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The Day The D-Line Changed

Written by Clayton Stohler ⏐ Writer ⏐

Photo by The Irish Tribune

Much has been made of Al Golden entering his third year as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. He welcomes back a group as experienced as just about any unit in the country. For as talented as it is on the top end, it’s just as deep in most positions. Continuity, proven results, and upside. It’s no mistake that Notre Dame is expected to be one of, if not the, best defense in the country. 

For the entirety of his tenure at the University, discussion had loomed if Golden’s ambitions would carry him to a head coaching job somewhere else in the country, or perhaps back to the NFL as a defensive coordinator - where he would pursue the sport’s pinnacle that so painfully eluded him while overseeing a Linebacker room that landed at the Super Bowl while with the Cincinnati Bengals. 

This transitioned from an open secret, to an open discussion, as ND’s defense ascended through the ranks of college football. By the end of the season, Notre Dame found itself ranked 5th in the country in total defense. A significant jump from being ranked 39th just one season prior. Perhaps no improvement was more impressive than Notre Dame’s red zone defense. In 2022, the unit ranked second to last. 2023, it was ranked second, only trailing behind Louisville. 

Surely, between Golden’s apparent lack of interest in recruiting for the 2024 class, and the results that were on the field, one couldn’t be blamed for assuming Golden was as good as gone. And one couldn’t blame Golden himself for bolting for supposed greener pastures. 

And yet, Golden and Notre Dame struck an agreement on a contract extension that is expected to go through the 2027 season, making him one of the country’s highest paid defensive coordinators. A move that mirrored the contract signed by Offensive Coordinator, Mike Denbrock, and one that pleasantly surprised ND faithful. It was a clear signal to the rest of the country that Notre Dame isn’t just serious about being a perennial fringe-contender, but one that intends to hoist a trophy at the end of the season. 

At many points in Golden’s two-year tenure, his defense’s performances were met with an aura of indifference. Good? Yes. Great? Well, that would be a reach. His schematic prowess stood out, but for the wrong reasons. The NFL approach that he brought with him came with complexity, and thus, confusion. 

In many ways, Golden’s defense had complicated issues that had easy fixes. In 2023, he brought in a more tailored approach for the talent he came back to. The product reflected itself on the field through the match up against Ohio State. But even then, the potential hadn’t been fully reached. In many ways, this could be pointed back to the defensive line, and how they were utilized. 

On the evening Notre Dame was matched up against Duke, that all changed. 

Up until then, Golden seemed to favor a “2-gap” approach for his defensive line. A philosophy that is typically reserved for the NFL. Due to the talent, size, and athleticism of NFL defensive linemen, especially now, posting on an offensive lineman and managing 2 gaps is realistic and effective. At most colleges, however, it’s far too tall of an ask. Even with the context that Howard Cross and Rylie Mills were/are as impressive of an interior as most offensive lines have/will face throughout the season. 

Besides, this approach failed to tap into the athleticism Notre Dame had available at the 1 and 3 techniques. It also directly fell into what they didn’t have; elite size. Thus, it was time to allow the entire defensive line to become more aggressive. Specifically, Howard Cross and Rylie Mills. 

That means utilizing a series of slants, twists, and stunts. This enables the likes of Cross and Mills to get into the backfield more quickly. It allows them to blow the offensive line up by being more fast and physical than who is opposing them. It also confuses the offensive line, forcing them to take more into account pre-snap. In a perfect world, someone is unblocked, and what was once a promising play, gets eviscerated immediately.  

The Results

Golden gave the go ahead. Howard Cross delivered. In a way few 1 techniques stand out, Howard Cross went from a good player, to a game wrecker. His statline read as 13 total tackles, 1 sack, and 2 forced fumbles in just 1 single game. It was a masterful performance. He garnered the following recognition: 

  • Bednarick Player of the Week Honors

  • Lott Impact Trophy Player of the Week 

  • Senior Bowl Defensive Player of the Week 

Cross’s counterpart at the interior also delivered. Lined up as a 3 technique, Mills was awarded as the “Shrine Bowl’s Defensive Breakout Player of The Week” with 7 total tackles. 

This long awaited strategy also freed up Marist Liufau to do what he could do best - be free, and make plays. He rallied for 6 tackles, a half sack for a 6 yard loss, and a recovered fumble caused by Howard Cross on the final play of the game. 

For the first 35 plays, Duke had a mere 136 yards, and 0 points to show for their efforts. This defensive performance marked the beginning of a new product. One that was more disruptive, free-flowing, and fun to watch. All while still clinging to the pillars of Golden’s overall defensive philosophy. It became a product that endeared itself to those who follow the team closely. And it makes one wonder what the ceiling could be for Notre Dame in the season that’s to come. 

2024 Impact

No two game plans are alike, of course. However, the performance vs Duke provided a blueprint for what success can look like on the defensive side of the ball. In many ways, it could look even more promising in 2024. 

With Cross and Mills coming back (somewhat surprisingly), the foundation is certainly there. With their disruptive abilities being on full display from Duke onward, the foundation will be set in stone. 

Mills has all the tools needed to become a breakout player for Notre Dame. His combination of size and athleticism makes him a prime candidate to be an alpha. Mills was more than serviceable last year, but those same tools he possesses haven't fully been tapped into. The light coming on is the missing link, and if it does, Mills and Cross will be in the conversation as the most disruptive, dominant interior in the country.

This allows for strong side defensive ends such as Josh Burnham and RJ Oben to play clean up. It frees up the Vyper position to make impact plays, whether that’s going to be Jordan Botelho, Boubacar Traore, or someone else, remains to be seen. 

It also enables Linebackers to attack from the second level. Keep a watchful eye on Jaylen Sneed to be one of those players. His range, explosivity, and strength at the Linebacker position makes him a prime candidate to make big plays, in the biggest moments. 

There is no way to tell for sure what the ceiling might look like on the defensive side of the ball. But the prospect of them reaching their ceiling paints a promising picture. It is certain, however, that the only way for them to be their very best, is to have a defensive line that is on the attack. 

Good Vs. Great

The reality is, Notre Dame’s defensive line last year was indeed very good. But when you look at the likes of Michigan, for instance, there’s a key difference. Specifically at the interior. The difference lies in the fact that Notre Dame, while very impressive with Cross and Mills, didn’t play up to a playoff/title standard. 

Watching Gabriel Rubio (1 technique), and Jason Onye (3 technique), they absolutely showed flashes, even in big moments. But the fall off was usually noticeable. The lack of disruption and physicality that they exhibited in the aforementioned Duke game, stood out. It was when they were on the field that Duke found a majority of their success on offense. 

In order for Notre Dame’s defensive line to be elite, they need the Vyper position to produce much more than they did last year (different story for a different day), but they also need Onye and Rubio to take the step towards improvement and maturity. Yes, Donovan Hinish is an option. Yes, Brenan Vernon is an option as well. It would be unwise to discard Devan Houstan and Sean Sevillano. You never know when/if the light is going to come on for a young player. But for Notre Dame, Onye and Rubio have by far the most experience outside of Cross and Mills. 

If they can take that step, this defensive line can be in the conversation amongst the greats. 

If they can’t, then Cross and Mills will be in a situation much like last year. Where their snap volume will be far too high to sustain for the entirety of a game. 

Notre Dame's defense is all but guaranteed to be in the conversation with the elites in the college football landscape. The D-line will be instrumental in ensuring they're in the conversation as the best in 2024.


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