Update: Who's coming, who's going? Notre Dame adds Princeton edge rusher Cole Aubrey
SOUTH BEND — Princeton graduate transfer Cole Aubrey has a knack for making quarterbacks uncomfortable.
Notre Dame hopes its newest portal piece will transfer that skill from the Ivy League to its front seven.
A preferred walk-on who plays outside linebacker/edge rusher, Aubrey piled up 47 tackles and 10 sacks in three seasons with the Tigers. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, he played exactly 268 defensive snaps in each of the past two seasons and earned strong pass-rush grades from Pro Football Focus.
After improving from 66.2 as a freshman (2019) to 86.4 in that department in 2021, Aubrey settled in at 81.8 over 10 games last season. Over his final two seasons with Princeton, when the Tigers went 17-3, the international affairs major recorded 52 total pressures and eight sacks.
A three-star recruit out of St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif., Aubrey drew offers from Boston College and the service academies (Army, Navy and Air Force) before selecting Princeton over multiple other Ivy League options.
Aubrey’s uncle and grandfather played football at USC.
Fellow Irish newcomer Ben Krimm, a grad transfer punter from the University of Pennsylvania, already knows Aubrey’s ability. Krimm also has bragging rights after the Quakers kept Princeton from a share of the Ivy League title with a last-second touchdown in a 20-19 upset in the regular-season finale in November.
Ex-Buckeye Javontae Jean-Baptiste has playoff experience
Javontae Jean-Baptiste recently enjoyed a cameo role in Ohio State’s brief but memorable College Football Playoff appearance against Georgia.
If Notre Dame is able to return to that stage next season, the grad transfer could have much more say in the outcome.
The 6-foot-5 249-pound defensive end from northern New Jersey announced on Friday his intention to play his sixth and final season for the Irish.
Defensive line coach Al Washington, who coached linebackers for the Buckeyes from 2019-21, welcomes an experienced player who contributed 19 tackles, four sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in a reserve role last season.
Jean-Baptiste added two tackles and a key half sack in nine defensive snaps against Georgia, which staged a late rally en route to a second straight national championship.
The Irish must replace consensus All-American Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame’s career sacks leader; defensive end Justin Ademilola and defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola as they pursue NFL careers.
Jean-Baptiste played at the same high school (Bergen Catholic) that produced freshman backup quarterback Steve Angeli and emerged from the same youth football program as Irish running back Audric Estime.
Notre Dame’s most experienced holdovers at defensive end include Rylie Mills, Jordan Botelho, Nana Osafo-Mensah, Alexander Ehrensberger and Junior Tuihalamaka, a linebacker-end hybrid.
With Jean-Baptiste on the way, the Irish have added six transfers this offseason, a program record. He joins quarterback Sam Hartman (Wake Forest), safety Thomas Harper (Oklahoma State), wideout Kaleb Smith (Virginia Tech), kicker Spencer Shrader (South Florida) and punter Ben Krimm (Pennsylvania).
Safety DJ Brown to return for sixth year
Over the past two seasons, no safety for Notre Dame has been on the field for more defensive snaps than DJ Brown.
A trusted contributor on special teams as well, Brown delivered a pleasant surprise on Sunday evening when he shared via social media his decision to return for a sixth season in 2023.
“DJ!!! (L)ead em,” outgoing captain/left guard Jarrett Patterson posted in the comments section. That was typical of the reaction among Brown’s current and former teammates.
A 2018 enrollee from Annapolis, Md., Brown (6-feet, 200 pounds) ranked fourth in tackles for Notre Dame last season. Despite a hamstring injury in Week 4 at North Carolina, Brown still played in all 13 games, pushing his career total to 47 games.
Brown totaled 936 defensive snaps across 2021-22. Ramon Henderson (660) and Xavier Watts (454) are only returning safeties within hailing distance of that total for the Irish.
On special teams, Brown’s 292 plays over the past two seasons ranked fifth. He also made three interceptions in 2021, and last November he had an end-zone theft against Navy wiped out by penalty.
Last of the Ademilolas
For the first time since 2017, Notre Dame's defensive line will be Ademilola-free in 2023.
On Friday, Justin Ademilola announced he would follow twin brother Jayson Ademilola in declaring for April's NFL Draft. Unlike Jayson, a sturdy defensive tackle who had exhausted his college eligibility, Justin was viewed as a potential Isaiah Foskey replacement at defensive end after being redshirted in 2018.
Jayson Ademilola (55 games) and Justin Ademilola (50 games) combined for 242 tackles (33 for loss) and 16.5 sacks in their five-year run. The fiery tandem from St. Peter's Prep in northern New Jersey made an impact on and off the field.
Earlier in the week, Chris Smith, the Harvard grad transfer who played 26 defensive snaps in the Gator Bowl, said his public goodbye after his eligibility ended. A 310-pound run stuffer at defensive tackle, Smith averaged 20 snaps across 13 games with a high of 63 in the loss to Stanford.
A rib contusion sidelined Jayson Ademilola early in that Oct. 15 loss to the Cardinal.
Other key contributors who have exhausted their eligibility include cornerback TaRiq Bracy (55 games), safety Houston Griffith (program-record 62 games), punter Jon Sot, kicker Blake Grupe; offensive guards Jarrett Patterson (49 games) and Josh Lugg (61 games); linebacker/captain Bo Bauer (56 games) and wide receiver Avery Davis, a two-time team captain.
Lugg is tied with former nose tackle Kurt Hinish (2017-21) for the second-most game appearances in program history.
Transfer Thomas Harper joins safety mix
An undisclosed injury kept safety Thomas Harper from playing against Notre Dame in its Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. After committing to join the Irish as a transfer on Jan. 6, Harper could have plenty to say about what bowl the Irish reach in 2023.
