With Kurt Hinish returning, Notre Dame’s interior defensive line a 2021 strength

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Kurt Hinish’s impact at Notre Dame goes back to before he arrived on campus. As the 2016 Irish season fell apart, its recruiting class was held together by a core group of Pittsburgh prospects, the defensive tackle leading the way.

His impact will now extend into 2021 after Hinish announced his plans Monday to return for an unexpectedly available fifth season. He has played in 50 career games, missing only one across the last four seasons, so if not for the NCAA’s universal eligibility waiver due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hinish would be out of eligibility and planning his preparation for a pro day.

Instead, he will line up alongside classmate Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa for one more fall, giving Notre Dame a veteran interior defensive line, presumably the most veteran in the country. With every other contributor at tackle also expected to return next season, it will also be a deep interior defensive line.

The Irish will need that combination the season after losing both starting defensive ends as well as the best defensive playmaker in linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. A defense needs a strength, and with the Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa pairing back, Notre Dame’s will be its middle.

Hinish made 7.5 tackles for loss in 12 games this season, a number reminiscent of Jerry Tillery’s final two seasons in South Bend (9 in 2017; 10.5 in 2018). Whereas Hinish began his career mostly just adept at absorbing blocks — not a skill to be knocked in a defensive tackle playing in front of Nyles Morgan and Te’von Coney — his development has featured an ability to shed blocks and penetrate, perhaps most notably on a third-and-one against Clemson in November’s fourth quarter.

Rather than Tigers superstar Travis Etienne gaining the expected yard by default, Hinish stopped him for no gain; he would tackle Etienne for a loss of three yards a few plays later.

That may not inherently reflect the grit expected from a Pittsburgh product, but Hinish’s playmaking complements his lead by example nature.

“We wear that blue-collar attitude on our sleeves, and that’s just the way we go about our day,” Hinish said of Pittsburgh natives in October.

A National Signing Day commitment, Tagovailoa-Amosa does not get the same recruiting credit as Hinish, and he will not almost assuredly set the Notre Dame record for games played by default, but he made six tackles for loss with 2.5 sacks in 11 games this season, as well.

In other words, the Irish defensive tackles should have high expectations in 2020, particularly when backed up by the likes of rising senior Jayson Ademilola, rising juniors Jacob Lacey and Howard Cross, and rising sophomore Rylie Mills. The obvious perk of that depth should be fresh legs, but there is also reason to wonder if defensive line coach Mike Elston and whomever Notre Dame hires as defensive coordinator can find a way to play three defensive tackles at a time.

Doing so would be the perk of a talent overload at one position, much like the Irish enjoyed at defensive end in 2018 and 2019, when either Daelin Hayes or Khalid Kareem would move to the inside on obvious passing downs to dial up the pressure on the opposing quarterback. There is no such clear implementation of three defensive tackles — any “obvious” rushing down can quickly exploit a plodding edge — but at least on the goal line, Notre Dame should be able to match jumbo packages with similar, if not greater, heft.

Otherwise, the Irish are starting nearly from scratch on the ends. Ovie Oghoufo has entered the transfer portal, removing one option from an arguably thin position group. Without Oghoufo, Notre Dame’s lead remaining defensive ends on the roster include rising senior Justin Ademilola, rising junior Isaiah Foskey and rising sophomore Jordan Botelho.

That will be one of the key differences to the 2021 Irish from the 2020 Playoff team. The latter built from the outside-in, allowing Hayes, Ade Ogundeji and Owusu-Koramoah to make plays and hem in opposing offenses. Next season, Notre Dame will work from the inside-out, Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa holding serve at the point of attack while fifth-year linebacker Drew White (yes, he’s returning) will continue racking up tackles at nearly a Coney-esque rate, all in front of safety Kyle Hamilton’s seemingly endless reach.

AN INEVITABLE RECORD
Hinish has played in 50 games, starting 25. He will not reach a career starts record (held by offensive lineman Sam Young’s 50, to memory), but once Hinish reaches 53 games, it is logical to think he will hold a Notre Dame record that will remain untouched, a natural occurrence to this added year of eligibility.

The most games played across a four-year span in Irish history is 52, so without even researching this, no player would have broken 56 in history, and that would have required a recent injury right at the four-game mark in a season. Even then, the player would have to play every game throughout his career — Exhibit A: Hayes injured his shoulder in 2019’s fourth game, setting him up for such a pursuit, ending his career with 53 games, which would have been 54 if 2020 had been a usual season.

So Hinish’s possible 63 should be well past any possible contenders, holding off kicker Jonathan Doerer’s possible 55.

Jack Lamb TRANSFERS
Linebacker Jack Lamb has also entered the transfer portal, unable to crack Notre Dame’s two-deep in 2020 after suffering a hip injury against Virginia Tech last season. Irish head coach Brian Kelly then described it as a “torn muscle in the glute, hip, kind of upper buttocks area,” indicating a specialist was needed to pinpoint the severity of the injury.

That prematurely ended Lamb’s role as Notre Dame’s dime-specific linebacker, an honor classmate Bo Bauer grew into in 2020.

“We still really have a lot of confidence in Jack, but he has been slowed by his injury, which was career-threatening,” Kelly said in September. “During camp he had a little bit of a setback with that hip. He has worked through that. He has been behind, quite frankly, in a very, very competitive situation.

“We expect that Jack is going to contribute immediately for us in special teams and continue to work and getting him back at 100 percent. … Jack is a guy that is rounding back into playing shape, but it’s going to take some time.”

Lamb’s 100 percent will now play somewhere else, with up to three years of eligibility remaining and able to play immediately as a graduate transfer.