Houston Griffith’s return provides another possible answer to Notre Dame’s safety questions

Houston Griffith Clemson
ACC Media
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The transfer portal taketh, and the transfer portal giveth—rather—returneth Houston Griffith to Notre Dame. The rising senior safety has reportedly removed his name from the database fewer than three weeks after entering it, bolstering the Irish two-deep at a position of both question and potential in 2021.

Yahoo’s Pete Thamel first reported Griffith’s new intentions, crediting freshly-hired defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly for persuading Griffith to take a shot at the starting position alongside junior-to-be Kyle Hamilton.

Revisiting what this space said as Griffith entered the transfer portal to start 2021, the points of uncertainty still stand.

“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.

“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.”

While the all-out sales pitch to bring Griffith back into the fold will color the storylines this spring and into the preseason, Brown would still seem to have pole position in this race to start alongside an inevitable preseason All-American. He took 243 defensive snaps in 2020, compared to Griffith’s 215, including Brown taking 23 snaps in that North Carolina game in place of Hamilton. On the flipside, Griffith made 14 tackles in 2020, compared to Brown’s eight.

The statistical comparisons can go back-and-forth for longer than a January recap deserves. Griffith made more tackles in part because he gave up seven catches on eight targets, while Brown broke up two passes (Griffith: 0).

In other words, the competition to be Hamilton’s running buddy will be one to watch this spring, particularly with no one else of note involved. Rising sophomore cornerback Ramon Henderson may move to safety, rising junior Litchfield Ajavon has yet to take a defensive snap, classmate KJ Wallace has made even less of an impact, and incoming freshmen Gee and Justin Walters would need to quickly impress Freeman to be part of the conversation.

Perhaps that was the sales pitch to Griffith: Either he starts or he is the primary backup to both Brown and Hamilton.

Even that supplementary role would be a step forward for Griffith. A sampling of those notes:

— An array of concerns about him at cornerback leading into 2019.
— Noting former Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea publicly pointed out it was not productive for him to berate Griffith for getting beaten deep, indicating it happened enough to qualify as a practice trend.
— Included in that trend, distinct moments of Chase Claypool, Kevin Austin, Joe Wilkins, Isaiah Robertson and Chris Finke all beating Griffith.
— Repeated thoughts that Griffith’s struggles may be due to having been in the wrong position at cornerback. He should be a safety.
— Re: 2020’s truncated spring, “His showing in the one spring practice was all-around impressive, a lost opportunity to build on that.”

And that is only a sampling; the mere number of these notes makes it clear Griffith has been at or near the top of conversations regarding Notre Dame’s potential. Now another defensive coordinator will get a shot at turning that into reality.