Harper, who missed six of his final seven games this year due to undisclosed injuries, played 778 total snaps the past two seasons. Lightly recruited out of Knoxville, Tenn., Harper (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) is the younger brother of former Oklahoma State linebacker Devin Harper, a sixth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys last spring.
With Brandon Joseph declaring for the NFL Draft, sixth-year senior DJ Brown, rising senior Ramon Henderson and rising redshirt junior Xavier Watts are the top safeties returning for Notre Dame in 2023. In 43 games in Stillwater over the past four seasons, Harper totaled 93 tackles, two interceptions, six pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
The interceptions came against Baylor (2022) and Texas Christian (2020).
Notre Dame signed two safeties in its 2023 recruiting class, Adon Shuler (New Jersey) and Ben Minich (Ohio), but five-star safety Peyton Bowen (Denton, Texas) de-committed at the 11th hour and signed with neighboring Oklahoma instead.
Arkansas grad transfer Jalen Catalon was reportedly on Notre Dame’s radar as well. Catalon, who recently visited Texas, is coming off reconstructive shoulder surgery after being injured in the season opener against Cincinnati.
A shoulder injury also ended Catalon’s 2021 season after six games. A preseason All-America and team captain, the Mansfield, Texas product posted five interceptions, 159 tackles, three forced fumbles and 14 pass breakups in his time with the Razorbacks.
Utah State defensive end Byron Vaughns, a Fort Worth product who started his career at Texas, also took an official visit to Notre Dame this week after receiving a transfer offer. Vaughns (6-4, 224) also holds offers from Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Florida State after recording 114 tackles and 6.5 sacks in three seasons.
Notre Dame lands Wake Forest transfer QB Sam Hartman
Nine days after Sam Hartman entered the transfer portal, the record-setting Wake Forest quarterback finally made it official.
Notre Dame got its man, as if there was ever any doubt.
"Onward," Hartman posted on his Twitter account Thursday afternoon, complete with a #GoIrish hashtag and pair of photos with the smiling, bearded quarterback wearing his familiar No. 10 jersey. It's the same number Drew Pyne wore the past three seasons with the Irish before transferring to Arizona State in December.
Hartman, who turns 24 in late July, will ostensibly battle Gator Bowl MVP Tyler Buchner for the starting job once spring practice begins in March. The ACC's career leader with 110 touchdown passes, Hartman is the odds-on favorite to start for the Irish on Aug. 26 against Navy in Dublin, Ireland.
Hartman went 27-18 (.600) as the starter at Wake Forest, including a 12-9 (.571) mark in 300-yard passing games. That included a 4-4 mark on 300-yard passing days this season, when the Deacons allowed 29.3 points per game, tied for 93rd in the country.
Notre Dame has dropped its past two games featuring an individual passing performance of 300 yards or more by its quarterback: Pyne's 318-yard swan song in the Nov. 26 loss at USC and Jack Coan's school-record 509 passing yards in his career-closing Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
Before that, Notre Dame had won 11 straight when its quarterback reached 300 passing yards, dating to DeShone Kizer's 471-yard passing day in an October 2016 win over Syracuse. Ian Book went 8-0 when passing for 300-plus yards and Coan passed his way to road wins at Florida State and Stanford.
Since 2010, Notre Dame is a combined 20-13 (.606) with an individual passing day of 300-plus yards. Tommy Rees, Hartman's new offensive coordinator, went 3-4 under those conditions from 2010-13.
Notre Dame is scheduled to face Wake Forest next season for the first time since 2018, when Hartman took the loss in a 56-27 blowout against Book. The Deacons, coming off an 8-5 season, visit South Bend on Oct. 28.
Brandon Joseph declares for the NFL Draft
This wasn’t the season Brandon Joseph hoped to have for Notre Dame, but the uber-confident safety is still headed to the NFL regardless.
Joseph, a 2020 All-American at Northwestern who joined the Irish as a transfer 12 months ago, announced via social media on Dec. 31 he is declaring for the NFL Draft.
A nagging high-ankle sprain suffered in the first half against Clemson on Nov. 5 limited Joseph to just one more game appearance the rest of the season. He played 37 snaps in the 38-27 loss at USC to close out the regular season.
Joseph practiced all week ahead of the Gator Bowl against South Carolina and even went through pregame warmups in full uniform, but he watched the game from the sideline in street clothes.
After making nine interceptions and 132 tackles over his final two seasons with the Wildcats, Joseph managed just 30 tackles and one interception in 9 ½ games for Notre Dame. Joseph had just one forced fumble and one pass breakup after breaking up a total of six passes in his previous two seasons.
The interception, at least, was memorable: a 29-yard pick-six of Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader on the first play from scrimmage in a 41-24 road win on Oct. 29.
That was the only interception return for a touchdown in Joseph’s career, including his high school days in College Station, Texas.
Joseph later added a leaping interception in the end zone against the Orange that was wiped out by an offsides penalty.
Installed as Notre Dame’s primary punt returner after only dabbling in the role at Northwestern, Joseph averaged just 9.9 yards on 18 returns with a long of 20 yards against UNLV.
Braden Lenzy retires from football
Braden Lenzy is going out on a high note.
After catching a 44-yard touchdown pass and picking up 20 yards on a fake-punt jet sweep in Notre Dame’s Gator Bowl win, Lenzy announced he is retiring from football.
The graduate wide receiver from Tigard, Ore., said on social media he is starting a new chapter on Jan. 9 with Medasource, a healthcare consulting firm based in Indianapolis.
Lenzy, who made four tackles in punt coverage this season, finished with 23 catches for 289 yards and three touchdowns this year. The speedster, slowed by multiple concussions early in his career, had 73 receptions for 956 yards and nine touchdowns, including a highlight-reel grab against Navy in November.
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.