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Replace and Reload: Notre Dame Must Find Options, And More Production, At Big End

Notre Dame must find a replacement at big end, and those replacements must up the production level

Notre Dame lost two great leaders from its defensive line, and we'll see two new starters in the lineup in 2022. Not only do the Irish have to replace nose guard Kurt Hinish, they must also replace big end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who guys that were part of the defensive line rotation going all the way back to 2017.

There are major question marks at the position, and right now a position change might be needed to fill out the depth chart. Whoever steps into the lineup isn't only replacing a great leader, those players also need to up the production at big end next season.

POSITION CHANGE IN THE WORKS?

Prior to the departure of former position coach Mike Elston the rumor was that Notre Dame planned on moving rising junior Rylie Mills. I do not know if head coach Marcus Freeman and new defensive line coach Al Washington plan to move Mills outside, but they should.

Mills is a unique player that possesses a great frame for the big end position thanks to his length (he's 6-5 with long arms) and frame (283 pounds) to be a power player on the edge, one that can play a heavy edge position in a four-down alignment, five-technique in a three-down alignment and a guy that can occasionally slide inside as a three-technique in certain looks.

Mills has the potential to develop into a strong edge setter in the run game, but it's his pass rushing potential that could provide the biggest boost to the position. The big ends in 2021 combined for just 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks, compared to 11.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks in 2020 in one fewer game.

When Tagovailoa-Amosa missed the Virginia game with an illness, Mills was forced to move outside for the first time all season, and he finished that game with two sacks. Mills has a quick burst off the edge for such a big player, and with improved hand play he could become an Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Khalid Kareem type of player at big end.

Mills is at the top of my potential breakout player list for the Irish defense this offseason.

ANOTHER LEVEL FOR NANA?

Mills played big end against Virginia but he wasn't the starter, that role belonged to NaNa Osafo-Mensah. The Texas native cracked the rotation for the first time in his career and bounced back from a 2020 season that saw him miss most of the year with an injury.

Osafo-Mensah registered 13 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks as a rotation player behind Tagovailoa-Amosa. He was solid all season, showing the ability to hold up relatively well on the edge, with the skills to be a solid edge setter and occasional two-gap defender on the edge.

Osafo-Mensah also showed the ability to be a decent edge rusher in spots, registering two sacks during the season, but overall he wasn't an overly disruptive or productive player.

The question with him heading into his senior season is can Osafo-Mensah become a more disruptive player. If he wants to grab a starting role at big end he'll need to do a better job getting off blocks, and he'll need to show a more consistent ability to win on the edge in the pass game on early downs.

BIG OFFSEASON FOR EHRENSBERGER

A player I'm really looking forward to seeing this spring is German native Alexander Ehrensberger. A very raw player when he arrived at Notre Dame, Ehrensberger actually worked into the rotation a year earlier than I expected. He played 77 snaps last season (according to Pro Football Focus) and showed flashes, but he still looked quite raw.

Ehrensberger has exceptional length, he's athletic for his size (6-7, 255) and he has good natural strength. He can physically do a lot of the things I mentioned with Mills, but his technique needs a lot of work, especially from a block destruction standpoint.

The rising junior enters a very important offseason. He finds himself in a position where a strong offseason could allow him to rise up the depth chart, earn far more reps and he could become an important part of the defensive line rotation. A strong offseason from Ehrensberger and a breakout from Mills could end with Notre Dame getting truly outstanding production at big end.

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If Ehrensberger doesn't make a technical and production jump this offseason he'll have to start looking over his shoulder.

FRESHMAN IMPACT

The player Ehrensberger will be looking over his shoulder at is freshman Tyson Ford, who began his Notre Dame career last week. Ford is a very, very intriguing player. He was a Top 100 recruit, but the exciting thing about Ford is that he was a dominant prep player despite needing a lot of technical and body work. When those two aspects of his game catch up to his natural tools he will have a chance to become a really, really good football player for Notre Dame.

Getting on campus early gives Ford the opportunity to get at least a six-month head start in the weight room, which is vitally important for him. It also gives him a complete offseason to work with Washington in an attempt to improve his stance, pad level, hand play and ability to finish at the ball.

I cannot wait to see what kind of development Ford can make during his first offseason at Notre Dame.

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