on and things he's got continue to master and then he has really good power rush game, too. So I think he's starting to feel comfortable with the type of rusher he is.”

Notre Dame is also working with two other interior players who are 6-foot-5 and weigh more than 290 pounds in Rylie Mills and Gabriel Rubio. 

“They're all long and they're all bought in. I'm really excited about the direction of those three guys are moving. I feel like we got a chance to make some noise. We have put it on field, obviously. But it's been a good spring.”

Freshman Tyson Ford, who’s built in a similar mold, also picked up a sack on Saturday. He may be another year from contributing, but the Fighting Irish have a stable of tall, athletic interior players waiting for their opportunity to shine. 

Of course, fifth-year defensive tackle Howard Cross III also came up with a sack in the Blue-Gold Game, dominating offensive guard Pat Coogan on a bull rush. He’s undersized but will remain a presence up the middle for the Irish.

If each member of Notre Dame’s defensive line two-deep can elevate their games this fall, then the Fighting Irish pass rush may continue its dominance in 2023 and beyond.

 
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