Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 3 Houston Griffith, fifth-year safety

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 USC at Notre Dame
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Listed measurements: 6-foot ¼, 202 pounds.
2022-23 year, eligibility: A fifth-year veteran, Griffith will have no eligibility remaining after this season, barring injury. As is, Griffith could return to Notre Dame in 2022 because of only the universal pandemic eligibility waiver.
Depth Chart: Griffith could end up the safety starting alongside Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph. Griffith, classmate DJ Brown and junior Ramon Henderson will enter preseason practices on Friday competing for that gig, though all should certainly see plenty of playing time this season regardless of that pecking order.
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.

CAREER TO DATE
Something to keep in mind as the Irish enjoy a bounty of somewhat proven safeties but few such cornerbacks is that Griffith played nickel back earlier in his career and was also tried at cornerback. His work at nickel back in 2018 was out of a bit of desperation after Shaun Crawford was lost for the season, but Griffith played well, considering he was only a freshman.

Griffith worked largely as Crawford’s backup in 2019 before moving to safety in 2020, yet the two names remained intertwined. Griffith and Brown did not wow the coaching staff in preseason practices, so Crawford was moved to safety, as well. In spot duty, Griffith was targeted eight times by opposing quarterbacks in 2020, giving up seven catches for 83 yards.

He improved on that worrisome rate in 2021, to a drastic enough extent it was not as easily tracked. With star Kyle Hamilton sidelined for half the season, Griffith remained the constant of Notre Dame’s back line. Brown initially stepped in for Hamilton but was then replaced by Henderson.

2018: 11 games, 1 start; 14 tackles with two passes broken up.
2019: 13 games; 5 tackles with one pass broken up.
2020: 12 games, 2 starts; 14 tackles with one for loss.
2021: 13 games, 12 starts; 38 tackles.

At 49 career games, Griffith would be a shoo-in to tie or break Kurt Hinish’s record of Irish appearances. Hinish set the mark at 61 last season, so a complete season with a bowl game would put Griffith atop the record books … if not for fifth-year linebacker Bo Bauer.

When Griffith did not play against Navy as a freshman or in the College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson later that season, he fell two games behind Bauer in this unexpected record chase. Bauer has played in every game of the last four years, giving him the inside track to a mark that should never be broken.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
If anything, it is surprising more college athletes have not found chances to show off their shoe fashion via NIL rights.

QUOTES
Griffith entered the transfer portal following the 2020 season, talked into returning to South Bend by Marcus Freeman once he was named the Irish defensive coordinator. Given that hesitation, it was not a certainty Griffith would return for a fifth season.

“I feel like it’s a lot of talent on this team, and I want to be a part of that team, to go out here and leave Notre Dame and leave my legacy, be a part of a team that wins a national championship,” Griffith said in January when asked what led to that choice.

He then put some blunt onus on himself to make that championship happen.

“Honestly, I need to make more plays,” he said. “It’s something that I just want to work on, just playmaking ability, take it day-by-day. Work on my leadership ability.

“One purpose of me coming back, I want to be a captain of this Notre Dame football team.”

The Blue-Gold Game should never be given too much weight, given it is literally a practice, but Griffith was named a captain for the spring practice finale for the second year in a row.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“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 (Brian) 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.”

2022 OUTLOOK
Griffith saying he needs to make more plays should qualify as an understatement. In more than 1,000 career snaps, he has directly impacted 74 of them, between tackles and passes broken up. An athletic safety should be around the ball far more often.

For Notre Dame to enjoy anything near the kind of championship success Griffith seeks, he will need to be around the ball far more often.

The fact that Griffith started 12 games for the Irish last season, playing in all 13, and did not break up a single pass is not a reflection of quarterbacks throwing away from him out of respect. If anything, they would have thrown toward him for the first half of the year in order to avoid Hamilton.

There is no benchmark number of passes Griffith should have broken up or should get to this season, but not getting to any was inexcusable and would remain so.

That harsh reality is why Brown or Henderson is more likely to start alongside Joseph. Notre Dame has a fleet of aggressive linebackers, and the defensive line is the best position group on the team. It no longer needs safeties to buttress the run defense or to pressure the quarterback. It needs them to patrol the back line and break up passes.

Presume that is correct and Griffith is idle on the bench on the first few defensive snaps on Sept. 3 at Ohio State. With his nickel back and cornerback experience, he could quickly become the Irish dime back. Either him or turn to a freshman in front of 105,000 fans; as well as early enrollee Jaden Micken fared in the spring, those stakes are a good deal different.

The Buckeyes will force Notre Dame into dime packages frequently — in this context, “dime” means using more than five defensive backs. The best offense in the country will try to go over the top of Al Golden’s defense. If Ohio State does not find those big plays repeatedly, it is a good chance Griffith is involved somewhere, and he may quite possibly break up his first pass since 2020.

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

DOWN THE ROAD
This is it. Griffith would need to get injured in the first four games of the season for there to be any version of a 2023 collegiate thought.

