Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 12 DJ Brown, senior safety mired in a starting competition

DJ Brown 2021
Notre Dame Athletics
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Listed measurements: 6-foot ⅜, 194 pounds.
2021-22 year, eligibility: A senior, Brown still has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Depth Chart: Brown and classmate Houston Griffith spent the spring competing to start alongside star junior safety Kyle Hamilton, a task that may end up split between them.
Recruiting: Indecision prolonged Brown’s cycle and led to an eventual flip. The consensus three-star prospect had long been committed to Virginia, but he did not put figurative pen to technological paper during the early signing period. That led to the Under Armour All-American cornerback reopening his recruitment and eventually picking the Irish over Cal and Northwestern while holding offers from Clemson, Ohio State and South Carolina.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Sometimes a caption intended to indicate competitive hunger and want-to instead best sums up why name, image and likeness rights were so vital and overdue.

CAREER TO DATE
Brown arrived at Notre Dame as a cornerback, but played only one game there, late in the blowout of Wake Forest in 2018. He switched to safety that offseason to provide the Irish better depth but played primarily on special teams in 2019.

Then came a rotational role in 2020. Brown could have established himself as a starter last year, Hamilton’s complement, but his and Griffith’s preseason work was uninspiring enough to prompt the Notre Dame coaching staff to move Shaun Crawford to safety from cornerback. Griffith and Brown each still saw playing time, but far from a full share. (Each had north of 200 defensive snaps, with 600+ broadly considered a starter’s workload.)

Their biggest moment came at North Carolina when Hamilton was ejected in the first half for targeting. Both played well, Brown arguably better. Of Brown’s 243 defensive snaps in 2020, 23 of them came just against the Tar Heels, almost all of them in the second half.

2018: 1 game.
2019: 9 games; 7 tackles.
2020: 12 games; 8 tackles, two passes broken up.

QUOTES
While Griffith received extensive praise this spring, Brown was typically viewed as more a piece of the puzzle, albeit a puzzle needing at least a few pieces.

“What I think I like about DJ is he’s playing within himself,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in late April. “He’s playing to his strengths. With Kyle coming back, to have those three guys in a solid position and now working toward that fourth, that’s a pretty good feeling after the spring.”

A few days later, Kelly added “Brown, who’s played a lot of football for us, had a really good spring,” indicating the bigger question was who would be Notre Dame’s fourth safety, the backup to Hamilton.

2021 OUTLOOK
Given the spring praises and that Griffith was named a Blue-Gold Game captain, it seems most likely he ends up on the top of the depth chart by Labor Day Eve, but Brown will see plenty of work.

Not only do the Irish wonder about Hamilton’s running buddy and his backup, but they also are unsure of cornerback depth. On what should be another quality defense, the secondary has plenty of questions.

With that framing, Brown may as well be a known commodity. Particularly on that afternoon against Sam Howell and an electric North Carolina offense, Brown held up.

While Notre Dame looks for a nickel back, a stable of trusted safeties means Hamilton can cameo closer to the line of scrimmage on occasion. Moving him around will only bother opposing quarterbacks, and if Brown’s biggest contribution is creating that opportunity, it is not a luxury to be overlooked.

Statistically, Brown will play more, at least 300 snaps, and he will make more than eight tackles, but the versatility he offers new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman may be the most valuable aspect of Brown’s 2021.

DOWN THE ROAD
Hamilton will head to the NFL after this season, creating an opportunity for both Brown and Griffith. Even if they have trained to run along with Hamilton all these years, starting together should be possible on the back end.

