With the 2023 season looming ever closer, the collegiate career of Notre Dame defensive lineman Rylie Mills appears to be at a pivotal point. His size (6-foot-5, 295 pounds), coupled with his versatility to play both line positions and his strength, seemingly would put him in a position to be a high NFL draft pick next April.
Instead, Mills is trying to put together the breakout campaign first envisioned when he joined the Irish in 2020. Notre Dame easily beat out Ohio State and Wisconsin in the recruiting wars for him. However, his career numbers have yet to reach those expectations now puts pressure on him to deliver this season.
Part of the problem for Mills has been the musical chairs aspect of Notre Dame’s defensive coaches and positions for himself. When Al Golden took over as the Irish defensive coordinator (DC) last year, it marked the third different DC for Mills. The Notre Dame defensive staff is hoping that after one year under Golden’s system, Mills is primed to make a bigger impact. Mills also moved back inside to defensive tackle in the spring after moving to defensive end last year.
A Quiet Climb
Mills first took the field during the chaotic 2020 season and delivered modest results in the ten games in which he played. Finishing with just seven tackles for the year, two of which were behind the line, Mills largely remained under the radar until the latter half of that campaign, offering promise for the following season.
Collecting a sack in the 2021 opener at Florida State helped raise expectations for Mills. Yet, until the November win at Virginia, he again delivered ho-hum tallies for the season. That 28-3 win over the Cavaliers was the high point and came when he was pressed into action because of a flu outbreak.
Last season, Mills’ consistency was a concern, despite finishing with career highs in tackles (24), tackles-for-loss (six), and sacks (3.5). In four separate contests, he was completely absent from the stat sheet, a situation that needs to be rectified if he has any hopes of taking his game to the next level.
Shifting Around and Pressure on Tap
While Mills’ career sack numbers have never grabbed anyone’s attention, he has displayed an ability to apply pressure on opposing signal-callers. That’s resulted in a total over the past two seasons of 40 quarterback pressures, with 27 of those coming on hurries and six more on actual hits.
Bringing down those signal-callers may not be quite as high a priority when Mills is on the field in 2023. That’s due to his current status as a defensive tackle on the Irish two-deep. The arrival of Ohio State transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste offers hope that the newcomer can blunt the impact of Isaiah Foskey’s departure, with Mills in a position to help make that happen. Mills struggled at times as a strongside defensive end and looked much more comfortable inside in the spring.
Mills did have a solid spring, so there’s every reason to believe that his awareness of what’s expected of him will resonate during the season. For continued motivation, he’s got a number of younger players who also possess talent and would be eager to supplant him on the inside.
These include junior Gabriel Rubio, who saw periodic action last year and made four stops behind the line, and sophomore Tyson Ford. who is itching to show what he can offer. It may be too early to expect true freshman Devan Houstan to contribute up front, while Donovan Hinish’s squat size may make him more of an option on the nose.
Deja Vu All Over Again?
One name from the recent past that’s been mentioned concerning Mills’ 2023 potential is Jerry Tillery. Such a comparison isn’t quite a match, considering that Tillery actually had a strong junior campaign and followed it up with eight sacks and a trio of forced fumbles during the 2017 campaign.
Tillery’s strong final season resulted in his first-round selection by the Los Angeles Chargers the following year. Right now, there’s no guarantee that Mills will even be drafted, with that fate something that will end up being the byproduct of whatever type of performance he manages to deliver for the Irish defense.
Mills is just one facet of a Notre Dame defense that hopes to tidy things up after a slide in three of the final four games last year. The Irish did win three of those games, but watched their comfortable advantage against Navy nearly result in disaster. With make-or-break games against Ohio State, Clemson, and Southern Cal awaiting them, how Mills does could help determine the difference between national championship contention and another also-ran bowl.