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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

‘Greatness is found in the detail’: Irish defensive line is ready to dominate

Just days after Notre Dame suffered a season-ending loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, the outlook for the Irish defense in the upcoming season received a major boost when defensive end Justin Ademilola announced that he would return to play a fifth season in blue and gold. Two days later, that good news was doubled when his twin brother, defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, also decided to come back to South Bend. When junior All-American defensive end Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame’s leader in sacks and a projected early-round NFL Draft pick, gave the news that he, too, would be back, it became clear that this year’s Irish defensive line could be special.

“[The defensive line is] getting better every day, very driven, focused,” defensive line coach and defensive run game coordinator Al Washington said earlier in the spring. “We have a lot of experience in the room, but the thing I appreciate is how well they recognize [that] there is another level. That’s what we’re in the hunt to accomplish.”

Washington noted that the value of having experienced players comes not only from their on-field contributions, but also from their ability to aid the development of the team’s younger players, saying that “there’s a group of older guys that have all really taken the bull by the horns and become leaders.”

While these established veterans will be leading the way for the Irish defense in the fall, Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game served as an opportunity for the unit’s underclassmen to gain valuable game experience, as neither Jayson Ademilola nor Foskey played in the concluding “practice” of the spring season.

Defense was a strength for both sides throughout the game, as the two offenses combined to score just 23 points in Gold’s 13-10 victory. The young defensive line played a major role in that success, with a focus on getting to the quarterback whenever possible.

“The first thing we talk about on the [defensive] line is that the quarterback is our responsibility,” Washington said after the game. “A lot of guys played a lot of snaps, but they took it seriously. Some guys made some plays, maybe for the first time in their careers.”

A standout in the game was junior Rylie Mills, who suited up for the Blue team. Mills was a key player for Notre Dame last season, finishing in a tie for fourth on the team with three sacks, but his play on Saturday showed a readiness to step into an even bigger role. With three tackles for loss, including a sack, Mills was a nightmare for opposing blockers and was constantly in the backfield. He also showed impressive awareness to break up a pass at the line of scrimmage.

Mills’ strong play was a major talking point for the Irish coaching staff after the game, and his performance came as no surprise to Washington based on what he saw from the junior throughout the spring.

“Every practice this spring he’s gotten better and better,” Washington said of Mills. “Our focus has been on the little things. We’ve been stressing that, and he’s really embraced it. I’m really excited with the progress and it’s always great to finish the spring like that. He’s done a fine job.”

While Mills jumps out on the stat sheet, several other Irish linemen made key plays that were less obvious. On the opening play of the second quarter, sophomore Alexander Ehrensberger was lined up at defensive tackle for the Blue team with Gold just outside of the redzone. Ehrensberger got into the backfield almost immediately after the snap and pressured sophomore quarterback Drew Pyne, causing an errant throw that was intercepted by junior linebacker Jordan Botelho. Ehrensberger also recorded a pass breakup, part of a concerted effort by the defensive line to disrupt the passing game, even when they were unable to reach the pocket.

Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game that “the ability in plus territory to create turnovers is huge,” and active hands from the linemen were a big part of that.

A point of emphasis for Washington this spring was versatility, as he wanted many of his players to be comfortable in different spots across the line. Ehrensberger’s ability to quickly adapt in several roles has made him a valuable piece for the Irish defense.

“He played inside and outside today. He did well, he was in the backfield quite a bit,” Washington said. “He’s another one that we’re going to count on this fall. As he continues to physically develop, I think the sky’s the limit.”

While Mills and Ehrensberger received much of the attention postgame, several other members of the defensive line impressed on Saturday. Juniors Nana Osafo-Mensah and Howard Cross combined for a fourth-quarter sack of freshman quarterback Ron Powlus III, and Osafo-Mensah blew up a screen pass for a loss of seven yards in the third. Sophomore Gabriel Rubio also had a big day, recording an assisted tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry as well as batting down a pass from Powlus III late in the game. As a whole, the group was excellent against the run and pass, limiting both offenses to a combined 3.4 yards per carry while getting into the backfield often enough to curtail any chance of an effective downfield passing attack.

With a core group of returning starters that includes Foskey and the Ademilolas, there is no reason to doubt that Notre Dame’s defensive line will be good. That will not be enough to satisfy a motivated Irish group, though, and they illustrated in the Blue-Gold Game that they have a chance to be something even more in the upcoming season.

“We’re a good group, how can we become great?” Washington said. “There’s always room for improvement in each individual and as a unit. Greatness is found in the details.”