Brian Kelly turned himself into a meme for the sake of expressing his feelings about safety Kyle Hamilton.
The head coach of No. 4 Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC) made sure reporters could see his face on Monday’s online press conference before using his pointer fingers to hold an exaggerated smile. Though the goofy gesture will long live on social media, it only served as the preamble to glowing words about the Irish sophomore.
That’s how giddy Kelly was about Hamilton returning to the defense last week against Florida State after being sidelined with an ankle injury in the season opener.
“He’s a difference maker,” Kelly said. “He covers ground like no safety that I’ve coached. He plays with physicality. He’s smart. He’s a terrific football player. His presence is felt out there. He closes.
“He’s an eraser too. You can put him on somebody and just by his size, he makes it difficult for teams to go into his area — whether it’s in the run game or pass game.
“I say that after spending a little bit more time specifically watching him and his impact over the last three games. He makes a huge impact in our defense.”
Hamilton’s ankle injury came with 11:29 remaining in the third quarter of the Duke game, meaning he’s only played a little more than six full quarters for the Irish season. Yet he’s still tied for the team-high in tackles alongside rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah with 15. No one has more than Hamilton’s 13 solo tackles.
The 6-foot-4, 219-pound Hamilton looks plenty comfortable in his first season as a full-time starter. The former five-star recruit worked in a rotation behind Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott at safety last season. His potential was obvious from the start when he intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown on his first defensive snap inside Notre Dame Stadium against New Mexico. He finished the season with 41 tackles, a team-high four interceptions and six pass breakups.
Transitioning to the role of marked man shouldn’t seem this easy. Gilman, now with the Los Angeles Chargers, remembered how opposing offenses treated him differently between his first year as a starter at Notre Dame in 2018 and last season.
“Now he has eyes on his back and people know who he is,” Gilman said last month before the season opener. “I’ve been telling him to stick to the game plan, but you have to be able to outsmart guys. It’s not going to be as easy to make plays as it was your first year, because they have your number.
“He’s only going to grow as a player. He’s going to do great.”
Hamilton and Gilman were roommates on game weekends last season. Whether on the road or in the team hotel in South Bend the night before a game, the two were paired together. One a freshman with five-star expectations and unassuming personality, the other a former midshipmen who left the Naval Academy only when a path to the NFL seemed blocked.
Hamilton was dubbed a star before he even took the field at Notre Dame. Gilman, a relative unknown as a recruit out of Hawaii, needed a year at the Naval Academy Prep School before he even took the field at Navy.
But while they were paired together — the present and future of Notre Dame’s secondary — Hamilton wanted to soak up any knowledge he could from Gilman. The two still keep in touch.
“He taught me a lot of life lessons along with football stuff,” Hamilton said. “I just try to emulate the good traits that he has and apply them to myself. He’s had a big influence on me on the field and more importantly off the field.”
Hamilton doesn’t hide his quest for gaining knowledge. He brings a notebook with him from meetings to walk-throughs, because the learning never stops.
“I felt like it would be useful to bring a book out there and take notes with what I’m messing up in the walk-through, what I’m doing right in the walk-through, what my coaches are adjusting,” Hamilton said. “So I’d have that to refer to to set myself up for better play on Saturday and set my teammates up for better play.”
Hamilton has been surrounded by experience for his entire Notre Dame career with Gilman and Elliott last year and sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford playing alongside him at safety this season. In order to fit in, Hamilton needed to be knowledgeable.
“Alohi and Jalen knew what they were doing. Shaun knows what he’s doing. It kind of elevates my game,” Hamilton said. “I needed to be on the same level that they were at and where Shaun’s at right now. He holds me accountable. I hold him accountable.
“It’s not really like a father-son kind of relationship, I feel like we’re both working together. We both respect each other equally. We’re bouncing ideas off each other. We’re a good combination.”
The feeling is mutual from Crawford, who transitioned to safety this season after playing cornerback for the majority of his first five seasons with the Irish.
“Playing back there with Kyle is a great opportunity,” Crawford said. “It picks up my game. I try to pick up his game. The communication back there is getting better and is continuing to progress throughout the season. The more games and the more practices we can get under our belt together when we’re on the field together is just going to help us throughout the year.
“Being back there with Kyle, someone who has a lot of game experience and a lot of playmaking ability, enhances my game. It allows me to play a little bit faster. Having him next to me, I trust him. I trust that he’s going to make me right if I’m wrong.”
Hamilton has the athleticism to recover from mistakes. With his size and speed, he can make up lost ground following a misstep or two.
But he’s still focused on eliminating as many of those lapses as possible.
“The offense does a great job of taking your eyes this way when they want to go that way,” Hamilton said. “That’s something I learned my freshman year. I learned it the hard way in practice and in games. I have improved on it, but I still have a long way to go to get to the point where I want to be.”
The margin for error will be smaller Saturday when the Irish host Louisville (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC). Speedy wide receiver Tutu Atwell gives the Cardinals (1-3, 0-3 ACC) the threat to score on any play. Last season, Atwell led the ACC in receiving yards (1,276) and receiving touchdowns (14). Atwell has caught 25 passes for 281 yards and four touchdowns already this season.
“It’s hard to cover speed. You can’t teach it,” Hamilton said. “We have to game plan around it. We will. (Defensive coordinator Clark) Lea and (defensive backs) coach (Terry) Joseph will set up a good game plan for that.
“When it comes to (Atwell), he’s a gamebreaker who anytime he gets the ball in his hands he can go the distance. We have to be great with our eyes, know where he’s at at all times and try to figure out how to stop him.”
Notre Dame’s defense finished last week’s 42-26 victory over Florida State strong, but the Seminoles were able to move the ball and score through much of the first half and early in the second half. Hamilton said iffy practices throughout the week hurt them on game day.
That should have reinforced the need to be focused in the days leading up to the Louisville game.
“We can’t really waste a rep, waste a period,” Hamilton said. “Taking that and working hard in those practices will only make the game easier for us.”
Hamilton certainly makes the game look easy. That’s why Kelly can be so effusive about a player only 15 games into his career.
It can’t hurt that Hamilton treats all the praise with a shrug. He can leave the smiling for his coach.
“In terms of people saying I’m a star or whatever, that’s good and all but I try not to get caught up in that,” Hamilton said. “I try not to look too much into social media and stuff like that. I try to be myself and keep down the path that I’m going. Because if distractions do anything, all they do is just slow me down.
“If I just stay to myself and follow my orders and do my job, I’ll be successful.”