His general athleticism should get Griffith an offseason look by the NFL, but if he does not make more plays in 2022, that look may be short.

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end

No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a junior defensive tackle who tore his ACL in March
No. 91 Josh Bryan, sophomore kicker
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, early-enrolled freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90 Alexander Ehrensberger, junior defensive end, a German project nearing completion
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, sophomore tight end
No. 87 Michael Mayer, junior tight end, likely All-American
No. 85 Holden Staes, incoming freshman tight end
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, junior tight end
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, sophomore receiver, former four-star recruit
No. 80 Cane Berrong, sophomore tight end coming off an ACL injury
No. 79 Tosh Baker, one of four young Irish offensive tackles
No. 78 Pat Coogan, sophomore center, recovering from a meniscus injury
No. 77 Ty Chan, incoming offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, sophomore starting left tackle
No. 75 Josh Lugg, sixth-year offensive lineman, likely starting right guard
No. 74 Billy Schrauth, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard coming off foot surgery
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, senior offensive tackle-turned-guard
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, sophomore offensive tackle, former Auburn pledge
No. 68 Michael Carmody, junior offensive line utility man
No. 65 Michael Vinson, long snapper, ‘Milk’
No. 65 Chris Smith, defensive tackle, Harvard transfer
No. 59 Aamil Wagner, consensus four-star incoming freshman offensive tackle
No. 58 Ashton Craig, incoming freshman center
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, fifth-year defensive tackle, coming off shoulder surgery
No. 56 Joey Tanona, early-enrolled offensive guard coming off a concussion
No. 56 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle with heavy hands, and that’s a good thing
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, fifth-year offensive lineman, three-year starting center, captain
No. 54 Jacob Lacey, senior defensive tackle, now lighter and a starter
No. 54 Blake Fisher, sophomore starting right tackle, ‘ginormous’
No. 52 Zeke Correll, senior center or perhaps left guard
No. 52 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker, Ironman
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, sophomore offensive guard
No. 48 Will Schweitzer, sophomore end-turned-linebacker
No. 47 Jason Oyne, sophomore defensive end-turned-tackle
No. 44 Junior Tuihalamaka, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, consensus four-star recruit
No. 44 Alex Peitsch, junior long snapper
No. 42 Nolan Ziegler, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, Irish legacy
No. 41 Donovan Hinish, incoming freshman defensive tackle, Kurt’s brother
No. 40 Joshua Burnham, early-enrolled freshman linebacker-turned-end
No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, senior Vyper end coming off an Achilles injury
No. 31 NaNa Osafo-Mensah, senior defensive end
No. 29 Matt Salerno, fifth-year receiver, punt returner, former walk-on
No. 28 TaRiq Bracy, fifth-year starting nickel back
No. 27 JD Bertrand, senior linebacker recovering from a plaguing wrist injury
No. 25 Philip Riley, sophomore cornerback
No. 25 Chris Tyree, junior running back, possible Irish bellcow
No. 24 Jack Kiser, senior linebacker, second-year starter
No. 23 Jayden Bellamy, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 22 Justin Walters, sophomore safety
No. 22 Logan Diggs, sophomore running back with a shoulder injury
No. 21 Jaden Mickey, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 20 Jadarian Price, early-enrolled freshman running back with a ruptured Achilles
No. 20 Benjamin Morrison, freshman cornerback
No. 18 Chance Tucker, sophomore cornerback
No. 18 Steve Angeli, freshman QB, Blue-Gold Game star
No. 17 Jaylen Sneed, early-enrolled linebacker, Rover of the future
No. 16 Brandon Joseph, Northwestern transfer, preseason All-American, starting safety
No. 16 Deion Colzie, sophomore receiver
No. 15 Tobias Merriweather, freshman receiver, forever a memorable recruitment
No. 15 Ryan Barnes, sophomore cornerback
No. 14 Bryce McFerson, freshman punter facing a Harvard challenge
No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit
No. 12 Tyler Buchner, sophomore starting QB
No. 12 Jordan Botelho, a defensive end-turned-linebacker
No. 11 Ron Powlus III, sophomore QB providing steadiness to a chaotic room
No. 11 Ramon Henderson, junior cornerback-turned-safety
No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback
No. 10 Prince Kollie, sophomore linebacker, high school Butkus Award winner
No. 9 Eli Raridon, incoming freshman tight end with a torn ACL
No. 9 Justin Ademilola, fifth-year defensive end, a backup in name only
No. 8 Marist Liufau, senior linebacker returning from a dislocated ankle
No. 7 Audric Estime, sophomore running back, No. 2 on the shortened depth chart
No. 7 Isaiah Foskey, defensive end on a record chase
No. 6 Clarence Lewis, three-year starting cornerback
No. 5 Joe Wilkins, receiver with a September-costing foot injury
No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter
No. 4 Xavier Watts, junior receiver-turned-safety
No. 4 Lorenzo Styles, sophomore receiver poised for a breakout
No. 3 Avery Davis, sixth-year receiver returning from an ACL injury