Notre Dame Football Spring ’24 Position Breakdown: Defensive Line

Reflecting on past successes, anticipating the 2024 lineup changes with departures like Javontae Jean Baptiste, and arrivals like RJ Oben, amid a quest for defensive dominance.

In the past five years, Notre Dame’s defense has averaged 35 sacks per season, with a healthy portion of those stops coming from the defensive line. The 2024 edition has many back from a unit that managed to take down 31 quarterbacks and hold opponents to 119 yards per game. The latter number is skewed by breakdowns during the dramatic win at Duke and losses to Louisville and Clemson.


Some of those among that 2023 group have ended their tenure with the Irish, led by graduate transfer Javontae Jean Baptiste. After a modest start, Jean-Baptiste flourished and ended his season with 49 tackles, 11 quarterback hurries and five sacks. The highlight of his season was the 56-yard touchdown off a blocked field goal attempt against Stanford.

Leaving through the transfer portal was nose tackle Nana Osafo-Mensah. He’s now at TCU after contributing 20 tackles and 5.5 stops behind the line, including a trio of sacks. Those numbers will be missed, though the hope is that the current depth will mitigate the issue. His absence will loom larger than that of Aldan Keanaaina, who left for Cal after 11 tackles over the course of his four years at the school.

One absent player from spring ball is nose tackle Gabe Rubio, who could return in time for fall practice. He’s currently away because of personal issues and has battled injuries throughout his career with the Irish, including a knee problem in last year’s opener. In his nine games last year, he made 11 stops, including one sack and also forced a fumble.


The Notre Dame defensive line will have one transfer and a quartet of early enrollees taking part in spring ball. The lone transfer in that group is R.J. Oben from Duke, who joins fellow former Blue Devil teammate Riley Leonard. Oben should be interesting to watch during the spring considering that he’s currently penciled in as a starting edge defender. He spent five seasons at Duke, though he didn’t make a dent until the final three campaigns. Over that stretch of time, he made 63 tackles, collected 13.5 sacks and even intercepted a pass.

The presence of the early enrollees will no doubt speed up their development, though how quickly two of them advance is a question mark. Both Bryce Young and Loghan Thomas are defensive ends with an ample supply of talent who need reps to hone their skills. Each of them can give the Irish a potent threat at end but getting through spring ball and then fall training camp will offer a clearer view. Young may be the first to make his mark since Thomas needs to bulk up.

Another defensive end, Cole Mullins, missed all of his final high school season because of a leg injury after playing at middle linebacker as a junior. It’s conceivable that he could eventually be moved back there if the transition and competition turn out to be too difficult.

Defensive tackle Sean Sevillano will certainly provide plenty of bulk in the middle of the line. Right now, getting him in the best possible shape is a necessity, an effort that could help him stay on the field longer. He could make his mark as early as this season, though he’s likely to be a situational asset this season.

A Look Back and Ahead

As notable as the 31-sack total from last year might be, the number still marked the second straight year that the number had declined. Still, Marcus Freeman wasn’t concerned about the sack dip, since it was countered by an uptick in quarterback hurries from 42 to 49. Still, avoiding needless penalties and not getting burned on big plays needs to be reinforced so that Notre Dame can get back among the elite.

There’s certainly enough of a veteran presence to make that a possibility. Howard Cross returns at nose tackle after a consistent season that was highlighted by a standout performance against Duke when he made 13 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles. Being in a position where another solid year could move him up the 2025 draft board, the efforts of Cross will be closely watched.

Joining Cross on the inside is Rylie Mills who, like Cross, has the potential to play at the next level. His sack numbers don’t stand out even though he displays versatility and quickness on a regular basis. However, he delivers enough pressure to make things interesting.

Jordan Botelho closed with a strong game in the Sun Bowl and had four sacks for the 2023 season. That conclusion mirrored his performance down the stretch the year before and he’s gotten more mature during his time at Notre Dame. His aggressive demeanor and leadership capabilities need to be front and center this year.

Rounding out this group are reserves like Joshua Burnham and Junior Tuihalamaka on the outside, with Donovan Hinish and Jason Onye on the inside. Another potential candidate to offer depth will be Boubacar Traore at the Vyper spot.

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