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Previewing The Defensive Line: Seniors Are Primed To Carry The Notre Dame Defense

Written by Owen O'Connor Writer Twitter/X: @Ocon54

With many players departing for the NFL draft or an opportunity at another collegiate program, Notre Dame is looking to replace vacancies with stable talent all over the roster. Luckily, there is one position group where fans can breathe easily. Multiple seniors are returning to the defensive front and bringing veteran leadership, experience, and production. Notre Dame will face off against some stiff competition should their playoff hopes come to fruition this season, so their defensive upperclassmen will need to answer the bell should they wish to make a run at a national title.

The familiarity of teams such as Army and Navy should be a welcomed sight for the defensive line, but there are also pass-heavy offenses where quarterback pressure will need to be prioritized, such as Texas A&M, Florida State, and USC. A solid defensive front can be the stalwart of the defense for The Fighting Irish when they need it most. Let's look at the seniors who are primed to make an impact on the Notre Dame Defensive Line this season:

Jordan Botelho - VYP/DE

When Jordan Botelho was announced as the starter for the Vyper position last season, the hopes for him were high. The 6'3", 260lbs Defensive End had flashed in previous seasons, but hadn't been able to take that final step toward a true game-wrecking talent that fans had all been hoping for. The Vyper position allows the Defensive End to drop back into coverage as well as rush the passer. This versatile position is a critical spot for the starting defense and one that is trusted to Botelho, who should have his most statistically productive season at Notre Dame in 2024 barring any injury due to his experience and the complimentary talent, The senior recorded 32 total tackles last year and 4 sacks in his hybrid role, earning the likely nod to be the starting Vyper yet again. Botelho will see his snap count and numbers shoot up this season as a product of his knowledge of the position and skill set.

Howard Cross III - NT

The announcement of Cross deciding to return to Notre Dame was a sigh of relief, and maybe a bit of a shock for many. Cross was one of, if not the most statistically impactful player on the defensive front in 2023. The starting Nose Tackle had solid progression throughout his first few years at Notre Dame, but this past season was a huge step towards being an elite NFL talent. Cross graded out as one of the best interior defensive linemen per Pro Football Focus with an overall grade of 90.1, the third highest at the position. It is worth mentioning that Cross also scored an 89.1 pass rushing grade, and finished with 29 rushing stops, highlighting his versatility. Cross doubled his total tackles from last season going from 33 to 66, while also tallying 2 sacks, 7 tackles for loss and 2 forced fumbles. There's no telling the heights that Cross will reach in the coming season, but even if this is where he plateaus, the production and stability that he provides is irreplaceable. The senior will look to pick up where he left off in 2023, as one of the unsung heroes of the defense.

RJ Oben - EDGE

The Irish have emphasized the need for an experienced defensive front this offseason with the addition of RJ Oben. The 6'4, 260lb senior was highly recruited, as he was the 6th overall Edge in this year's transfer portal class. He appeared in 12 games for Duke last season with 17 total tackles and 5 sacks, remaining a consistent defender since his arrival on campus. Oben has recorded 4 or more sacks in his last 3 full seasons at Duke, and has been the model of consistency - something Notre Dame has been yearning for on the defensive front. The transfer has played both Defensive Line and Defensive Edge in the past, which could be an asset in the event of an injury or perhaps different defensive packages. Oben is not the only Duke Blue Devil to join Notre Dame this offseason with teammate and QB Riley Leonard also transferring to the program. They will both aim to finish strong in their final upcoming collegiate season.

Rylie Mills - DT

Rylie Mills was a highly talented 4-star recruit from Lake Forest, IL. He is coming off his best season with 47 total tackles in 13 games with 5.5 for loss and two fumble recoveries. Last season, he won the Shrine Bowl's "Breakout Defensive Player of the Week" against Duke, recording 7 tackles in the victory. And of course, you can't talk about Mills without mentioning the size and strength he possesses. Standing at 6'5" and a little over 300 pounds, it's not a surprise to anyone that Mills ranked 10th on The Athletic's "Freaks List", which highlights college football's most jaw-dropping athletes. Much like Botelho, Mills looks to add the final piece to the puzzle this season and blossom into an elite next-level prospect. Mills brings veteran experience and reliability to the defensive line room with 40 games played in 4 seasons. Having players who have played on some of the biggest stages in recent memory for the Irish can make a world of difference, and his experience will again provide some measure of stability.


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