Notre Dame football spring practice begins on Mar. 22. To prepare, here’s a preview of the defensive side of the roster, featuring scholarship totals for the fall and players who will dominate discussion at the outset.
Interior Defensive Line
Scholarship Players: 9
All Eyes On: Rylie Mills and Gabriel Rubio
Underclassmen to Watch: Donovan Hinish and Tyson Ford
Make-or-Break Spring: Aidan Keanaaina
For two offseasons, Mills was hyped up as the ideal sidekick to Isaiah Foskey — a versatile player who could present matchup nightmares with his speed on the inside and strength on the outside. While he hasn’t been a “disappointment” per se, his production has been just passable. With Foskey now gone to the NFL and a marked lack of size on the interior, the pressure is on Mills to finally step up, presumably while shifting more to the inside. Ditto for Rubio, who enters his third year in the program after appearing in one game as a freshman and playing a supporting role on the interior last year.
Granted, Notre Dame’s interior production is always going to be by committee. But even by that standard young players will have every chance to contribute this season. One of those is Hinish, whose brother Kurt was a former Irish captain, holds the Notre Dame record for all-time games played and began contributing on the defensive line at the same point in his career as Donovan is now. Ford will also be a name to watch if he puts on enough weight as a true sophomore to start making noise inside.
Because size is what Notre Dame needs. Keanaaina has plenty, but he’s only played in five games through three years after an offseason ACL injury limited him to one appearance last season. It was even rumored that he might not be in the staff’s plans down the road and could transfer out, but unless a medical retirement is on the table, that makes little sense considering he’s the only defensive lineman on the Irish roster listed over 300 pounds. In any event, this spring should provide at least a little more clarity on Keanaaina’s status.
Scholarship Players: 9
All Eyes On: Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Nana Osafo-Mensah
Underclassmen to Watch: Josh Burnham and Junior Tuihalamaka
Make-or-Break Spring: Alexander Ehrensberger and Jordan Botelho
There are a lot of questions for Notre Dame when it comes to generating a pass rush next season. How Ohio State transfer Jean-Baptiste fills the No. 1 edge rusher spot will be key, as will the consistency of Osafo-Mensah, who quietly put together a solid senior campaign last year (14 total tackles, 8 solo tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 forced fumble).
Those two will be supplemented by several young options, including Burnham and potentially Tuihalamaka. Both were recruited as linebackers with Burnham switching positions during his first spring and Tuihalamaka playing a reserve mike linebacker role last season. The latter may end up sticking at linebacker, but the vyper position remains a potential spot for the staff to get more talented players on the field.
Speaking of hybrid linebackers/edge rushers, Botelho has spent the last two seasons as a ’tweener at outside linebacker and vyper. His size (6-foot-2, 250 pounds as a junior) has made it difficult to play on the edge, but the hope is that something clicked after a two-sack performance against South Carolina in the Gator Bowl. His classmate Ehrensberger has also appeared in double-digit games the last two years as a reserve and has unique physical attributes (6-foot-7, 267 pounds) that would serve the Irish well if he begins producing regularly.
Scholarship Players: 10
All Eyes On: Prince Kollie
Underclassman to Watch: Jaylen Sneed
Make-or-Break Spring: Marist Liufau
There isn’t much controversy at the linebacker spot. Marist Liufau, J.D. Bertrand and Jack Kiser are likely to retain their starting jobs next season, and, to varying degrees, that trio provides a high floor of production. But there’s a higher ceiling behind them, so now is the time to see if the talent can take some reps from the experience.
Kollie won the high school Butkus Award before coming to Notre Dame and Sneed was a five-star prospect. After two full seasons in the program, now would be the time for Kollie to demonstrate enough of a mental grasp on the game to steal some snaps away from Bertrand or Liufau. Sneed likely has more ground to cover both mentally and physically as a true sophomore, but it would be a welcome development if he could push Kiser for playing time as well.
And, to reiterate, Liufau is probably going to start again this season. But like Rylie Mills, he was hyped up during two offseasons to be a player who would thrive in Marcus Freeman’s defense. A broken leg cost him his first year under Freeman and last season was just alright. Few fifth year players suddenly flip the switch on their production, but the only thing in Liufau’s way is himself.
Scholarship Players: 9
All Eyes On: Jaden Mickey
Underclassman to Watch: Christian Gray
Make-or-Break Spring: Philip Riley, Chance Tucker and Ryan Barnes
Mickey was an early enrollee in the 2022 class whose head-turning spring led to speculation that he might commandeer a starting cornerback spot by the end of his freshman season. That ended up being the case for his classmate, Benjamin Morrison.
Mickey had a difficult freshman campaign after being put in the unfortunate position of giving up the go-ahead touchdown to Ohio State in the season opener. How he rebounds from those struggles will be key if he doesn’t want to get passed up by early enrollee Gray — who is a candidate to be this year’s version of Morrison — or one the rising juniors.
And those rising juniors should be feeling the same pressure as Mickey. Riley was a four-star recruit; Tucker was highly sought after by in-state Washington; and Barnes brought a long frame surpassed at the position only by Cam Hart. All three were passed up by the true freshmen Mickey and Morrison despite having a full year head start in a collegiate program. With only TaRiq Bracy’s starting nickel job open after last season, it’s now or never for one of the juniors to take a spot or show potential as a converted safety.
Scholarship Players: 6
All Eyes On: Thomas Harper and Xavier Watts
Underclassman to Watch: Adon Shuler and Ben Minich
Make-or-Break Spring: Justin Walters
Off to the NFL goes Brandon Joseph after a one-year transfer stint, in comes Oklahoma State safety transfer Thomas Harper. Well, Harper’s really more of a nickel, but the safety position needs him more than cornerback. It also needs Watts to build upon his strong finish to 2022 by becoming a true playmaker on the back end.
It would also be very nice if Shuler or Minich turned out to be this year’s version of Benjamin Morrison and pushed for a starting safety job as a true freshman, although that’s very unlikely. At the very least, one of the two needs to demonstrate the potential to start as a sophomore considering the current state of the room: D.J. Brown exhausts his eligibility after this season, Ramon Henderson has been inconsistent through two years in the rotation and Walters has yet to meaningfully contribute.
And as for Walters, if he wants to contribute, there’s really nothing standing in his way. Notre Dame’s safety position has been poorly recruited and poorly developed for years. If he can’t manage to make noise in his third offseason given the state of the position group … well, it would be telling.
*For those keeping track, Notre Dame appears to have 88 scholarship players between the offense and defense, which does not include scholarships for kickers Spencer Shrader and Josh Bryan, punter Bryce McFerson, and ex-walk-on long snapper Michael Vinson