In 2016 and 2017, the Notre Dame safety position was arguably the biggest weakness on the defense, and this was especially true in 2016. The development of Jalen Elliott and the arrival of transfer Alohi Gilman changed that around completely, and the last two seasons the Irish have had one of the best safety tandems in the country.
Both Elliott and Gilman are headed to the NFL, and now Notre Dame must remake the safety depth chart. Clark Lea’s defense asks a lot of the safeties, so how effective the new look depth chart performs in 2020 will have a significant impact on just how good the Irish defense can be next season.
Gilman and Elliott combined for 340 tackles, 18 pass break ups and nine interceptions during their Notre Dame careers. That level of production will be hard to replace, but there’s enough talent on the roster for that to happen. In fact, on pure talent and potential alone, there’s an opportunity for Notre Dame to be better at safety in 2020, at least from a production standpoint.
When looking at what Elliott and Gilman brought to the game, the discussion goes well beyond production. That duo had tremendous chemistry, and their leadership on defense was invaluable.
Expecting the newcomers into the lineup to provide the same level of leadership is asking way too much, but how quickly the group can develop a strong chemistry is important.
WHAT WILL HAMILTON DO FOR AN ENCORE
Find any freshman All-American list from 2019 and you’ll see Kyle Hamilton on that list. I graded Hamilton as a five-star recruit coming out of Atlanta (Ga.) Marist, but I thought he would need some time before we saw that elite talent truly shine. Apparently, even as a five-star I undersold how good Hamilton would be.
The long and rangy safety made his presence felt immediately, breaking up two passes in the season opener against Louisville, and a week later his first career interception ended with Hamilton diving into the end zone for a touchdown.
What was most impressive about Hamilton’s season was how quickly he improved parts of his game. He never seemed to make the same mistake twice. Early in fall camp he struggled in man coverage, but by the end of fall camp he had greatly improved his ability to cover. Early in the season his angles coming down on run fits weren’t ideal, but the more he played the better they became.
Being a quick study allowed Hamilton to quickly become a key part of the Irish defense as both a nickel player and a rotation safety.
Despite being on the lean side, Hamilton was more than willing to step up and deliver hard contact. With nine months in the weight room now under his belt, I expect we’ll see him show even more force when he arrives at the ball this spring.
Hamilton’s range is his best attribute. It comes from a combination of length, athleticism and instincts. His feel for the position is tremendous, and his ability to make plays on the football is as good as you’ll see from any college safety. Just look at his production and compare it to what were considered the four best safeties in the country last year.
Hamilton had 10 passes defensed. LSU safety Grant Delpit had nine and Alabama safety Xavier McKinney, Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and Georgia safety JR Reed each had eight passes defensed.
Hamilton had 250 coverage snaps last season, compared to 505 for Delpit, 478 for Reed, 435 for McKinney and 401 for Winfield.
If Hamilton can build on his freshman season he will have an outstanding spring, which will put him on a path to emerge as one of the nation’s top safeties by the fall.
STEP UP TIME FOR GRIFFITH
Rising junior Houston Griffith has had an interesting first two seasons at Notre Dame. The nation’s No. 70 overall player in the 2018 class, Griffith has bounced around from cornerback to safety to nickel to corner and then back again to safety. All that movement kept Griffith from ever getting comfortable at one position, and an early camp injury was followed by a move from cornerback to safety, ultimately burying Griffith on the depth chart.
Griffith is now a full-time safety, and the hope is finally setting into one position will allow him to put his Top 100 talent on display. When Griffith has looked the most comfortable, and most productive, has been at safety. He displays a strong mind for the game, with impressive pass coverage instincts and the ability to quickly decipher between run and pass.
The question now is can Griffith finally turn his potential into production. He has all the tools you want at safety. Griffith is long, he’s a smooth athlete, he’s instinctive and he can cover effectively from the safety position. He must become a better tackler, play sound football and finally show the on-field maturity needed to be a standout.
Griffith emerging will be the difference between Notre Dame being a solid group at safety with one great player (Hamilton), or the safety position once again being a strength of the defense.
WHAT WILL PRYOR BRING TO THE DEPTH CHART
Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor arrived this winter, and it came just in time. An 8-game starter for the Buckeyes in 2018, Pryor adds 47 career tackles, seven career break ups and an interception worth of experience to a depth chart that was going to be severely lacking in experience had he not arrived.
At 6-2 and 202 pounds, Pryor brings length and size to the position. At the very least Notre Dame will have a much bigger and longer group of safeties in 2020.
How Pryor fits into the depth chart is still a question, but the spring will give us a good first look at how he’ll transition Into this defense. At Ohio State he was more of an alley player, one that could come downhill and fill in the box. His coverage ability was slightly above average, but the Buckeyes asked him to do different things than he’ll do in the Irish defense.
Pryor has the size and power to be a strong tackler, but he must shore up his technique from what we saw in 2018, when he was just a true sophomore. If that happens, at the very least Pryor will be a key part of the safety rotation. At best he will challenge Griffith for a starting role. Both Pryor and Griffith will need to bring their A game this spring as they battle each other for the spot opposite Hamilton.
Ideally, both prove themselves worthy of being regulars, which will allow Lea and safety coach Terry Joseph to once again use a rotation on the back end. The emergence of Hamilton as a rotation player in 2019 played a role in both Gilman and Elliott playing more than 200 fewer snaps in 2019 than they did in 2018.
Both Griffith and Pryor forcing themselves onto the field could also allow Lea and Joseph to move Hamilton around and make it harder for opponents to game plan for him.
DEPTH IS NEEDED
Rising junior DJ Brown had some quality moments last spring, but he’s also shown struggles as a coverage player. Now a veteran in the defense, and now a second-year safety, Brown must take positive steps forward this spring in order to push himself into a spot on special teams, and possibly even a spot in the safety rotation.
Rising sophomore Litchfield Ajavon lacks the length of his position mates, but he’s a smart defender that as a prep player showed a combination of quickness, instincts and quality cover skills. This spring will be our first chance to really see him get a lot of reps.
1. How much growth will Hamilton show in year two, and is he ready to become an every down difference maker?
2. Is Griffith ready to finally seize hold of a starting role? If so, how quickly can he turn his potential into production?
3. How will Pryor fit into the Irish defense?
4. Who on defense will take the leadership mantle that was lost with the departures of Elliott and Gilman?
5. How quickly can the new-look safety rotation develop the chemistry needed to play disciplined and productive football?