As a native son of the state of Kentucky, I would be remiss (and possibly disowned) if I didn’t do at least one of these position previews comparing players to bourbon distillers. So the interior defensive line is the lucky group.
DISCLAIMER: I’m not a drinker, so my experience with bourbon amounts to little more than a few distillery tours. You should go on one if you’re so inclined; it really is a fascinating industry.
Anyway, on with the show.
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola — Old Forester
I mean no disrespect to Mr. Ademilola, but he’s been in the Notre Dame program longer than any other interior lineman. Naturally, the elder statesman of the group is the Old Forester Statesman.
Helming the interior opposite his twin brother Justin on the edge, Jayson has been a contributor for the Irish from day one. The fifth-year defensive tackle finished last season with 8.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, easily posting the best single-season marks of his career.
This will be Ademilola’s second straight year as the starting defensive tackle. He’ll lead a group that has plenty of big bodies but also several questions. Another consistent year from Ademilola would be some much-needed insurance in case the unproven players behind him need more time to start producing.
No. 54 Jacob Lacey — Kentucky Gentleman
Lacey is Notre Dame’s only defensive lineman from Kentucky. Obviously, the lone player from the greatest state in the union is the Kentucky Gentleman of the group.
Lacey has never really been completely healthy during his time in South Bend, but he’s fought through it and appeared in 11 games in each of his first three seasons. Now, he’s apparently addressed his injury issues and is poised to show what he can do as the No. 1 nose tackle.
With just 30 total tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss to his name entering his senior year, the Irish will need Lacey to fulfill some of the potentials that made him a top-200 player in his class.
No. 56 Howard Cross III — Wild Turkey
There’s been a lot of talk about Cross’s size. He’s just a hair under 6-foot-1 — compare that to Ademilola at 6-foot-3 — but what he may lack in height, he makes up for with ferocious power. And since a turkey is a small animal that I would nevertheless want to avoid fighting, Wild Turkey was the best comp I could do.
After playing in just four games in 2019 to preserve his freshman redshirt, Cross played in all 12 games as a sophomore and in 11 contests last season. He finished this most recent campaign with 22 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 3.0 sacks. He’ll be a reliable backup to Ademilola at defensive tackle and can also shift to the nose from time to time.
No. 65 Chris Smith — Widow Jane
Speaking of short but strong, Cross offered high praise for Smith, describing the Harvard graduate transfer as “probably one of the strongest human beings I’ve ever seen.” Cross also estimated that Smith did 37 reps on a 225-pound bench press. Combine that power with the 310 pounds Smith is listed at and he could be a widow maker. Hence, Widow Jane.
Smith was a first-team All-Ivy League selection in 2021 after the conference canceled his junior football season due to the coronavirus pandemic. This offseason he planned on transferring to Minnesota for a graduate year, but Notre Dame came calling after Aidan Keanaaina’s ACL tear in spring training.
Smith and the next player on this list are presumably battling for the No. 2 nose tackle job behind Lacey. At worst, Smith is a veteran backup. And if strength training is any indication, it doesn’t appear that he’ll be overwhelmed by the upgrade in competition he’ll experience at Notre Dame.
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio — Maker’s Mark
Rubio was Notre Dame’s highest-rated defensive recruit in the 2021 class per the 247Sports Composite. With his initial competition for the backup nose tackle spot going down and an Ivy League graduate transfer coming in, this could be the year for Rubio to … make his mark on the defensive line.
Maker’s Mark. Get it? Alright, moving on.
A consensus top-200 player, Rubio made one appearance as a true freshman in Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. The St. Louis native is in a good position to see a decent amount of playing time, even if Smith beats him out on the depth chart. Still, the Irish coaching staff may be hoping that Rubio makes a move early in his career and beats out a veteran transfer player.
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina — Heaven’s Door
Keanaaina is listed as Notre Dame’s biggest interior lineman at 323 pounds. Much like Chris Smith, with that kind of size, getting tackled once by Keanaaina seems like it would give you visions of the pearly gates. So Heaven’s Door for him it is. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, though, he probably won’t be wrapping up any ball carriers this upcoming season.
As alluded to earlier, Smith probably wouldn’t be on the roster right now if not for Keanaaina tearing his ACL early in spring training. The Brighton, Colo. native was initially in the mix against Rubio to be the No. 2 nose tackle, so his presumably season-ending injury made waves on the roster. (Now watch this transition…)
But speaking of making waves, it seems that Keanaaina is making a pretty good recovery considering he’s already back to wake surfing:
So maybe the Irish will see Keanaaina back on the field sooner than expected. But even if that is the case, his 2022 impact would likely be curtailed by a limited snap count and the game experience he’ll lose to others at his position.
No. 47 Jason Onye — Woodford Reserve
Onye was the No. 1 player in the state of Rhode Island in the 2021 class. He was an intriguing athlete with great physical tools (6-foot-4, 260 pounds as a high school senior) but a game that needed refining.
Onye didn’t appear in any games last season after moving from the edge to defensive tackle, but he has bulked up to 283 pounds. With one year in the program down, he’ll likely be in a (Woodford) reserve role yet again as a sophomore. Still, he’ll likely get playing time as a third-string bruiser on the interior.
No. 41 Donovan Hinish — Benchmark Bourbon
It’s not hard to imagine a Hinish being on Notre Dame’s roster for 10 consecutive years. That’s a benchmark that is unlikely to be repeated or bested by another Irish football family, so Benchmark Bourbon rounds out the list.
Donovan may redshirt this season before filling the role his older brother Kurt did at nose tackle. Kurt actually described his younger brother as “a lot more athletic” than himself, and possibly an inch or two taller. But for whatever leg up the younger Hinish may have in terms of athleticism, he’ll have his work cut out for him trying to live up to the leadership and production Kurt provided on the Irish defense the last five years.