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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Roster Review | Defensive End

February 4, 2024
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Last year at this time, Notre Dame was losing their two most experienced edge players and had moved one starting defensive end inside to defensive tackle. They also moved a couple of linebackers to the Vyper position to try and fill some holes from previous recruiting misses.

It was a far cry from the 2019 season when they were so deep that Isaiah Foskey ended up redshirting.

They are in a much different spot one year later. The present is rosier. The future looks bright as well with seven players with at least three years of eligibility remaining.

It’s a crowded depth chart, but one that should have a lot more clarity at the end of spring ball.

Total snaps returning

They’re bringing back 813 snaps from last season and that’s led by Jordan Botelho (428), the 2023 starter at Vyper. Josh Burnham (179) and Junior Tuihalamaka (166) split reps behind Botelho as they cracked the defensive line rotation for the first time.

They have a limited amount of returning snaps at the other defensive end position, so we may see Burnham move there this fall.

Boubacar Traore (27) was able to redshirt while playing in four games plus the bowl (that now doesn’t count against a redshirt because of a new rule).

Notable returning production

10.5 havoc plays (forced fumbles, tackles for loss, pass breakups, interceptions) with that many snaps returning is more notable for how small that is. They need more playmaking from those returning, especially Botelho. His 1.5 tackles for loss in the bowl game almost matched his entire regular season.

There are reasons for optimism, though. We can start with Burnham and his 4 TFLs in limited action and Traore making a splash with a sack and forced fumble when given an opportunity in the USC game.

Botelho was credited with 18 pressures by PFF, which matched his 2022 total in significantly less pass rush opportunities. He needs to be healthy to have a bounce back as a pass rusher.

Burnham (7) and Tuihalamaka (4) combined for only 11 pressures. They need better production from the Vyper position as a whole.

It’s probably just as notable that Tuihalamaka had zero havoc plays. He did a nice job as a run defender, but Burnham had 11 “stops” compared to his two. (Stops are considered failures by the offense. Eg a three-yard gain on 1st and 10 is a negative outcome for the offense. A two yard gain on 3rd and 1 is a positive outcome.)

Additions

The big one is Duke transfer RJ Oben. The multi-year starter was projected as a late-round pick if he left for the NFL, but he decided to stay in college for another season. Oben has averaged 8.8 havoc plays per season over the last three years and is a proven pass rusher. He should step right in to replace Javontae Jean-Baptiste as a starter this season.

He averaged 31 pressures per season as a starter and twice has produced a pass rush win rate of 20% or more against true pass sets.

The Irish have also added three edge players in their most recent recruiting class. Bryce Young, Cole Mullins, and Loghan Thomas are all on campus as early enrollees.

Mullins had surgery and missed his senior season. It’s not likely he’ll participate much this spring and he’s in line to redshirt this fall.

Reps are going to be tough to come by for Thomas with a crowded situation at Vyper and he needs this year to add weight and get stronger. He’s also very likely to redshirt.

Young should have a legitimate shot to compete to play behind Oben at defensive end. He has a lot of technical development to do in order to have a shot to do so and has only played two years as a defensive lineman, but he’s the closest to Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt in terms of raw talent than any defensive lineman the Irish have signed over the last decade.

The wildcard addition is Kahanu Kia. He’s back after being on a two-year mission for his church. Prior to that, he redshirted during the 2021 season and impressed everyone with his motor and overall feel as a pass rusher.

Spring competition

Nothing is given in terms of playing time on the defensive line, but with very little experience returning at defensive end, Oben is the obvious choice to start there. He needs to be a more consistent run defender, but we saw that happen with JJB last year.

The question then becomes who will crack the rotation behind Oben on the depth chart. It’s doubtful Aiden Gobaira will be cleared to participate fully in spring after tearing his ACL last August. He should get in the mix in the summer. 

That leaves Tyson Ford as a candidate to compete there, but he hasn’t shown enough to make it anything close to a sure thing. Gobaira looked poised to earn playing time last season and his absence should have opened the door for Ford. It didn’t happen for him, though. This is a “now or never” spring ball for him because Young might be too talented to keep off the field for very long.

Young will get a chance to make an impression this spring with plenty of reps and the other possibility is moving Burnham to clear some space with the log jam at Vyper. That’s something that the coaching staff hinted at and we’ll see if that happens this spring.

Right now it’s uncertain if Brenan Vernon will compete at end or defensive tackle after his redshirt season. At either spot he should be considered to be in the mix as a rotation player in 2024.

Even though Botelho is the returning starter at Vyper, the starting job shouldn’t be secure based on how he played in 2023. Injuries certainly played a huge part with him, but he didn’t look like the player he was at the end of 2022 until the bowl game.

However, Oregon State played a pair of back up tackles in that game, so no one should take the results from that day too seriously. He needs to be healthy and show the same explosiveness and motor he had previously as a pass rusher.

Burnham and Tuihalamaka are the obvious candidates to challenge Botelho based on the number of snaps each played last season, but both of them need to jump up a level this spring, Burnham is still raw with his hand usage and plan of attack as a pass rusher. Tuihalamaka simply hasn’t flashed much in that area with only a 5.2% win percentage.

Notre Dame needs more from the position rushing the passer, which opens up a huge opportunity for Traore. No one on the roster has as much potential in that area and he showed that in last year’s fall camp and against USC. Traore has to learn how to become an every down factor, but I believe he’s a contender to start in Notre Dame’s primary 3rd down package this season.

He might even be the favorite to start there, but keep an eye out for Kia as well. He may even be a candidate to play in the “Money” role that Marist Liufau played on 3rd down.

Botelho was a starter on 3rd down, but he ended up losing that job with Al Golden elevating Jaylen Sneed in his place. That meant Notre Dame was playing two linebackers (Sneed and Liufau) as part of their primary pass rushers and they didn’t have a Vyper on the field, which is a huge difference from when they normally had two Vypers on 3rd downs.

Howard Cross, Oben, and Sneed are probably going to be out there with the first group when Notre Dame works on their sub-package defense this spring. There will be a battle between this group to join them and whoever wins that job is just as important as whoever wins the starting Vyper job in the base defense.

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