Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive backs

Kyle Hamilton
ACC Media
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If it is possible to surround the surest thing in college football with nothing but questions, Notre Dame has done so in its secondary entering 2021. Maybe that is hyperbolic about rising junior safety Kyle Hamilton, but coming off a sophomore season that ended with multiple first-team All-American honors, it is hard to look at him as anything but an absolute certainty.

Surrounding Hamilton, the Irish will look to a transfer portal toe-dipper to possibly shore up the back end, to a twice-benched senior to become a shutdown corner and perhaps to a few freshmen to chip in on situational snaps.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
It was not a sign of depth chart health that the Irish needed to turn to the graduate transfer market for a starting cornerback in 2020, though it was a sign of how college football has changed that Nick McCloud was not only available but also of such quality. Notre Dame would not have enjoyed a 10-0 regular season without McCloud’s stability on the wide side of the field, making 33 tackles in 12 games with one interception and a team-high eight pass breakups. If not for Hamilton, McCloud would have been the best Irish defensive back.

And it was not a sign of depth chart health that Notre Dame moved Shaun Crawford to safety from cornerback in his sixth season. While it spoke well of McCloud’s and Tariq Bracy’s preseason work at cornerback, the real reason for the move was a lack of quality available at safety. Crawford filled in well, as expected, finishing with 57 tackles, an interception and five pass breakups, but if the Irish had felt comfortable with another option, he would have fared even better at his more natural position of nickel back.

Both McCloud’s and Crawford’s departures set Notre Dame back a bit, but that is both a reflection of their play and of the vacuums they filled last offseason.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Those compliments of McCloud and Crawford serving as criticisms of the current roster do not do enough justice for rising sophomore Clarence Lewis. He performed well enough in the offseason to move into the rotation quickly, finishing the year with 421 snaps as he split time with Bracy. (For comparison, McCloud took 624 snaps while not splitting time with anyone.) In his debut season, Lewis started six games and made 33 tackles, setting him up to be a three- or four-year starter in his Irish career and as the most-known piece of the secondary aside from Hamilton.

Bracy would have that latter designation if getting burned early at North Carolina did not serve as a reminder of past weakness. (Remember that barnburner of a first quarter? It all shifted when Bracy was no longer in one-on-one coverage and thus the Notre Dame defensive ends had enough time to harass Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell.) Bracy has not often fared well against speedy receivers, but the 2021 Irish schedule does not include an influx of them, so his contributions will still exist to some degree.

Bracy Will Likely enter spring practices with the best chance to start opposite Lewis, but junior Cam Hart (converted receiver), junior Ramon Henderson and a complete handful of underclassmen will have an opportunity to displace Lewis or establish themselves as the primary nickel back.

Replacing Crawford at safety should be a simpler task thanks to senior Houston Griffith returning from a brief dalliance with the transfer portal. New Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman made retaining Griffith a priority, and the former four-star recruit could be the piece to raise Notre Dame’s defense from good to great. Rather than spend too much time now discussing Griffith’s bumpy three years — gave up seven receptions on eight targets in 2020, for example — let’s defer to Griffith’s last chance to prove himself as perhaps the motivation needed all along. That and Freeman’s fresh eyes, maybe.

Because if not Griffith, the Irish will be grasping for straws just as they were last year, hoping senior D.J. Brown or junior Litchfield Ajavon makes an unexpected leap.

AND THEN, OF COURSE, KYLE HAMILTON
Not much needs to be said that is not already known. Hamilton will almost certainly be a consensus first-team preseason All-American, if not a unanimous selection. He didn’t give up any touchdowns in 2020, allowing only 138 yards on 31 targets (a 4.45 yards per target average). Quarterbacks knew to simply avoid him, lest they give up an interception, even though Hamilton had only one in 2020.

Hamilton will end 2021 as the best safety at Notre Dame in decades, and he will then fulfill what has been expected of him since he arrived two years ago, that he will hear his name in the first round of the 2022 NFL draft.

Before we get into spring practices, any questions? Let’s hear them: insidetheirish@gmail.com

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