Two and a half years ago, Notre Dame appeared to be stocked at safety, primed for success at the backend of the defense for years to come.
From a prospect rankings perspective, it was the position Notre Dame had recruited the best in the 2018 and 2019 classes combined.
In total, the Irish signed four safeties, all Rivals150 players:
• Houston Griffith, class of 2018 — No. 43 overall player and No. 4 safety
• Kyle Hamilton, class of 2019 — No. 75 overall player and No. 7 safety
• Litchfield Ajavon, class of 2019 — No. 106 overall player and No. 9 safety
• Derrick Allen, class of 2018 — No. 135 overall player and No. 11 safety
Fast forward and Hamilton is an athletic stud and All-American, but also the only safety among the aforementioned prospects considered a recruiting hit thus far.
Allen transferred to Georgia Tech after one season, Griffith’s growth was stunted by multiple position changes before finally sticking at safety and Ajavon is a mystery who may never see significant playing time.
DJ Brown, a three-star cornerback prospect from the 2018 recruiting class, quickly moved to safety but lacks the ceiling of the other players.
Notre Dame then failed to sign a single player at the position in the 2020 recruiting cycle.
Thus with the other starting safety job alongside Hamilton wide open last fall, Notre Dame had to move sixth-year defensive back Shaun Crawford to the backend of the defesne. Soon, the 5-foot-9 slot corner with a medical history of multiple ACL surgeries and a once ruptured Achilles tendon supplanted his younger, highly recruited teammates despite his physical limitations.
With Crawford moving onto the next chapter of his career after the 2020 season, his starting spot was perhaps the biggest concern on the defense heading into spring practice, especially with Hamilton out after undergoing a minor ankle procedure.
The logical choices to replace Crawford were Brown and Griffith. Both played in certain packages last season, but at the same time, neither graded out well.
“As it relates to DJ and Houston, we came into the spring, and I know in my mind, in particular, not knowing [what we were going to get],” said head coach Brian Kelly. “They hadn’t played a lot of football and we had some questions.”
Yet, 14 spring practices in, the Notre Dame coaching staff feels surprisingly good about what they have in Griffith and Brown.
Because of their emergence, could safety actually be a strength this fall?
“I don’t have any questions about either one of these guys and their ability to do the job that we’re asking them to do,” Kelly said.
The biggest revelation appears to be Griffith.
In 2020, he played 215 snaps and struggled in coverage. Opposing quarterbacks registered a 149.5 NFL passer rating when throwing his way, the worst mark among Notre Dame defenders.
The 6-0, 204-pound rising senior then entered the NCAA Transfer Portal this January before new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman recruited him back into the program a few weeks later.
Upon his return, Griffith has attacked the offseason with a new sense of urgency, while also being given ample opportunity to thrive.
He enjoys the new defensive scheme and with Hamilton out, Griffith has played both the boundary and field safety positions, depending on the package, and done well at both according to Freeman.
But his work this offseason started by becoming a leader and setting an example in the weight room, which then carried over to the practice field.
“I’ve named captains for the Blue and the Gold, and the captains are Shayne Simon and Houston Griffith,” Kelly said. “It’s based upon the work that they’ve done over the past four weeks as “SWAT team” members. Both of them accumulated more points than anybody on either roster, so I wanted to award them accordingly.
“Houston has done it in the weight room. He’s done it in spring ball. He solidified his position.”
Unlike Simon, Griffith wasn’t named a SWAT Team captain, but his leadership and work ethic have impressed the coaches as if he were one.
“This scheme, having this leadership role now is something I enjoy. It’s been able to challenge me,” Griffith said. “I’m trying to put confidence in the other guys in front of me and bring the best out of myself and the other 10 guys on the field.”
This is quite the turnaround. Kelly and his staff weren’t even sure Griffith would still be on the team as recently as four months ago.
This spring, Griffith says he’s also become a film junkie and spends his free time watching tape and studying with new safeties coach Chris O’Leary.
But even assuming Griffith will be the starter, Brown will still play a significant role in certain defensive packages.
He played 243 snaps last fall, with 70 percent of them in pass coverage. But in the few instances when he was called upon to make a tackle, Brown often came up short. He finished the season with just eight stops and missed a team-high 33 percent of his tackle attempts.
It’s hard to see this ever becoming a hard-hitting safety a la former Irish captain Alohi Gilman, but this spring Brown seems to have a better sense of his limitations and is reacting accordingly.
“What I like about DJ is he’s playing within himself,” Kelly said. “He is playing to his strengths.”
Of course, the best player on the roster next season should be Hamilton. He’s a potential top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and perhaps the most talented defensive back in the country.
He won’t play in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, but Kelly says his star safety has recovered well and is running and stretching with the team on the field. Come fall, he’ll once again be a major weapon and asset roaming the backend of the defense or playing up and stuffing the run.
That’s a good sign as Notre Dame moves on from spring and begins to prepare for summer workouts and fall camp. Griffith and Brown were able to expand their roles and skillsets with Hamilton on the sidelines, but soon it will be necessary to get this trio working in unison.
“With Kyle coming back, to have those three guys in a solid position and now working towards that fourth,” Kelly said, “that’s a pretty good feeling after the spring.”
• Talk about it inside The Lou Somogyi Board.
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, Blue & Gold Illustrated.
• Watch our videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel.
• Sign up for Blue & Gold’s news alerts and daily newsletter.
• Subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts.
• Like us on Facebook.