Crawford’s and Hamilton’s differences create a Notre Dame strength at safety

Kyle Hamilton
ACC Media
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Seven inches, 39 pounds and four years of experience separate Shaun Crawford and Kyle Hamilton, but the two safeties insist they complement each other all the same.

Plagued by dramatic and well-documented injuries, hence a sixth year of eligibility, Crawford reached starting status along Notre Dame’s defensive backline in a very different way than Hamilton, a sophomore star fresh off earning freshman All-American honors.

The two have barely played a half together at safety — a sprained ankle in the season opener costing Hamilton a game and then Crawford working at cornerback in the 42-26 win against Florida State due to a personnel shortage courtesy of the Irish coronavirus outbreak — but their complementary traits still stand out, experience meeting excellence, size joining savvy.

“Playing back there with Kyle is a great opportunity,” Crawford said Tuesday. “It picks up my game. I try to pick up his game.”

Think back to the 2015 preseason and perhaps Crawford can understand better than most what it is like to have lofty expectations steeped upon a young player; he was set to be the starting nickel back as a freshman before a torn ACL started a recurring trend for the playmaker.

“Being back there with Kyle, being back there with someone who has a lot of game experience and a lot of playmaking ability just enhances my game, allows me to play a little bit faster, because having him next to me, I trust him, I trust that he’s going to make me right if I’m wrong.”

That sentiment goes both ways, an emphasis on accountability rendering moot any “father-son kind of relationship” narratives in Hamilton’s mind, even if he had yet to take a high school snap when Crawford was first impressing at Notre Dame.

“It elevates my game,” the sophomore said. “I need to be on the same level … that Shaun’s at right now. He holds me accountable. …

“We’re both working together and we respect each other equally. We’re bouncing ideas off each other. We’re a good combination.”

Elevating Hamilton’s game means his 6-foot-4, 219-pound frame appears to be everywhere at once.

“He’s a difference-maker,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “He covers ground like no safety that I’ve coached. He plays with physicality. He’s smart. … He’s an eraser, too. Just by his size, he makes it difficult for teams to go into his area, whether it’s in the run game or pass game.”

Hamilton’s 15 tackles on the season tie him for the team lead, despite his limited action to date. The free safety has also tacked on two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.

Crawford, at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, lacks Hamilton’s length and range but has a knack for appearing where he needs to with seven tackles, two pass breakups and an interception through three games.

That interception came along the goal line to snuff out the Seminoles’ final gasp, showcasing his past skills at cornerback and making up for allowing a 48-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. It was not a seamless move back to corner, during the week or on Saturday.

“I’m trying to still get familiar with safety,” he said. “Going back to corner was a little different because I’ve been at safety, seeing the game from a different angle, playing things a little different. Going back to corner was a little frustrating. I took that as a challenge.”

Kelly saw that challenge as Crawford’s team-first approach.

“He was selfless in the sense that he moved over to the cornerback position and bailed us out in a very, very difficult time playing a position that he hadn’t been repping at all because he had played all those safety reps,” Kelly said after the victory Saturday.

Hamilton saw it as his counterpart’s versatility. 

“Shaun’s one of the best players on this team,” Hamilton said. “He’s played more snaps than everybody in the DB room combined, so he’s seen a lot of football. He knows what he’s doing. You never really have to worry about him doing his job.”

The mutual admiration should help Clark Lea’s defense return to its standards. The more time Crawford and Hamilton can work together — again, they have barely played a half next to each other as safeties — the better for all involved.

“The communication back there is getting better,” Crawford said. “The more games and the more practices that we can get under our belt together, on the field together, it’s just going to help us throughout the year.”

A junior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well.