Spoiler alert: Sophomore Rylie Mills is ready to make noise in Notre Dame's defense
SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly doesn’t want to divulge too many details on the possibilities for Notre Dame’s defensive line.
After reporters watched a full practice Thursday inside Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish head football coach recognized that a lot of different combinations were on display.
“We hope that, obviously, we don't have a scouting report out there,” Kelly said after preseason practice No. 12 and 17 days before the season opener at Florida State on Sept. 5. “But it speaks for itself, right? We're going to move guys around and they're going to be difficult to block.”
Spoiler for the Seminoles: Find Rylie Mills.
The sophomore defensive tackle created more disruption than any other defensive lineman on Notre Dame’s roster during Thursday’s practice. The 6-foot-5, 283-pound Mills should benefit greatly from the importance defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has placed on versatility up front.
Mills can provide value in a three-man front as a defensive end and a four-man front as a defensive tackle.
“He’s a long player and his physicality lends itself to being able to play a few different positions for us,” Kelly said. “You’re going to see a guy like Rylie Mills really flourish in this system that Marcus runs.”
Mills’ length and jersey number (99) might coax comparisons to former Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. At similar stages in their career, Mills might be a more dynamic pass rusher.
That skill set was on display Thursday with a pair of sacks credited to him — plays whistled dead without quarterbacks being tackled — during scrimmage sessions against the first-team offense. Mills made easy work of his one-on-one matchups in the offensive line vs. defensive line pass rush drill, too.
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Mills beat starting right guard Cain Madden, a second-team All-American last year at Marshall, to his outside by using his length and keeping Madden’s hands off him. Then Mills lined up as a defensive end and beat backup tackle Tosh Baker to the inside.
Mills, who was rated as a four-star defensive end at Lake Forest (Ill.) High, hasn’t taken over the starting defensive tackle spot from senior Jayson Ademilola, but it’s clear he will find a regular role in the rotation.
Identifying where Mills is at when he’s on the field would be wise for opposing offenses. Florida State has been warned.
“We have a lot of versatility because of what we do up front,” Freeman said Tuesday. “You don’t just sit there and play three-technique or sit there and play nose or sit there and play end. You’re moving. You’re doing different things.
“Because we’re so versatile on the defensive line and schematically in what we do, you can put guys in different positions.”
Offensive line answers ready to be tested
Kelly didn’t quite name a starting offensive line, but the Irish have repeatedly used the same five linemen, when healthy, throughout preseason camp with the first-team offense.
The projected starting five for Florida State will be freshman left tackle Blake Fisher, junior left guard Zeke Correll, senior center Jarrett Patterson, graduate senior left guard Cain Madden and grad senior right tackle Josh Lugg.
The left guard position was the least settled following spring practice and summer workouts, but the 6-3, 295-pound Correll has established himself after shifting over from center, where he started twice last year. Correll brings strength and athleticism to the position, Kelly said, even if he doesn’t have the same size of last year’s starter Aaron Banks (6-6, 330).
Kelly wasn’t as pleased with how the interior offensive line picked up blitzers during Thursday’s practice.
“If we're going to be athletic and not quite as big, we better be able to pick up ‘backers running through A-gaps,” Kelly said. “He's doing some really good things. Our awareness has to be better. He's made good progress, but there's still progress to be made.”
Lugg was sidelined midway through Thursday’s practice with a strained neck, which gave sophomore Michael Carmody another opportunity to take reps with the starting offense. Last week, Carmody replaced left tackle Blake Fisher when Fisher was sidelined with a concussion.
The 6-6, 290-pound Carmody has worked his way into being the first tackle off the bench.
“First of all, he's extremely athletic,” Kelly said. “Bends well, moves his feet well, so it starts with he's blessed with really good athletic ability. And he's strong. His work in the weight room shows itself in the numbers that we get from (director of football performance) coach (Matt) Balis and in terms of how he handles themselves.
“The physicality piece probably stands out the most. Blessed with length. He is a guy that could probably be Robert Hainsey, in a sense. He could probably play every position on the offensive line.”
Finding meaning in defensive success
Notre Dame’s defense had the upper hand in the scrimmage portion to end Thursday’s practice. The only drive the offense sustained ended with safety Justin Walters intercepting Drew Pyne’s pass at the goal line.
The defense provided pressure on the quarterbacks, showed speed on the edge, delivered hard hits in the middle of the field and allowed few big plays. That performance was important for Kelly to see.
“It's freedom of movement, energy and enthusiasm,” Kelly said. “When you see a defense that has a lot of moving pieces, but there's not a lot of thinking out there — they're getting their cleats in the ground and they're playing fast — that generally leads to good success in my experience.
“So either I don't know what the hell I'm talking about — and that's probably a good bet most of the time — or they're going to play really fast and play exciting defense.”
Stability at safety alongside Kyle Hamilton should go a long way in keeping the defense playing at a high level. Senior Houston Griffith’s big hit on running back Chris Tyree showed the confidence with which he’s playing.
“He’s had a really good camp,” Kelly said. “We've been looking for that guy that's going to be a tackler. You have Hamilton, right, and then get the ball on the ground, because Hamilton's going to be doing a lot. Get the ball on the ground at that other safety position.
“DJ (Brown) and him have been battling it out. It's been great competition with both those guys, but he's had a really good camp. He's going to play a lot of football for us. It'll be fun to watch him play."
• Michael Mayer likely won’t be the only sophomore tight end to catch a touchdown for Notre Dame this season. Kevin Bauman’s success in the red zone at times this camp has been notable.
Kelly said Bauman was a bit out of control at times last year. When he would run into safeties or linebackers on passing routes, Kelly compared him to a bull in a china shop. He’s reined in that energy as a 6-5, 242-pound target.
“The tight end works in a phone booth, right?” Kelly said. “He has to be able to slip and get open, and he's really refining himself and getting on the edge of linebackers and safeties, and putting himself in positions where now he can use his ability. He has really good ability, but he was tying himself up a lot.”
• Freshman Justin Walters seems to repeatedly put himself in position to make plays. The safety intercepted a Pyne pass in the Blue-Gold Game on May 1. He picked off Pyne again Thursday. He might not be in position to play quite yet, but the Irish are looking for fourth and fifth options at safety.
"He has a ways to go physically, but he's a good football player,” Kelly said. “Some guys just have a nose for the football. They just get around the ball. And it's one thing to be around the ball and don't make plays, but he's around the ball and he makes plays. Good football player. He's going to be really good here."
• Long snapper Michael Vinson saved his teammates from a session of 88s, a tiring tempo drill for the offense and defense, by cleanly catching a punt from Jay Bramblett in the middle of practice. Vinson dropped his first attempt, which forced him to the ground while moving to his left, but he took advantage of the second chance Kelly gave him by securing it with two hands. Cheers from his teammates and family members in the stands followed.
• Quarterback Jack Coan was named Thursday as one of 63 quarterbacks on the preseason watch list for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. The honor recognizes the top senior or graduating upperclassman quarterback in college football.
• Thursday’s preseason watch list for the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award included Notre Dame defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa as one of 63 nominees.
• Safety Kyle Hamilton was held out of the end of Thursday’s practice with lower back tightness. Wide receiver Lawrence Keys and cornerback Ryan Barnes were both dressed but did very little at practice. At least three other players were sidelined Thursday: defensive ends Osita Ekwonu and Will Schweitzer and nose guard Aidan Keanaaina.
• When single-game tickets for Notre Dame's home football slate opened online Thursday night (UND.com/buytickets), the Oct. 2 matchup with Cincinnati was marked as the first sellout.
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.