Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 3 Houston Griffith, senior safety needing to play with a ‘screwdriver’ more often

Houston Griffith 2021
Notre Dame Athletics

Listed measurements: 5-foot-11 ¾, 204 pounds.
2021-22 year, eligibility: A senior, Griffith has two seasons of eligibility remaining solely thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver.
Depth Chart: Griffith and classmate DJ Brown competed this spring to start alongside star junior Kyle Hamilton. While that duel will nominally continue into the preseason beginning this weekend, Griffith appeared to secure top-line status by the end of April.
Recruiting: The Under Armour All-American originally committed to Florida State but reconsidered his choice as the Seminoles stumbled to 7-6 while the Irish went 9-3 in the 2017 regular season. Rivals.com rated Griffith the No. 4 safety and No. 43 overall player in the class of 2018.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Of the many ways to profit off name, image and likeness rights, some athletes work directly through their social media platforms. Others wait for sponsorship opportunities to come to them.

There is a burgeoning industry in the NIL market, though, where a third party connects athletes to opportunities, be it a widespread marketplace or a more specific third party, akin to an agency. Griffith has apparently secured the latter.

CAREER TO DATE
He’s been a nickel back. He’s been tried at cornerback. He was given the opportunity to start at safety, only for a cornerback to beat him out. Griffith has been all over Notre Dame’s defensive backfield, never quite able to find someplace to stay.

He began his career as a nickel back on a defense desperate for one after Shaun Crawford suffered a season-ending injury, but Griffith was routinely beaten in 2018, perhaps understandable given his freshman status.

With Crawford healthy in 2019, Griffith’s role diminished. By 2020, it looked like he may have a starting spot at safety, but both Griffith and Brown underwhelmed so thoroughly in preseason practices, that the Irish coaching staff moved Crawford to safety from cornerback.

Yet Griffith logged 215 snaps in 2020, about 20 of them coming when Hamilton was ejected in the first half at North Carolina, part of a collective effort that stopped the Tar Heels in their tracks even without the All-American in the second half.

Opposing quarterbacks threw toward Griffith eight times in 2020, on which he gave up seven catches for 83 yards, hardly a sustainable rate if he intends to play consistently in 2021.

2018: 11 games; 14 tackles with two passes defended.
2019: 13 games; 5 tackles with one pass defended.
2020: 12 games; 14 tackles with one for loss.

QUOTES
Despite those years of struggles — and there is no more charitable word that remains accurate; Griffith simply has not produced when given chances to — there is a storyline of redemption ripe for Griffith to fulfill in 2021. He entered the transfer portal shortly after the Irish fell to Alabama on New Year’s Day, but new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman talked him into returning to South Bend.

Griffith has avoided going into detail about his decision to look elsewhere and eventual return, but that timeline is still known.

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

That competition is one thing, something to be anticipated, but Griffith taking on a leadership role may have been more unexpected. He did so, to the extent that Kelly named the senior safety a captain in the Blue-Gold Game.

“Having a leadership role now is something I enjoy,” Griffith said. “It’s something that’s been able to challenge me and, like I said before, I’m just trying to continue to put confidence in other guys in front of me and just bring the best out of myself and bring the best out of the other 10 guys out there on the field so that we can just be the best defense each and every play and we can be the best defense in the country.”

With Griffith supposedly emerging, Notre Dame may have the answer it needs in 2021 at safety, to complement Hamilton’s All-American campaign.

“Really pleased with the depth that’s developing at the safety position, and obviously, that starts with Houston and really having a great spring,” Kelly said after the Blue-Gold Game. “He was outstanding in all areas. Off the field, on the field.”

2021 OUTLOOK
Griffith has never lacked physical talent. That was clear in high school, and he has been blessed by health such that his physical gifts have never been diminished. Instead, Griffith has been held back by indecisiveness and confusion. To put a more precise bow on it, both Griffith and Kelly cited his “football IQ” this spring.

Griffith doubled down on film study in the spring, something that should only increase this fall now that he already has his diploma. If that takes, then suddenly Griffith may be in position to make the most of yet another opportunity.

“Two things needed to happen for Houston, right?” Kelly said in mid-April. “Opportunity and then making the best of the opportunity. What is making the best, what does that equal? For me, I think a lot of that has just been the awareness of the situation that he’s in and using what I think is outstanding athletic ability and applying it to the particular situations. He’s doing that very well this year.

“At times he was using a hammer when he needed to use a screwdriver on particular plays.”

If Griffith uses a screwdriver throughout 2021, that may largely have an intangible effect, but one area in which it should show is in pass breakups. A safety needs to have more in a season than Griffith has in his career, all of three.

If Griffith can get his hands on half a dozen passes this year, that will show he is finally diagnosing plays quickly and appropriately.

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

DOWN THE ROAD
The pandemic waiver set up Griffith for an unlikely fifth year, and if he proves an adept safety this year, Freeman and the Irish will gladly welcome him back in 2022 for a second year as a starter.

Two solid seasons as a starting safety, particularly one with the undisputed physical gifts of Griffith, could then set him up to hear his name in the NFL draft in the spring of 2023.

Quite the reversal from the transfer portal earlier this year.

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
No. 12 DJ Brown, senior safety mired in a starting competition
No. 11 Ron Powlus III, early-enrolled freshman quarterback
No. 11 Ramon Henderson, sophomore cornerback with sprinter’s speed
No. 10 Drew Pyne, sophomore quarterback, likely No. 2
No. 10 Isaiah Pryor, graduate linebacker, 2020 Ohio State transfer
No. 7 Brendon Clark, junior quarterback with a knee worry
No. 7 Isaiah Foskey, star junior defensive end, Vyper
No. 5 Cam Hart, junior cornerback, expected boundary starter
No. 4 Kevin Austin, always-hyped, rarely-seen senior receiver

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