The Riddler: Javontae Jean-Baptiste settles in amid familiar faces at Notre Dame

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste got his start in the Spring Valley (N.Y.) Hornets youth football program

SOUTH BEND — Javontae Jean-Baptiste had options after entering the transfer portal on the second day of January, less than 48 hours after playing in the College Football Playoff semifinal for Ohio State.

Almost too many options.

The towering edge rusher, who packs 253 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame, strongly considered offers from Mississippi and Texas during his 11 days of deliberation. Before landing at Notre Dame as a sixth-year graduate transfer, he also thought about turning pro.

“It was a gut-wrenching decision, going through the days and stressing,” Jean-Baptiste said recently in his first media session at his new program. “At the time, it was still like, ‘All right, do I really want to come back to college football or do I just declare?’ “

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Playing down south in the SEC or the Big 12 carried appeal. It certainly would have been more convenient for his parents, Jerry and Lisa, who relocated to the Atlanta area years ago, even as Jean-Baptiste was finishing up at Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, N.J.

Unlike his first recruiting experience, as a four-star prospect who surged late in the 2018 signing class, Jean-Baptiste knew what to prioritize this time.

“After you’ve been in the business five years, I didn’t really care for the flash and glamor,” he said. “The second time around, it’s definitely more of a business/adult decision. The first time around, you’re taking all these visits. You’re seeing different schools. Your eyes are big, but then once you’ve been in it, you know how to see through everything.”

Notre Dame’s selling points were clear as well, especially after Isaiah Foskey, the departing All-America defensive end, took time out of his pre-draft preparations to talk things through with his potential successor.

Irish position coaches Al Washington (defensive line) and Nick Sebastian (assistant defensive line) were trusted allies as well. Both had been on staff at Ohio State before moving to Notre Dame last offseason.

“I wanted to see which program would be able to use me,” Jean-Baptiste said, “and help me even get better in little aspects (of the game).”

While Washington coached the Buckeye linebackers from 2019-21, Jean-Baptiste gravitated toward him for wide-ranging talks after workouts and in his office before practice.   

“I would say we got close,” said Jean-Baptiste, who accounted for 49 quarterback pressures, including nine sacks, over the past four seasons at Ohio State.

The connection with Sebastian, better known as “Sea Bass,” might have been even stronger.  

“That’s my dog,” Jean-Baptiste said. “That’s really my guy. Even when I needed time just to talk to somebody about my everyday (life), he was always there for me.”

Setting the precedent

Notre Dame running back Audric Estime, age 9, in his first team picture with Spring Valley (N.Y.) Hornets Pee Wee football in 2013.

In the end, familiarity carried the day for Notre Dame.

Those connections included another big personality with an electric smile: Audric Estime.

Products of the same Spring Valley (N.Y.) Hornets youth football program near the New Jersey state line, Jean-Baptiste was three years older and a star running back.

Khadar Estime, Audric’s older brother who graduated last spring with a business degree from Monmouth University, would have scrimmaged with and against Jean-Baptiste. However, this will be the first collaboration between the pass rusher and the bruising runner he considers a younger brother.

“Javontae’s team set the precedent which influenced guys like Audric,” Lennie Rogers, commissioner of coaches for the Hornets program back then, said in a phone interview. “Javontae’s team went far every year. It was a team pretty much of the best kids in that city, and then it attracted kids from other cities. That’s how Audric ended up there.”

Starring for the Spring Valley Hornets often led to a golden ticket at one of North Jersey’s Catholic football powers in the former Big North United, now known as the Super Red Conference. Jean-Baptiste went on to become New Jersey’s defensive player of the year, as did Howard Cross III, Estime’s teammate at St. Joseph Regional and again at Notre Dame.

Estime, with an epic 2020 season, did them one better, winning state player of the year recognition.

Rogers, a probation officer in New York’s Rockland County, has followed Jean-Baptiste’s football career since he was 7 and Estime’s since age 9. Rogers believes the pipeline prevailed once again in leading Jean-Baptiste to Notre Dame.

“I definitely think it played a part,” said Rogers, 44. “That’s the comfort zone there. We live in a small county. Audric and Javontae always stayed in touch through social media. If you look at Audric’s posts, Javontae refers to him as ‘Little Bro.’ That was always an interesting dynamic, even when they played last year at Ohio State.”

Childhood connection

On the field for just 16 defensive snaps in the 2022 season opener, a 21-10 comeback win for Ohio State, Jean-Baptiste made his only tackle that night against speedy Chris Tyree, not the 230-pound Estime.

There are no regrets, however, especially now that they’re teammates.

“It’s great,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I played with his brother and he was on the team under. Just growing up around him, even though we didn’t play on the same Little League team, it was great just knowing him and being able to talk to him a lot. Seeing his progression throughout his life, it’s kind of great to see.”

r-l, Notre Dame running back Audric Estime, age 12, with cousin Janiya Hill and older brother Khadar Estime after a Pop Warner football game for the Spring Valley (N.Y.) Hornets in 2016.

Asked for his recollection of the pre-teen Estime, Jean-Baptiste smiled.

“He was definitely skinnier,” he said. “Now he’s definitely filled out.”

Estime, as his teammates have learned, is an enthusiastic, if wildly off-key, karaoke singer. His pitch on the recruiting front, however, was decidedly more convincing.

“I definitely had conversations with him just to see what everything was like here,” Jean-Baptiste said. “He told me that it’s a great program — a team. It’s really a team-oriented style, and the coaches really push their players hard and that’s just for the betterment of the self.”

Even though he’s only been on campus for a month, Jean-Baptiste is already making his presence felt. With little urging, he’ll toss out one of his trademark riddles to break the ice.

Example: “What three-letter word starts with gas?”

Answer: Car.

A skilled video gamer as well, Jean-Baptiste enjoys engaging with fans as he live-steams his marathon sessions playing Apex, Warzone and Fortnite. He picked up the hobby from his older brother Jerry, 35.

“Gaming for me has just been something I’ve always done my whole life,” he said. “Being a kid and seeing what my older brother was doing, I always wanted to do (that) too. When he got down to streaming my games, it was playing with friends and teammates.”

Thanks to his football platform, Jean-Baptiste soon built a following through his channel called “headshotsxjb.”

“(Friends) were like, ‘Man, you’re good, and you have a personality. Why not start streaming?’ “ he said. “So I took it to that, and it was going good. Sometimes it slows down during the season. I can't always be streaming every day and (devote) the hours to put into that. I have to be focused.”

Thomas Harper, the nickel safety and grad transfer from Oklahoma State, was in Stillwater with two of Jean-Baptiste’s associates from his last year in Columbus: former Cowboys defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and transfer safety Tanner McAlister.

“I heard he’s just an athlete,” Harper said of Jean-Baptiste. “Especially seeing him out here running, he looks like a big skill (player) instead of a D-lineman. I’m just really excited to see him put on the pads and be able to actually pass rush.”

Freshman defensive lineman Devan Houstan, a fellow midyear enrollee, has found Jean-Baptiste to be a calming, informative resource.

“He’s been great,” Houstan said. “He’s a real nice dude, a down-to-earth guy. He’s like me. He knows when to joke around. He’s learned a lot. The guy has played five seasons of college football. He has a lot of them under his belt.”

And it all started with the Spring Valley Hornets.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.