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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
The Observer

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Dissecting Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game defense

Ahead of the Blue-Gold Game, the Irish Defense hopes to answer some questions for next year.

Defensive Line — End

Scholarship players: RJ Oben, Jordan Botelho, Joshua Burnham, Aiden Gobaira, Junior Tuihalamaka, Boubacar Traore, Brenan Vernon, Bryce Young, Cole Mullins, Loghan Thomas 

The outlook: There’s not a lot to keep an eye on here. RJ Oben and Jordan Botelho look to be an established top two. Joshua Burnham, Junior Tuihalamaka and Boubacar Traore have all shown flashes of potential on either defense or special teams duty but figure to be deputies, at least at present.

The key question: Can any of the young guns do enough to make the graduates uncomfortable?

The top of the Irish depth chart seems set in stone at defensive end. Botelho is an incumbent starter and Oben arrives as a graduate transfer with a sizable list of accolades under his belt. Botelho has been in college for four seasons, Oben for five. Notre Dame doesn’t have a reason to move away from those two players — unless a younger player forces their name into the conversation. Can Burnham, Tuihalamaka, Traore — or a freshman, namely the highly-touted Bryce Young — make a move?

If you watch one player it should be: Boubacar Traore

1-5 Intrigue Level: Watch this spot for next year’s game. This year, though, fireworks aren’t likely to abound. Two. 

Defensive Line — Tackle

Scholarship players: Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, Jason Onye, Donovan Hinish, Tyson Ford, Devan Houstan, Armel Mukam, Sean Sevillano Jr. 

The outlook: On the note of established depth charts, no position has perhaps as firm of a top two as the interior of the defensive line, where running mates Howard Cross and Rylie Mills are running things back for another year. Cross and Mills were cornerstones of Notre Dame’s defensive success in 2023 and will be relied on even more next fall. Further down the depth chart, however, intrigue abounds. Gabriel Rubio’s absence this spring (though Freeman has stated that he expects Rubio back for the summer) means Jason Onye is the only active member of the Irish defensive tackle reserves with more than 10 career tackles.

The key question: Who makes a name for themselves behind Cross and Mills?

Cross and Mills will lead the way in defensive reps next fall, but Al Golden will need bodies behind them. Jason Onye is a program veteran who worked his way into a spot role last year. Will anybody else emerge in the same way that Onye frequently flashed to the media in open practices last spring? If Rubio doesn’t return, the answer to this question could become paramount.

If you watch one player it should be: Donovan Hinish

1-5 Intrigue Level: The indication presently is that Rubio is expected to be back, which in turn lowers the importance of any jockeying lower on the depth chart. Two.

Linebackers

Scholarship players: Jack Kiser, Jaylen Sneed, Jaiden Ausberry, Drayk Bowen, Kahanu Kia, Preston Zinter, Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa

The outlook: Gone is Notre Dame’s army of experience at the linebacker position, replaced by a largely youthful room. Jack Kiser is the staple, preparing to enter his sixth year of college football. Past Kiser though, the room will rely on tapping the potential of players who spent last year learning behind the 2023 trio of graduate students. The most likely candidates to pop Saturday include Jaylen Sneed, bringing tremendous athleticism, and Drayk Bowen and Jaiden Ausberry, both of whom have shown out in practices open to the media.

The key question: What does the starting alignment look like?

It’s a simple question, but a crucial one. The Irish lose two starters at linebackers, and a pair of every-snap staples at that. Who steps into their shoes in the middle of Al Golden’s defense? Kiser is all but a guarantee. Bowen and Ausberry figure to be battling it out for the other starting spot in the nickel base (though Bowen has consistently held down the first-team slot in practices open to the media). Sneed is the wild card, with his speed having established him an intriguing package player —  but can he be more than that? If a freshman breaks through to win more than a rotational role it would be an upset, but Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa brings a remarkable track record in prep ball.

If you watch one player it should be: Drayk Bowen

1-5 Intrigue Level: This should be fun. A lot of talent competing and a premium starting gig available for the taking. Four. 

Cornerbacks

Scholarship players: Jordan Clark, Chance Tucker, Jaden Mickey, Benjamin Morrison, Micah Bell, Christian Gray

The outlook: Two more starting spots are open for the taking here, with Cam Hart and Thomas Harper both graduating. Benjamin Morrison’s injury means there’s only more reps to go around this spring for the vying competitors. Jordan Clark looks to be an immediate replacement for Harper at the nickel corner. Hart’s spot, however, seems to be up for grabs between Jaden Mickey and Christian Gray.

The key question: Who comes out on top between Gray and Mickey?

Assuming Morrison is back in action by Week One, and the nickel role indeed goes to Clark, there’s only one starting slot to fill. Gray and Mickey certainly feel like the most natural fits for the role, as both performed well in their assorted duties backing up Hart and Morrison last fall. But only one of them will be elevated to starter on August 31. Mickey has a one-year experience edge, but that’s the only thing separating the pair in terms of on-field resume. Who wins the gig?

If you watch one player it should be: Christian Gray

1-5 Intrigue Level: Another good one. Morrison’s injury means both of the top two competitors will be leading the defensive back units for their respective teams as well. Four.

Safeties

Scholarship players: Xavier Watts, Devyn Ford, Ben Minich, Adon Shuler, Luke Talich, Kennedy Urlacher

The outlook: Watts’ breakout 2023 campaign gives this unit star power heading into the summer, but the departure of veterans DJ Brown and Ramon Henderson opens up the room for competition heading into the summer. Northwestern grad transfer Rod Heard II figures to start next to Watts come fall, but he’s not on campus yet. With Heard not in the picture yet, a host of younger options will be scrapping for first team reps in that second safety spot. 

The key question: What can we learn about Notre Dame’s safeties for 2025?

Watts looks to be on an NFL trajectory, and Heard II was about as reliable as could be for the Wildcats before he transferred. Those two will probably account for the vast majority of snaps the Notre Dame safety room plays in their base defense next year. But what does the position’s future look like once that pairing is gone? And will anyone prove themselves worthy of earning a role akin to Henderson’s — who wasn’t a nominal starter but logged over 300 snaps — last fall? Adon Shuler, Luke Talich and Ben Minich will all get a valuable chance to prove themselves as the future of the room Saturday.

If you watch one player it should be: Adon Shuler

1-5 Intrigue Level: As with the defensive ends, check back in on this one next year. For now, it's a one.