Playing without Kyle Hamilton in 2021 left Notre Dame’s safeties ready for it in 2022

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame
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Notre Dame undoubtedly wishes it did not have so much experience replacing an All-American and likely top-10 draft pick. Players like Kyle Hamilton don’t come off the field unless they absolutely have to. Unfortunately for the Irish — though it never cost them in the regular season — Hamilton had to for half the 2021 season.

The forward-looking silver-lining to his knee injury in the first quarter of Notre Dame’s seventh game this year is that suddenly the Irish have an experienced safeties room for 2022. The returns of fifth-years Houston Griffith and DJ Brown (pictured at top) guaranteed that, and the arrival of Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph only furthered it.

No singular stat can underscore the experience at safety like rush attempts can at running back or returning starts do along the offensive line, but Notre Dame will enter this spring with four safeties who had a hand in at least one turnover in 2021 and a fifth that quickly found a comfort level at the position after starting the 2021 season at receiver in Xavier Watts.

“[Safeties coach Chris O’Leary] always talks about we need unit strength,” Griffith said last week. “… It’s a bunch of guys that have been able to play on Saturdays. They get jitters — we get our jitters out after the first play. The guys, we all have experience. … We feel like we have a room with a lot of depth.”

Particularly compared to recent years, the Irish have notable depth at safety, enough so to put a pair of 2021 starters on the second-string in spring practices. Brown may have started only one game, before Henderson moved to safety from cornerback and became Griffith’s primary back-end partner, but the two can accurately be described as “2021 starters,” and with Joseph’s arrival, it seems likely they will be the backups to open practice later this spring.

This is no longer the roster that moved Shaun Crawford from cornerback more out of desperation than out of deference to Crawford’s fit in 2020 or the one that would have started Alohi Gilman the moment he arrived from Navy in 2017 if the NCAA had granted a waiver.

Not that Brown is bothered by the addition of Joseph, a 2020 All-American.

“Bringing in Brandon Joseph just adds to the fire,” Brown said. “For me, we’re the best safety group in the country.”

Brown may not have known with absolute certainty Griffith would also return for a fifth season, but it hardly surprised him. Teammates spend enough time around each other, Brown had a vague sense of the many coming returns on defense, from junior end Isaiah Foskey to the Ademilola twins along the defensive line to linebacker Bo Bauer to Griffith.

“During the season, you kind of get a feel for who is coming back, who is planning on leaving or whatever,” Brown said. “Probably by the end of the year, I didn’t know exactly who was coming back, but I kind of had a feel. I feel like we’re coming back with a lot of confidence, like everybody has played a lot of downs. Even the young guys have played a lot of football.”

That is most notable at safety, even while losing Hamilton. With him out for the final six — basically seven — games this year, Notre Dame got used to life without the All-American long before he declared early for the NFL draft. While most teams replacing juniors headed to the NFL have concerns about that hole in the roster, the Irish can essentially just keep moving forward as they have been since October.

First Brown stepped in for Hamilton, both against USC and against North Carolina, just as he did in 2020 when Hamilton was ejected for targeting in the first half at Chapel Hill. Brown made a total of 12 tackles in those two games and intercepted a pass against the Tar Heels.

Against Navy, Notre Dame started more linebackers than usual, including Watts, meaning only Griffith saw notable playing time among the safeties, understandable against the triple-option at any time but especially against the Midshipmen’s approach this year which featured even less passing than usual.

Then-defensive coordinator, now-head coach Marcus Freeman wanted to find some more length on the back-end, moving Henderson to start alongside Griffith. The two worked in a rotation with Brown, and when Henderson picked off a pass in his first start at Virginia, he gave the credit to Brown for correcting his presnap alignment.

The Irish had safeties to fill in for Hamilton, if not replace him, and now they have plenty of experience as a result.

But they couldn’t turn down the possibility of adding an All-American to replace the All-American. Enter Joseph.

“Joining an elite defense like this, having a piece like me, they’re returning eight starters and losing a guy like Kyle,” Joseph said. “So I figure a guy like me stepping in and filling in the piece of the puzzle is exactly what we need to take this place to the next level.”

Notre Dame is already a perennial Playoff contender, so there is only one level left to reach. Back-end experience and depth will certainly help that cause.

“Watching a national championship this past year, I was watching with Brandon Joseph, and we were just talking about, watching that game, visualizing us being in that spot a year from now,” Griffith said.

2021 STATS
Griffith: 13 games, 12 starts, 38 tackles, one fumble recovery.
Brown: 12 games, 1 start, 42 tackles, three interceptions, one pass breakup.
Henderson: 13 games, 4 starts, 14 tackles, one interception, one fumble recovery.
Watts: 11 games, 15 tackles.
Joseph at Northwestern: 12 games, 12 starts, 79 tackles, three interceptions, four pass breakups, one fumble recovery.