Following close behind Riley Leonard in the transfer portal for Notre Dame is another member of the Duke Blue Devils, defensive end R. J. Oben. The graduate transfer joins defensive back Jordan Clark as a new defender for the Irish, who have been looking to fill some holes on the 2024 roster.
Oben is expected to move into the slot of departing defensive lineman Jevontae Jean-Baptiste. Last year, it was Jean-Baptiste, who arrived from Ohio State as a graduate transfer and continued to watch his playing time grow as the season progressed. Oben has a notable pedigree as the son of former NFL tackle Roman Oben, who played with four teams over a 12-year career. Like JJB, he hopes to parlay a year at Notre Dame to springboard himself to the NFL.
Blessed by the genetics of his father, the younger Oben had a solid career at St. Peter’s Prep in New Jersey and was recruited by not only Duke but in-state Rutgers as well. In his first two seasons with the Blue Devils beginning in 2019, he saw limited action in just four contests, contributing on five tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage.
In 2021, Oben started to show off his talents by collecting four sacks on the year and collecting multiple tackles in five games. Against Virginia Tech that season, he even grabbed an interception off a tipped pass, returning the ball eight yards. His most productive performance came against Pittsburgh when he made five stops, including a trio of solo tackles.
During his fourth season at Duke in 2022, Oben showed off some of his aggressive side in starting all but one of the Blue Devils’ 13 games. He forced a pair of fumbles and finished the season with 4.5 sacks, also made an additional two stops behind the line. He ended the year with 10 quarterback hurries, a precursor to his strong campaign this past season.
For 2023, Oben had only 17 tackles but made them count by picking up five sacks on the year. That sack total was enhanced by the fact that he had 28 quarterback hurries, an indication of his pass-rushing potential. Ironically, one of the games in which he was held in check was the last-minute loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 30.
The 2024 Outlook
Given his status as a fifth-year player, Oben could have followed in his father’s footsteps by pursuing an NFL career. Instead, he’s taking advantage of the one-year waiver granted during the pandemic season of 2020, with the Irish the beneficiaries of his decision. Being able to make his mark next season could go a long way in helping him reach the next level.
The biggest asset that Oben brings to Notre Dame is his pass-rushing ability. He’s primarily an edge rusher, though he also has the athletic ability to get into pass coverage under certain circumstances. That skill as a pass rusher will likely mean that he ends up being used judiciously by defensive coordinator Al Golden.
One of the chief reasons for such a likelihood is that Oben’s ability when it comes to stopping the run is still a work in progress. He wasn’t used a great deal by Duke in those situations, which may explain part of his lack of development. However, there has been some debate about his need to be more quick off the snap.
Some early speculation has also zeroed in on other possible uses for Oben, with the Vyper role thrown into the mix. A few years ago, Isaiah Foskey took over that position and thrived with 21 sacks in his last two seasons, numbers that helped him get selected with the 40th overall pick in last year’s NFL draft.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Oben will be able to come close to delivering similar numbers during his one season with the Irish. Right now, his focus is simply getting prepared to learn the Notre Dame defense in the months ahead and make his presence felt during spring ball.
A better litmus test might be for Oben to match the contributions of Jean-Baptiste, who had strong games against his former teammates against Ohio State and in the loss to Louisville. Jean-Baptiste did plenty of damage during the Irish’s final three regular season games. In those contests, he had 13 tackles, half of those behind the line and 3.5 sacks.
If Oben can get going even earlier than that, the frustration of losing tough games may stand a better chance of being avoided. Such hopes aren’t all on the shoulders of Oben but he now has the opportunity to help make his mark over the next year.