Proven by Kelly’s long want for a fourth safety, there is no younger player yet breathing down Brown’s neck. He should start in 2022 and then be considered in 2023.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
Let’s try this again
No. 99 Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle the size of a Volkswagen
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 91 Joshua Bryan, incoming freshman kicker
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, early-enrolled freshman tight end, a former high school quarterback
No. 87 Michael Mayer, star sophomore tight end and lead offensive weapon
No. 85 George Takacs, senior tight end, ‘152 years old’
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, sophomore tight end
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, freshman receiver, four-star prospect out of Georgia
No. 82 Xavier Watts, sophomore receiver
No. 81 Jay Brunelle, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 80 Cane Berrong, early-enrolled freshman tight end
No. 79 Tosh Baker, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 78 Pat Coogan, incoming freshman center
No. 77 Quinn Carroll, junior offensive lineman
No. 76 Joe Alt, incoming and towering freshman offensive lineman
No. 75 Josh Lugg, fifth-year right tackle, finally a starter
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, junior offensive tackle, possible backup center
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, early-enrolled offensive tackle, former Auburn commit
No. 70 Hunter Spears, junior offensive guard, former defensive tackle
No. 68 Michael Carmody, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 62 Marshall guard Cain Madden transfers to Notre Dame, likely 2021 starter
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, senior defensive tackle
No. 56 John Dirksen, senior reserve offensive lineman
No. 56 Howard Cross, junior defensive tackle
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, the best Irish offensive lineman
No. 55 Kahanu Kia, freshman linebacker, Hawaiian, LDS member
No. 54 Jacob Lacey, junior defensive tackle
No. 54 Blake Fisher, early-enrolled freshman left tackle, starter?
No. 52 Zeke Correll, junior, starting center
No. 52 Bo Bauer, senior linebacker, #BeADog
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard
No. 48 Will Schweitzer, early-enrolled freshman defensive end
No. 47 Jason Onye, incoming and raw freshman defensive end
No. 44 Devin Aupiu, early-enrolled freshman defensive end
No. 44 Alex Peitsch and No. 65 Michael Vinson, Irish long snappers, both needed
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, fifth-year defensive tackle, eventual record-holder in games played
No. 40 Drew White, fifth-year linebacker, three-year starter
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, fifth-year kicker, using the pandemic exception
No. 35 Marist Liufau, junior Hawaiian linebacker
No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, junior defensive end
No. 33 Shayne Simon, senior linebacker
No. 32 Prince Kollie, freshman linebacker, Butkus Award winner
No. 29 Matt Salerno, senior punt returner, walk-on
No. 29 Khari Gee, freshman safety, former LSU commit
No. 28 TaRiq Bracy, senior cornerback, possible nickel back
No. 27 JD Bertrand, junior linebacker
No. 26 Clarence Lewis, sophomore cornerback, second-year starter
No. 25 Philip Riley, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 25 Chris Tyree, speedy sophomore running back
No. 24 Jack Kiser, junior linebacker, onetime pandemic hero
No. 24 Audric Estime, freshman running back, former Michigan State commit, four-star
No. 23 Litchfield Ajavon, junior safety
No. 23 Kyren Williams, junior running back
No. 22 Logan Diggs, incoming freshman running back
No. 21 Lorenzo Styles, early-enrolled freshman receiver
No. 21 Caleb Offord, sophomore cornerback
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, senior running back, coming off an offseason with a smirch
No. 20 Justin Walters, early-enrolled freshman safety and likely early special teams contributor
No. 20 JoJo Johnson, freshman cornerback, former Cincinnati commit
No. 19 Jay Bramblett, junior punter
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, senior defensive end
No. 18 Joe Wilkins Jr., senior receiver, team favorite
No. 18 Nana Osafo-Mensah, junior defensive end, coming back from a knee injury
No. 18 Chance Tucker, freshman cornerback
No. 17 Jack Coan, graduate quarterback, Wisconsin transfer
No. 17 Jordan Botelho, sophomore defensive end, full-speed at all times
No. 16 Deion Colzie, incoming freshman receiver with both speed and leaping height
No. 16 KJ Wallace, junior safety, possible starting nickel back
No. 15 Ryan Barnes, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 14 Kyle Hamilton, junior safety, preseason All-American, top 2022 draft prospect
No. 13 Paul Moala, senior linebacker coming off an Achilles injury
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, senior receiver
No. 12 Tyler Buchner, early-enrolled freshman quarterback, former four-star recruit