The Notre Dame defensive line figures to be a loaded unit in 2022. They return their top five contributors in both sacks and tackles for loss. The Irish return two regular starters and a pair of regular contributors to the position group for Marcus Freeman’s first year as head coach.
There is some ambiguity right now, so no defensive coordinator named yet, but how does the Irish defensive line stack up in 2022 and what does the depth look like?
The predicted starters on the defensive line are Isaiah Foskey, Jayson Ademilola, Howard Cross, and Rylie Mills. Foskey will start at vyper, Notre Dame’s standing edge rusher position, as the defense’s most dynamic player. He led the Irish with nine-and-a-half tackles for loss and 10 sacks, as well as six forced fumbles.
Shifting to the left, Ademilola figures to slot back into his starting role at defensive tackle. With eight-and-a-half tackles for loss and four sacks, Ademilola ranked second and third on the team in those stats, respectively. Then Cross, who nearly split playing time with Kurt Hinish in 2021, should step up at nose guard. Cross was a solid contributor in relief for Hinish, posting four-and-a-half tackles for loss and three sacks. He should be an experienced presence in the trenches.
The Big Question: Who starts at strongside defensive end?
That leaves the second edge rusher, playing opposite from Foskey. There are two feasible options. Starting with the more likely option, there’s the idea of Mills shifting permanently from the interior line to defensive end. The Notre Dame defensive line could seriously benefit from this move, even if the sample size is somewhat small. Faced with a myriad of depth issues, Mills started on the edge at Virginia this year and notched three sacks. He’s a force off the edge that could put incredible strain on opposing guards.
Secondly, there’s Justin Ademilola. Brother of Jayson, Justin will be a major contributor again in 2022, there’s just the matter of where. Ademilola currently lines up at vyper, and he was a major disruptor when on the field, notching five-and-a-half sacks. Will Freeman consider shifting Ademilola to the other side and play across from Foskey, putting two of the Irish’s top playmakers on the field simultaneously? It’s an intriguing proposition. However, there aren’t too many indications that is a plan currently. The duo will probably play vyper on opposite sides in the Blue and Gold game, it may be a while before there’s an idea of whether this is a realistic possibility.
The predicted second string on the Notre Dame defensive line is Justin Ademilola, Tyson Ford, Jacob Lacey, Nana Osafo-Mensah.
Ademilola, assuming he doesn’t start at defensive end, is the obvious backup to Foskey here. Out of this group, he figures to be easily the biggest contributor. Lacey is a pretty clear backup to Cross, and he could fight for the starting role. They were listed as dual-backups to Hinish in the Fiesta Bowl. Given Cross’s more proven production, he should have the edge for the starting role. Lacey could slot into a prominent backup role and package player in 2022.
The Big Question: Which Freshmen play?
One freshman is projected to crack the two-deep in this depth prediction, and that is Ford. If Mills shifts over to defensive end, that leaves a spot to back up Jayson Ademilola. Ford is the highest-rated defensive line recruit and an early-enrollee. There is a definite chance he competes for early snaps and a spot on the two-deep.
However, it may not be at defensive tackle. Ford is an edge/interior hybrid player who could potentially contribute in various areas his freshman year. If Mills stays in the interior and Justin Ademilola shifts to the edge, Ford could slot in behind Foskey at vyper. This would be a nice grooming situation for the Irish, as they could have their highly-ranked draft prospect prepare Ford for a major role in his next two seasons.
The other freshman who could maybe factor into the playing conversation is edge prospect Aiden Gobaira. This feels unlikely given the Irish’s various options on their line, but Gobaira is a talented four-star recruit. His best bet for playing time is for Mills to start at defensive end with a competition for the backup spot at that position. Osafo-Mensah or Alexander Ehrensberger feel like more likely options. However, if Gobaira has a strong spring, he’s talented enough to make a push, so he’s at the very least a name to keep an eye on.
Other Potential Contributors
Who’s not on the two-deep that could fight for snaps or be important in the case of injury? For the aforementioned reasons, there’s Gobaira and Ehrensberger.
Following those two, there’s Will Schweitzer. He was listed behind Foskey and Ademilola at vyper. He’s currently an injury away from being a critical piece. If Justin Ademilola switches to defensive end, then look for Schweitzer to compete with Ford for that backup vyper position.
The Notre Dame defensive line projects as the biggest strength of the Irish defense in 2022. With the amount of returning talent, plus their depth and versatility, the unit is a fearsome one. With a huge game against a loaded offense in Ohio State to start the year, this will be a tremendous key to the Irish pulling a Week 1 stunner.