Notre Dame Personnel: Griffith, four others into transfer portal; Banks to the NFL draft; Hinish returning

Houston Griffith Clemson
ACC Media
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The annual roster churn across college football will have an unpredictable nature this season, at Notre Dame and everywhere else.

For obvious reasons, there were fewer transfers this past offseason. No spring practices left players unsure of their standings on the depth chart, and with no scholarship limit in 2020 or 2021, schools could bide their time with bloated rosters, which they can lean into again next season. In the short-term, the Irish coaching staff can attempt to shore up particular positions via depth; and some players may see the coming depth as a likelihood they will get lost below the two-deep, thus now opting for better chances at playing time elsewhere.

In short, it will be an avalanche of activity in all directions, one that has already begun. At least five Notre Dame reserves have already entered the transfer portal, though only one was a possible 2021 starter.

Junior safety Houston Griffith’s Irish career included him bouncing between nickel back, cornerback and safety, but in 2020 he seemed to finally settle at safety, the position which earned him four-star status in his recruitment. He made 14 tackles this season, starting in two games and playing in all 12. His starts (South Florida, Florida State) came as Notre Dame worked through a coronavirus outbreak, though his most notable work may have been in the second half at North Carolina after star sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton was ejected for targeting.

Griffith’s inconsistent development at safety led Shaun Crawford to move there from cornerback in preseason practices and as the season progressed, DJ Brown saw more playing time than Griffith, including in that Tobacco Road moment, the two headed for a spring competition to start alongside Hamilton.

Instead, that would appear to be Brown’s role to lose with four-star recruit Khari Gee suddenly looking at a good chance of contributing snaps.

Running back/receiver Jafar Armstrong, running back Jahmir Smith, offensive lineman Colin Grunhard and defensive back Isaiah Rutherford have also all reportedly entered the transfer portal.

Armstrong took 17 carries for eight total yards and a touchdown in 2020, adding three catches for 38 yards. For all the dual-threat promise he once espoused, particularly early in 2018 when he was the engine behind the Irish offense, Armstrong would have entered 2021 no higher than fourth among Notre Dame’s running backs or distinctly on the second-string among receivers. He finishes his Irish career with 807 total yards and nine touchdowns.

Smith’s transfer was presumed since he left the team midseason to take care of his mental health.

“Talking about mental health issues is a difficult subject matter for many,” Smith said in announcing his departure from the team in late October. “For those struggling with mental health, asking for help can seem discouraging, but it is the first step towards improving.”

Grunhard, a former walk-on, was on scholarship in 2020 but would have remained a little-used reserve next season.

Rutherford played in one game across two seasons.

Among Notre Dame’s NFL draft possibilities, quarterback Ian Book, right tackle Robert Hainsey and defensive end Ade Ogundeji have confirmed what was always known: They will forgo the NCAA’s eligibility mulligan and try their hands at the next level.

They will be joined by receiver Javon McKinley and tight end Brock Wright, neither a surprising move. McKinley’s career year — 42 catches for 717 yards and three touchdowns — may serve as a springboard onto some franchises’ draft boards, and given he has no idea who would be passing him the ball at Notre Dame in 2021, it is logical to take this chance and hope for the best.

Wright’s Irish career concluded with three catches for 21 yards this season. In 48 career games, he made seven catches for 78 yards with one touchdown. Yet, the draft may see something in his 6-foot-4 ½ frame and blocking ability, the same attributes that got Wright action in those 48 career games.

Neither of their decisions should be considered surprising, McKinley’s a result of a career year and Wright’s an acknowledgment that Notre Dame’s tight ends are likely to be only better in 2021.

Senior left guard Aaron Banks’ decision to head to the NFL draft is also not a surprise. The first-team All-American faced two options: Either return to the Irish and try to improve on a career year, perhaps with a move to left tackle, or head to the NFL after that career year and not risk injury.

Taking the latter sets up Banks to be a possible day-two draft pick and begins his earning clock a year earlier. Impossible to fault that.

When looking back at November projections of how seniors and fifth-years would handle the NCAA eligibility mulligan, these decisions largely fit with the expectations. Armstrong was labeled “perhaps a transfer,” but then again so was Wright. Banks and Hainsey were noted as “offensive line possibilities,” but as the line’s play ascended this season, each became less and less likely.

McKinley landed under “reason to go,” and Book and Ogundeji were “good as gone.”

A “50/50” thought, senior defensive tackle Kurt Hinish has reportedly chosen to return to Notre Dame in 2021. Irish Illustrated first reported this decision, but given how these things can change (think back to Jonathan Bonner retiring from football before then returning in 2018), let’s wait for Hinish to make his choice official before delving too far into how important it will be for Notre Dame to return both defensive tackles.

Hinish will/would be taking advantage of the NCAA’s efforts to provide options during the pandemic. Rather than force anyone to play to not lose a year of eligibility, it granted a universal exception. Thus, Hinish can play a fifth full season.

The other effect of the NCAA’s efforts is this space will not track the scholarship count this offseason, as the various qualifiers to the NCAA’s exception make it so Notre Dame can exceed the usual maximum of 85 scholarship players, and the public Will Likely not know exactly to what extent.