Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart may remain difficult to nail down into the 2023 season. That is not inherently a bad thing. If the Irish regularly rotate some starters, that will reflect different defensive alignments more than anything else.
Some weeks will require size up front, some will require speed. Some opponents will spread out Notre Dame’s secondary and demand a nickel formation as the base defense, some will welcome a third Irish linebacker.
Beyond that primary 11, differentiating Notre Dame’s starting defensive linemen from its reserves will be somewhat unnecessary because the Irish will rotate them aggressively, partly out of necessity and partly because Notre Dame lacks established stars like Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola.
“I see a collective approach right now, which is awesome,” Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden said last week. “You have veterans coming back … now we need that next generation of guys to step up. …
“We mix the starters every day, every single day. We mix the starting unit every time we go on the field. The guys don’t know who is starting until we announce it that morning. It’s helping with our preparedness, helping with our preparation. It’s a morale booster. You can’t hide what’s on tape. If a guy is not quite ready for the 1s, it works out that way. If somebody is doing well with their opportunity, they should get more reps.”
Keep that in mind when looking at this penciled depth chart. Fifth-year tackle Howard Cross III has likely earned a starting role in Dublin, but any other shuffling would not be shocking.
— Senior Jordan Botelho: His 48 snaps against South Carolina in the Gator Bowl, with Foskey already preparing for the NFL draft, made it clear Botelho has all the skills necessary for this playmaking role, if he can find consistency, as well.
— Sophomore Joshua Burnham: Recruited as a linebacker, Burnham made this move last spring.
— Sophomore Junior Tuihalamaka: A mid-season move from linebacker to defensive end looks to have stuck.
— Fifth-year Howard Cross
— Senior Rylie Mills: Mills spent some of 2022 at defensive end, but is expected to focus entirely on the interior in 2023.
— Junior Gabriel Rubio: Consider him Cross’s backup.
— Junior Jason Onye: And consider Onye to be Mills’s backup, somewhat a spring surprise thus far.
— Senior Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore Tyson Ford, sophomore Donovan Hinish, senior Aidan Keanaaina are the next names looking to crack the rotation, likely in that order.
— Early-enrolled freshman Devan Houstan will miss this spring after shoulder surgery, something that likely sets him up to preserve a year of eligibility in 2023.
— Incoming freshman Armel Mukam may be a development project for a year or two.
With his shirt off in the 2nd pic, that's Jason Onye at 292. Prince Kollie yesterday on Onye this spring "they just can't block him" https://t.co/CjQNU9N3AU
— Jamie Uyeyama (@jamieuyeyama) March 30, 2023
— Fifth-year NaNa Osafo-Mensah
— Ohio State transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste: The best situation for both Osafo-Mensah and Jean-Baptiste may be splitting snaps and becoming a persistent headache for opposing offensive lines.
— Sophomore Aidan Gobaira
— Incoming freshmen Boubacar Traore and Brenan Vernon could end up on either side of the line yet.
— Fifth-year Jack Kiser: Fan complaints are misguided; Kiser may have been Notre Dame’s best defender in 2022.
— Sophomore Jaylen Sneed: Sneed missed some recent spring practices with a yet undisclosed injury, presumably something minor.
MIDDLE (MIKE) LINEBACKER
— Fifth-year JD Bertrand: Fan complaints are misguided; Bertrand was Notre Dame’s most dependable linebacker in 2022.
— Sophomore Nolan Ziegler
WILL (WEAKSIDE) LINEBACKER
— Fifth-year Marist Liufau: Fan complaints were somewhat accurate; Liufau under-delivered in 2022, perhaps still recovering from his dislocated ankle in August of 2021.
— Junior Prince Kollie
HANDFUL OF FRESHMAN LINEBACKERS
Where early enrollees Preston Zinter, Jaiden Ausbery and Drayk Bowen line up is not an immediate concern, as none are threatening to crack that two-deep this season.
— Fifth-year Cam Hart: Missing spring practices due to a winter shoulder surgery will not knock Hart off this perch.
— Sophomore and preseason All-American Benjamin Morrison
— Senior Clarence Lewis or sophomore Jaden Mickey or Oklahoma State transfer Thomas Harper: One of these three will end up Notre Dame’s starting nickel back, effectively a defensive starter. Mickey and Lewis are working at both nickel and at corner this spring, partly due to Hart’s absence, while Harper is alongside Hart in shoulder-surgery recovery mode. He was primarily a safety in Stillwater, but his skill set should fit nicely as a nickel back.
Junior Ryan Barnes, junior Chance Tucker, early-enrolled freshman Christian Gray and incoming freshman Micah Bell have not revealed a clear pecking order yet. Some already want to elevate Gray above the rest, but caution should be exercised in praising players who could still be worrying about a prom date.
— Senior Xavier Watts: The former receiver has perhaps become Notre Dame’s best safety.
— Sixth-year DJ Brown or senior Ramon Henderson: Brown’s experience vs. Henderson’s length.
— Early-enrolled freshman Ben Minich: While classmate Adon Shuler is sidelined with a shoulder injury, Minich is the sole reserve safety for the Irish as Brown and Henderson continue to compete.