It’s the end of an era for Notre Dame with Kurt Hinish running out of eligibility. He wasn’t the most dominant nose tackle the Irish have had in recent memory, but his presence was always felt and he will be missed.
The defensive tackle position is now occupied by players with a lot of experience, but most of them still have a lot to prove. It’s time for these players to shine.
It starts with Jayson Ademilola, who had a breakout season after a strong end to the 2020 campaign. His numbers might not have been overwhelming (seven tackles for a loss, 10 games in total for Havoc), but he was tied for fifth in the nation in total pressure for an inside defensive lineman.
He has decided to return to school for a fifth year and is blessed to be one of the best 3-technique defensive tackles in the country. If he’s going to have a Sheldon Day-like end to his career at Notre Dame, it will start with him leading the defensive line as a whole this spring.
Behind him on the depth chart is a bit fuzzy at the moment. Rylie Mills would be next at 3-tech, but they may be looking to push him forward. If that happens, then Jacob Lacey will likely stay at 3-tech. Mills should definitely be in the mix to rush inside on 3rd Down this season, and we’re likely to see him there sometimes, whether he moves outside or not.
As for Lacey, it’s a big spring for him. He lost weight last year and had reps at both defensive tackle points. The nose tackle position is open and he was number two behind Hinish there for two seasons, so it’s not out of the question that he could return there.
No matter where they have him after this spring, it will be essential that he stays healthy and plays at a high level.
Howard Cross is the presumptive starter for nose tackle in early spring, but his best position might also be at 3-tech. He and Lacey could end up taking reps from both.
The big question will be how big Cross is and whether or not he can hold his own as a nose choke. He had a dynamite fall camp last year and looked set to make some noise as a third tackle, but he never quite had the kind of impact we expected. Much like Lacey, Notre Dame needs Cross to step up to the next level this spring, no matter what position he’s in.
The big reason Cross and Lacey are so important is that we haven’t seen enough of Aiden Keanaaina or Gabriel Rubio yet. These two should be heavily in the mix on the nose and will have reps proving they can be in the rotation this season or maybe longer than that. Overall, the Irish are undersized in defensive tackle and these two could be a remedy for that, but they have a lot to prove going up the ranks.
Al Washington has a lot more point defenders with their defensive line than tackles, which is why it might not be a slam dunk that Mills moves. We may also see Jason Onye or first-time registrant Tyson Ford moving in to work at 3-tech depending on the physical state of things with them.
It’s a position where there’s uncertainty now, but it could look like a strength by late spring.