Leftovers & Links: Hart & Houston answering Notre Dame’s two biggest defensive questions

Cam Hart
Notre Dame Athletics
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If Notre Dame leaves this spring with an idea of its starting secondary, new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman would have to be pleased. Finding a reliable cornerback to pair with sophomore Clarence Lewis — and if that ends up being senior Tariq Bracy, his reliability will remain doubted until proven on a game day — and a safety to join star junior Kyle Hamilton are the two biggest questions of his first offseason with the Irish.

That is somewhat a testament to the rest of the defense: Junior Isaiah Foskey and senior Justin Ademilola are the clear-cut starters at end with the possibility of fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa splitting meaningful snaps with Ademilola rather than working at defensive tackle. Freeman has a myriad of options at Rover, and it is an understandable given none of them will rise to Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s level.

But the secondary, those two questions persist.

Enter junior Cam Hart and senior Houston Griffith.

While Griffith’s story will be told often if his promising spring does indeed yield fall results, Hart (pictured at top) may be the rising defensive back who offers the most impact, both because of the positional need and as an indication of the praise heaped upon him. When former Notre Dame defensive back Nick McCloud was asked to name a cornerback who impressed him last year, he did not hesitate to praise Hart, a converted receiver.

“Just a guy for me, that’s on my radar, is Cam Hart,” McCloud said before the Irish Pro Day last month. “With him being underneath my wing for the whole season last year, excited to see what he’s going to be able to do.”

Notre Dame lists Hart at 6-foot-2 ½. For comparison’s sake, that is two inches taller than McCloud, who was universally recognized for his physical play along the boundary last season after transferring from North Carolina State. Hart’s length alone makes him an intriguing possibility in sideline coverage. He may have seen more playing time under McCloud’s wing if not for a shoulder injury that hampered him last year, already repaired this winter.

“He’s really coming into his own,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “He’s elite in terms of his length, he’s got a really strong skill set, and to play the corner with that kind of size and athletic ability, he can be a really, really good football player.

“He’s still learning, there are still parts of his game that he’s got to clean up, but as I sit here today and six practices in, he’s making really good progress at that position.”

Hart’s flip from receiver came partly due to a Notre Dame influx at the position, arriving a year after the heralded-as-recruits, now-seniors grouping of Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys and Joe Wilkins. But it also came partly because the Irish had struggled to recruit cornerbacks, the same reason McCloud was pursued as a graduate transfer.

Notre Dame has not had that problem at safety, Griffith a four-star recruit the cycle before Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon arrived as four-stars. But the development at safety lagged so much that the Irish sacrificed cornerback depth by moving Shaun Crawford to the backline in 2020. The development was such that Griffith’s frustration had him at the doorstep of leaving Notre Dame.

Instead, he returned from the transfer portal for a chance to break through under Freeman.

“I’ve never been afraid of competition,” Griffith said. “Having that conversation with coach Freeman and coach Kelly, just knowing that I got a home and it’s something they really want, me to come here and just come and compete, I couldn’t turn that down.”

Griffith spent his first three years bouncing between cornerback, nickel back and safety, something that may now have the benefit of him being “able to learn all three defensive back positions,” but at the moment may have overloaded his ability to read and react. Kelly said Griffith’s football IQ is showing itself this spring, using the analogy of Griffith now working more like a screwdriver than the hammer he has been in the past.

“It just is coming easier to him,” Kelly said. “Making plays on the ball. We’ve always seen the physical tools that he’s had. I just think he’s a lot more confident. … This football awareness piece is really starting to show itself as to why he can continue to excel and ascend at the position.”

Griffith’s focus is clearly on what is ahead of him, going so far as to grant the premise of a question about why he entered the portal in the first place but insisting his “main focus is just being present where my feet are” and not going into it any further. Griffith’s ~10 minutes of Zoom media availability on Saturday were not quite straight out of the Crash Davis School for Generic Interviews, but the minor league home run king would have appreciated the effort. (Note: This is not a gripe, Griffith answered the questions asked, and avoiding most of the transfer portal conversation while it is still so fresh makes some sense.)

But Freeman isn’t looking for a star interviewee. He’s looking for a pair of defensive backs to complement two established starters. The first half of spring practices may have already granted Freeman that want.

ON PEACOCK
Consider this your weekly reminder that Notre Dame’s spring finale, the Blue-Gold Game, will be broadcast exclusively on Peacock on May 1 at 12:30 ET. The streaming branch of NBC, Peacock should be available on every television with streaming capabilities, a qualifier that may be unnecessary if even my father’s workroom television now connects to Roku. Does anyone still have an antenna-only TV? I would be impressed more than anything.

Given the WWE’s joining Peacock, one can only imagine the possible synergy involving Sheamus and Notre Dame given the WWE Superstar has already appeared at an Irish pep rally and lifted with the team in years past. No insider information here, but the cross-promotion elevating of the platform almost seems too good for NBC to turn down, right?

‘THE BEST PLAYER ON THE FIELD’
One player that should not get much work in the spring game is senior Drew White. His springs have long been marked by notable injury, but in this instance, it is more pertinent to point out a two-year starter with a third-year in the role already assured does not need to prove much in this delayed spring. Better that Freeman works some of his understudies.

All the same, last year’s defensive star has some high expectations for White, so high they need to be noted here at some point.

“I expect Drew White to be the best player on the field, even with Kyle Hamilton on the field,” Owusu-Koramoah said two weeks ago. “Drew White is an amazing guy, he’s a true leader, true vocalist in terms of his play on the field. You can always count on him. … That’s always somebody that you want right in the middle of your defense, you want the best player that’s kind of vocal and will lead by example. That’s exactly what Drew White will bring this year. You guys should be looking for a big year out of him.”

INSIDE THE IRISH:
NFL-bound offensive linemen praise Notre Dame’s remaining veterans
Coan’s transfer an example of college football’s growth, to his and Notre Dame’s benefit
Drew Pyne studied to turn his second first spring practices into a real QB competition
Notre Dame focusing on early enrollees in this late spring
A three-star in recruiting only, DE prospect Darren Agu commits to Notre Dame

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