Where Notre Dame was, is & will be: Defensive backs

Kyle Hamilton Notre Dame
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Notre Dame loses two multi-year starting captains on its backline, as well as its fastest player on the roster, so there is reason to worry moving forward. Then again, the Irish return arguably their two best ballhawks, one thanks to the NCAA and one thanks to the NFL requiring players wait three years after high school before entering the draft, and welcomes a former Ohio State starter. There may be reason to trust moving forward.

The secondary could not have been less of a worry for the Irish entering 2019. Two of Notre Dame’s best and most experienced players, not to mention most trusted leaders, started at safety in Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman while senior cornerback Troy Pride impressed through most of the preseason, and fifth-year senior cornerback Shaun Crawford was finally healthy, the only hurdle he has ever needed to clear before disrupting the opposing offense.

While Pride may not have played up to the hype, and Crawford suffered yet another injury with a dislocated elbow, the Irish pass defense could not have been much better, ranking No. 5 in the country in passing efficiency defense. To give that context, at No. 4? Alabama. At No. 7? LSU.

If not in the mood for vague — but worthwhile — analytics, Notre Dame allowed only 13 passing touchdowns, tied for No. 8 in the country, and 2,191 total passing yards, ranking No. 5.

None of that came as a surprise, and not only because of the known personnel. In 2018, the Irish finished No. 6, No. 3 and No. 47 in those respective categories.

If not for the NCAA’s approval of a waiver for a sixth year for Crawford, the Irish might see four defensive backfield starters heading to the NFL draft. Pride and Elliott both did their draft stock favors at the Senior Bowl earlier this month, and Gilman’s special teams work alone very well may keep his draft floor higher than the seventh round, not to mention his physical play.

Without that trio, Crawford’s return becomes pivotal. Notre Dame has a starter it can count on at cornerback, as long as he is healthy.

At safety, the Irish have another starter it can already rely upon in current freshman Kyle Hamilton. In retrospect, he could have been leaned on in 2019, if Notre Dame had needed him. When Pro Football Focus ranked the top 101 players in the country after the season, only one Irish player made the list, Hamilton at No. 73, although he took only 384 snaps in the regular season. To play the context card once more, Gilman took 659 while Elliott played 637.

Crawford’s abilities are known, always with that key clarification of “as long as he is healthy.” Hamilton’s remain untapped, somehow even after leading Notre Dame with four interceptions and 10 passes defended, even after turning his very first career snap at Notre Dame Stadium into an interception returned for a touchdown, even after managing 41 tackles while playing about only half the time.

He has already shown a penchant for a centerfielder role, the free-range that led to most of his interceptions. He does not shy from contact, 160 of those regular-season snaps coming against the run, per Pro Football Focus, and he apparently has a future in more man-to-man coverage, no matter the target, be it receiver or running back or tight end, the latter of which Hamilton shined in at Stanford, bodying up Colby Parkinson.

“He was actually going to play some corner in the red zone in matchup situations,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after beating the Cardinal. “He did quite well in practice. He has the ability to stay back there and play safety for us.”

All of which is to say, Notre Dame has a system in place that has yielded tremendous pass defense the last two seasons and two disruptors returning to lead the secondary next year. Most programs would be envious of that, even if it is a step backward from the recent Irish luxuries.

The Irish return a few safeties from 2019’s roster in addition to Hamilton, namely current juniors DJ Brown and Houston Griffith, but Brown struggled to see genuine playing time last season while Griffith has bounced from safety to cornerback and perhaps back to safety. Each will get a chance in the spring and preseason to earn the starting role alongside Hamilton, but the expectation is Ohio State graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor will be Hamilton’s partner in Dublin.

Pryor started seven games for the Buckeyes in 2018 and has 45 tackles in 18 games to his name. The former four-star recruit was rated the No. 106 player in the class of 2017, per rivals.com, and was pursued by Auburn, Clemson, Oklahoma and Stanford, to name just a few. His pedigree suggests he should be ripe to supplement Hamilton. A new secondary coach with the stockpile of talent provided by typical Ohio State recruiting gives some background to a past starter falling down the depth chart; it is no certain reason to have wrought wonderings about a transfer with two years of remaining eligibility.

That leaves the cornerback opposite Crawford, and an innate dilemma to that competition. While physical for his size and never shying from a challenge, Crawford’s 5-foot-9 ½ frame would be best suited as the field (wide) corner. Current sophomore TaRiq Bracy (5-foot-10), who played 467 snaps last season, would also make more sense at the field, rather than the boundary, where size enhances the advantages of the sideline.

Notre Dame has only Crawford as an upperclassman at cornerback (an uber-upperclassmen, at that). Of the underclassmen, Bracy has the most experience, but current sophomore KJ Wallace outweighs Bracy by 20 pounds, classmate Isaiah Rutherford has two inches and nearly 20 pounds on him and converted receiver Cam Hart stands 6-foot-2 ½ while carrying 208 pounds.

Hart made the switch last season, playing in three games before injuring his shoulder. If his progress continues at that pace, he might force Bracy to the nickel, where he would undoubtedly still see plenty of time.

The pieces are there for the Irish passing defense to hold serve, if Pryor makes good on his projected talent and if Notre Dame can find a second cornerback among a few options, though who will coach them remains yet unknown.