It was on one of former Notre Dame All-American Aaron Taylor’s reconnaissance missions back to his alma mater to privately scrutinize offensive line play that he became pleasantly distracted.
First, out of the corner of his eye, then with his full attention, Taylor became enamored with a defensive player wearing jersey No. 3, way down the practice field from where the offensive linemen were grunting and grinding at a mid-April spring practice three years ago.
As practice ended, Taylor started looking around to see who could fill him in on his new infatuation.
A tap on the shoulder ensued.
“Excuse me, Mr. Taylor,” the player wearing No. 3 said. “My name is Houston Griffith. I’m a freshman here. I just wanted to come and meet you.”
On Friday, Houston Griffith reintroduced himself to Notre Dame football.
Eighteen days after a Jan. 4 venture into the transfer portal, Griffith becomes the first Notre Dame player since the portal concept was put into play by the NCAA 3 ½ years ago to emerge at the same school he planned to abandon.
The 6-foot, 204-pound senior-to-be safety starts in-person spring semester classes with his teammates Feb. 3, a later-than-usual start date because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bulk of spring practice is expected to take place in April this year, with a March start still possible. Dates are still fluid, as ND officials try to gauge whether and how much of an ebb to the pandemic might be possible in a couple of months, with vaccinations ramping up.
What is known is that at that point Griffith will have a new defensive coordinator coaching him in Marcus Freeman, whose vision for the defense with Griffith in it helped steer Griffith toward his portal U-turn. And he’ll have a new position coach, with momentum toward determining just who that might be expected to pick up next week.
The most significant part of the equation, though, is who Houston Griffith will be.
Minimally, the Chicago native who finished the final two seasons of his high school career at national prep power IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., is by far the best option on the Irish roster to pair with All-America free safety Kyle Hamilton and probably better than anything head coach Brian Kelly could have fished out of the grad transfer market.
With 2020 starting strong safety Shaun Crawford finally moving on after six seasons at ND and his first injury-free one, junior-to-be Hamilton and senior-to-be DJ Brown — an extra DB in a lot of ND’s third-down packages — were the only other returnees with more than 30 snaps last season.
Junior-to-be Litchfield Ajavon had zero and only a handful of special teams opportunities and classmate KJ Wallace is still adjusting from playing cornerback in 2019. The other two safeties are incoming freshmen — 6-3, 185-pound Khari Gee and 6-1, 175-pound Justin Walters, the latter an early enrollee.
Griffith logged 215 snaps in 2020 in mostly a backup role, though he did make two starts — Sept. 19 against South Florida when Hamilton was injured and against Oct. 10 versus Florida State when Crawford was needed to play cornerback.
It all translated to a modest 14 tackles, with one tackle for loss in 2020.
But what Griffith can contribute minimally doesn’t translate to who he aspires to be or square with so many flashes of promise and potential.
The best example during this season of the latter was in Notre Dame’s 31-17 quashing of North Carolina the day after Thanksgiving. After Hamilton was ejected for targeting late in the second quarter, Griffith and Brown filled in impressively.
And the nation’s No. 5 team in total offense at season’s end could only muster 78 yards and zero third-down conversions in the second half with Hamilton out of the game.
But there have been plenty of other instances, most of which happened in the offseason. In fact, Griffith has consistently been one of the top winter workout warriors, if not the absolute best, as identified by Kelly.
Griffith’s work ethic and attitude have been exemplary. His teammates respect him. He’s moved around to different positions — perhaps too much for his own good — to put his team’s needs first.
And then there was that spring when Taylor came visiting.
Griffith was one of seven early enrolled freshmen on display that day. Three of the other six are in the transfer portal as we speak — linebacker Jack Lamb, defense end Ovie Oghoufo and running back Jahmir Smith.
Other than the 2020 class, it’s the only early enrollee group that has yet to produce a consistent starter since ND started taking early enrollees in 2006.
And Griffith was supposed to be that kind of player — and then some. As the No. 43 player overall nationally, per Rivals.com, in the 2018 class, he was the highest-rated Irish newcomer in a group that included quarterback Phil Jurkovec, wide receiver Kevin Austin, the Ademilola twins, tight end Tommy Tremble and center Jarrett Patterson.
The Irish had to poach him from Florida State’s recruiting class, adding to the anticipation of how fast and how soon he’d make an impact.
On the day Taylor visited to get a look at the first post-Harry Hiestand-coached offensive line, Griffith had already made his first position switch — from cornerback to a safety corps that needed an infusion of talent.
Taylor wasn’t the only one who came away impressed that day.
Kelly, who was also instrumental in the re-recruitment of Griffith this month, couldn’t contain his giddiness after seeing his prize recruit excel at safety, the position he was projected to play in college in the first place.
“He knows what he’s doing,” a beaming Kelly said. “You never know until they get here, and then you put the pads on them … he’s got instincts, knows the game. He’s going to be a real good player here.
“How that ends up, whether he’s a starter or a backup, he will play football for Notre Dame this fall, no doubt.”
There’s a popular quote for the ages, without an owner, that states, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”
Because of the NCAA’s blanket COVID exemption, Griffith technically has two years left at ND to find out if that’s true. He’s on track to get his degree in May.
When he left Chicago Mount Carmel High School as a gifted running back prospect with a chance to start his junior season as a quarterback in a veer-option system, Houston Griffith gave voice to his dream of being a standout defensive back someday.
He’s never let go of that dream, nor the notion that someday would be right around the corner.