Of the 12 early-enrolled freshmen at Notre Dame this spring, seven were on the defensive side of the ball, and among them, at least two made notable impressions with their headstart.
That should springboard cornerback Jaden Mickey and linebacker Junior Tuihalamaka into contributing roles in 2022, though perhaps not right out of the gates at Ohio State (120 days). They may not be in the official two-deep come September, but both made it clear this spring why they were once consensus four-star recruits.
Not too much else shifted in the Irish defense this spring. Junior defensive end Jordan Botelho more and more became junior linebacker Jordan Botelho, but that difference is not as stark as it would have been 10 years ago. Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph solidified his starting spot at safety, but that was expected as soon as the 2020 All-American transferred.
As noted Wednesday, this roster will be largely intact come fall. The deadline to enter the transfer portal and still play in 2022 has passed, and May 1 was long enough ago now that it is safe to assume no paperwork is holding up the portal entry of anyone on Notre Dame’s roster. Summer inevitabilities may remove a name or two below, but there is no use in predicting those likelihoods.
— Senior Isaiah Foskey (two years of eligibility remaining) will lead the way here as he chases Justin Tuck’s season and career sacks records. A reference to Tuck should follow every mention of Foskey this summer. That will become repetitive and unnecessary, but it will also underscore the expectations of Foskey as he looks to become a first-round draft pick. Furthermore, it will ingrain in all minds the numbers he is chasing: Tuck’s season sacks record is 13.5 (Foskey finished with 11 in 2021) and his career mark is 25. (Foskey has 15.5 to date.)
— Fifth-year Justin Ademilola (two years of eligibility remaining) could also be considered a starter at “Big End.” Essentially, Ademilola will be the third piece of a three-man rotation for two spots.
— Senior Osita Ekwonu (three years), coming off an Achilles injury.
— Early-enrolled freshman Joshua Burnham (four years), recruited as a linebacker but already having moved up to defensive end.
— Early-enrolled freshman Aidan Gobaira (four years).
— Fifth-year Jayson Ademilola (one year of eligibility remaining), coming off a right shoulder injury that robbed him of this spring, but that should not be an issue for the returning starter.
— Senior Howard Cross (three years of eligibility remaining), a prime example of the depth left by former defensive line coach Mike Elston. Cross is ready to be a starter for the Irish, a luxury at defensive tackle that Notre Dame did not have in the slightest at the start of the five-year resurgence to end Brian Kelly’s tenure.
— Sophomore Jason Onye (four years).
— Early-enrolled freshman Tyson Ford (four years), who was sought as a defensive end. Given his esteemed recruiting profile — the No. 51 prospect in the class, per rivals.com — making this move already may be a bit of a surprise, but it is likely more a reflection of how the Irish project Ford will physically develop than it is anything else. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 269 pounds, Ford is more likely to put 10 pounds onto that frame than to lose 15-20.
— Senior Jacob Lacey (two years), though do not be too shocked if Cross gets some work here simply out of respect for his disruptive abilities.
— Harvard graduate transfer Chris Smith (one year), as much a quality depth piece as anything else, but one that can be trusted out of the gates given his experience.
— Sophomore Gabriel Rubio (four years), once described as “wide as a Volkswagen” by former Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Brian Polian, and Polian’s departure to LSU does not mean that phrasing must be lost to time.
— Incoming freshman Donovan Hinish (four years), yes, Kurt’s brother.
— Junior Aidan Keanaaina (three years), lost for the season to an ACL torn early this spring.
— Junior Rylie Mills (three years), moving over from nose tackle due to the combination of his quickness and length. Putting that into space on the edge creates pass-blocking nightmares for opponents.
— Senior NaNa Osafo-Mensah (three years), overlooked due to a 2020 injury and depth luxuries in 2021, but a worthwhile spring has him right back in the mix.
— Junior Alexander Ehrensberger (three years), a German project about to knock on the door of playing time.
— Senior Marist Liufau (three years) reclaims his starting role lost to a dislocated ankle in August of 2021. Liufau returned to practice before the Fiesta Bowl, a quicker return than perhaps anticipated, emboldening hopes he will also return to the defensive playmaker hyped leading into last season.
— Sophomore Prince Kollie (three years), after a bout with COVID slowed Kollie last season, he has returned to the form envisioned when he was named the best high school linebacker in the country in 2020.
— Early-enrolled freshman Nolan Ziegler (four years).
— Senior JD Bertrand (three years), now with two functioning wrists, something he lacked in 2021 as he still racked up 101 tackles.
— Fifth-year Bo Bauer (one year), who needs to play in 11 games to break the Notre Dame appearances record set last season by Kurt Hinish (61 games).
— Early-enrolled freshman Junior Tuihalamaka (four years) fits best at middle linebacker, but his physical readiness could also apply at Will if that is where the playing time is available. Or his availability could allow Bertrand or Bauer to contribute there.
— Senior Jack Kiser (three years), few players score two defensive touchdowns in a season and return to less fanfare than Kiser, perhaps a broad mistake.
— Junior Jordan Botelho (three years) has logged only 144 career snaps, yet he could be the most dynamic piece in new Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden’s defense, if Golden can find ways to implement the ultimate “tweener.”
— Sophomore Will Schweitzer (four years), finding a home at linebacker after arriving at Notre Dame as a defensive end.
— Early-enrolled freshman Jayden Sneed (four years).
— Senior Cam Hart (three years) showed why the Irish wanted to convert him from receiver last season, and that development is only now reaching its full potential.
— Sophomore Ryan Barnes (four years).
— Sophomore Chance Tucker (four years).
— Senior Brandon Joseph (three years) has shown up in the first round of many 2023 mock drafts, so the thought of him using all three years of remaining eligibility is a laughable one. Notre Dame will be lucky to enjoy Joseph for as many as two seasons.
— Fifth-year DJ Brown (one year) should once again start next to an All-American.
— Fifth-year Houston Griffith (one year) has too much talent to not turn the safety position into a rotation, but he has also played inconsistently enough over his career that nothing can be assumed.
— Junior Ramon Henderson (three years), converted from cornerback halfway through last season and is already a piece of what should be a four-man rotation.
— Junior Xavier Watts (three years), from receiver to Rover to safety all within the 2021 season, Watts had the opportunity to move back to receiver this spring, but he sees a higher ceiling for himself on defense.
— Sophomore Justin Walters (four years), whose stock ticked upward thanks to a Blue-Gold Game interception.
— Junior Clarence Lewis (three years), still a starter despite some mistakes in the second half of the Fiesta Bowl faceplant. Such is the nature of the position.
— Early-enrolled freshman Jaden Mickey (four years).
— Sophomore Philip Riley (four years).
— Incoming freshman Ben Morrison (four years).
— Fifth-year Tariq Bracy (one year), though Bracy could also be the backup to either Hart or Lewis.
— Early-enrolled freshman Jayden Bellamy (four years).