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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 3 Houston Griffith, early-enrolled four-star safety

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-11 ¾, 196 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: An early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, clearly including the coming season.
Depth chart: Griffith’s strong spring not only moved him from cornerback to safety, but it also inserted him into the conversation around the safety rotation, though presumably still a step behind junior Alohi Gilman at field and junior Jalen Elliott at boundary, a returning starter.
Recruiting: With both Griffith and Allen in the fold, Notre Dame landed two of the top-10 safeties in the class of 2018, per rivals.com, with Griffith the No. 4 option at the position and the No. 43 overall player in the country. The Under Armour All-American chose the Irish after de-committing from Florida State in early October. As the Seminoles swooned, finishing the season an inflated 7-6, Griffith’s attention turned to Notre Dame thanks to the rebound from 2016’s disastrous 4-8.

QUOTE(S)
The Irish have three or four genuinely worthwhile cornerbacks, plus the set of incoming freshmen. The first half of that statement cannot be said about Notre Dame’s safeties, so when Griffith presented himself this spring as a valid coverage option who would be unlikely to see playing time at cornerback, moving him to safety made too much sense not to.

“What we wanted more in that move was we think he’s a guy that has a combination of playing away from the ball and having a good sense when the ball’s in the air, and then he’s a good tackler,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said the first week of April. “We do a tackling drill virtually every day, and through our circuit tackling and live tackling, he really stood out as a good tackler. At the safety position, obviously that’s crucial.

“… It just made sense we wanted to push the competition back there because everyone that talks about our defense knows we need more production from the safety position. … We have a lot of guys now that we can put out there that can push for competition and he adds to that list.”

Kelly doubled down on Griffith’s success in the position switch only one week later.

“He’s got great instincts, knows the game. He’s going to be a really good player here,” Kelly said. “… He’s going to play for us in the fall. How that ends up, whether he’s a starter or a backup? He will play football for Notre Dame this fall, no doubt.”

Griffith’s skills in coverage, honed at cornerback, solidified his chances of playing this season, not only in Kelly’s mind but also as far as first-year safeties coach Terry Joseph was concerned.

“You like that he has the coverage skills, because when you a play a quarter system, you want a guy at safety who can have those coverage skills,” Joseph said in early March. “He’s big enough to hold up to the run game. He’s showed he has some physicality.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN GRIFFITH’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Griffith has a frame that could fit at either cornerback or safety, presenting some flexibility moving forward. At either position, his overall athleticism will aid him, complemented by a good amount of unteachable speed.

“… Notre Dame needs an influx of performance at the safety position. Whoever can provide it will immediately see playing time. Griffith very well might be that option from day one, especially as an expected early enrollee.”

2018 OUTLOOK
No matter how strong Griffith’s performance in the spring was, finishing with three tackles in the Blue-Gold Game, and no matter how much he might excel in preseason practices, starting a freshman on the back-line of the defense against Michigan to start the season feels like a leap. Elliott was far from spectacular last season, but he also showed progress in the spring and returns 13 games of starting experience. Outpacing that will take time.

It does not mean Griffith will not play against the Wolverines or replace Elliott by midseason. The former is somewhat assured — in kickoff coverages, at the absolute least — while the latter will be dictated by how both play against Ball State and Vanderbilt as much as by how they fare in preseason practice.

Griffith played well enough in spring practice, along with Gilman and Elliott, to lead to returning starter senior Nick Coleman to spend some time at nickelback. That was not nailed down as a permanent move, but the mere option indicates Coleman’s role at safety has been diminished. That could point to Griffith soon becoming the third safety in the rotation, nudging ahead of junior Devin Studstill. In such a situation, Griffith would likely finish the season with about two dozen tackles.

The more telling statistic will be how many passes Griffith gets his hands on. Last year’s top-three safeties totaled a whopping five pass breakups. (Note: Heavy sarcasm on whopping.) Griffith might not match that on his own, but knocking down two or three passes would confirm Joseph’s description of the freshman’s coverage abilities.

DOWN THE ROAD
Elliott and Studstill have two years of eligibility remaining apiece, while Coleman will be done following this season. Even if Griffith does not force his way into significant playing time this year, he will soon. In addition to Coleman’s informal move to nickelback, the additions of Gilman and Griffith to the depth chart this spring led, in part, to former safeties Isaiah Robertson, Jordan Genmark-Heath and DJ Morgan all moving to linebacker.

Those mass changes leave the current freshmen as the only rostered depth behind Gilman after 2019. Considering Griffith’s recruiting pedigree, it is hard to fathom a prospect coming in the class behind him and immediately impressing even more.

Expect Griffith to start at least two seasons at Notre Dame, but the possibility is ripe for that to actually be three-plus.

RELATED READING
Improved safeties should lead to even better showings from Notre Dame’s cornerbacks

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 28 Nicco Fertitta, safety, senior
No. 27 Julian Love, cornerback, junior, second-team All-American
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 23 Drue Tranquill, linebacker, two-time captain, fifth-year senior
No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover, senior
No. 21 Jalen Elliott, safety, junior
No. 20 Shaun Crawford, nickelback, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 19 Justin Yoon, placekicker, senior
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, defensive end, incoming freshman
No. 18 Joe Wilkins, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 17 Isaiah Robertson, safety-turned-rover, sophomore
No. 16 Noah Boykin, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 15 D.J. Morgan, safety-turned-linebacker, junior
No. 15 Phil Jurkovec, quarterback, consensus four-star incoming freshman
No. 14 Devin Studstill, safety, junior
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 13 Paul Moala, local safety, incoming freshman
No. 12 DJ Brown, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 12 Ian Book, quarterback, junior
No. 11 Alohi Gilman, safety, Navy transfer
No. 10 Tariq Bracy, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 10 Chris Finke, receiver, senior, former walk-on
No. 9 Daelin Hayes, defensive end, junior
No. 8 Jafar Armstrong, running back/receiver, sophomore
No. 8 Donte Vaughn, cornerback, junior
No. 7 Brandon Wimbush, quarterback, senior
No. 7 Derrik Allen, consensus four-star safety, incoming freshman
No. 6 Tony Jones, running back, junior
No. 5 Troy Pride, cornerback, junior
No. 4 Te’von Coney, linebacker, senior
No. 4 Kevin Austin, consensus four-star receiver, incoming freshman

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer