Trio of Chicago defensive backs reunite in the secondary at Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Before they were teammates, they were teammates.

It was the spring of 2015, and Julian Love, Isaiah Robertson and Houston Griffith — now Notre Dame defensive backs — roamed the secondary for Midwest BOOM, a 7-on-7 club team located out of the Chicago area.

Love was a junior. Robertson was a sophomore. Griffith, a freshman.

As for Mike Niklos, the team’s defensive coordinator … well, he was just lucky.

“I think the one thing that really sets them apart compared to anybody else that I’ve had the opportunity to work with was how much they loved the game,” Niklos said on Tuesday.

That, and one other thing:

These kids could really play.

Take Love, for example. In 2017, the 5-foot-11, 193-pound sophomore cornerback shattered a Notre Dame school record with 20 pass break ups, seven more than Clarence Ellis’ 1970 output. The Nazareth High School alum and two-time state champion added 68 tackles and three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.

What he lacked in speed, Love more than made up for with meticulous, surgical technique.

And not just at Notre Dame.

“One of the bigger things that I noticed out of him was how, in any sort of press position, his hand placement was amazing,” Niklos said. “You would ask him to hit the top right of a number on a press, and he would be absolutely pinpoint perfect on it.

“That’s one thing that always stuck out in my brain, how exact he was in every single little movement he was able to do.”

While Love was exact, Robertson was instinctive — on both sides of the ball. The former Neuqua Valley High School standout and current Irish freshman safety started primarily as a wide receiver for BOOM, piling up what Griffith calls “freakish plays on the ball.”

Of course, that didn’t change when Robertson flipped to defense.

“He just kept making pick after pick after pick,” Niklos said. “There’s an intuition of where the ball’s going that I don’t think you really can coach. That’s something I think we’ve all seen out of Isaiah. He’s always around the ball.”

Then, there was the freshman.

Wait … that kid’s a freshman?

“From the start, when I joined BOOM football, I was playing corner and this kid was across from me. Houston was rotating in a lot,” Love recalled. “I thought he was my age or a year younger than me, because I was the older guy on the team.

“It wasn’t until very late that I realized that he was two years younger than me. I was just amazed at the potential this kid had.”

Eventually, that potential yielded scholarship offers from more than 30 schools, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Florida State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, USC and Notre Dame. It vaulted Griffith into the national spotlight, with four-star rankings from Rivals and 247Sports and an appearance in the Under Armour All-America game.

On Tuesday, Griffith — who could realistically play any defensive back position but has been initially slated as a cornerback — started classes as an early enrollee at Notre Dame.

But while his destination was only recently decided, his potential was always obvious.

“We had a spring game (during his freshman season). I think it was a go route or a comeback route,” Niklos said. “The ball was thrown about 12 to 15 yards. Houston ends up turning around and catching it with one hand.

“When you think of more of a novice grade — ninth grade — when you’re still trying to figure out what your body movement is, it showed how aware he was of how his body moved. Literally that day I went up and talked to his dad and told him I was going to bring him up on my team.”

Nearly three years later, Love, Robertson and Griffith are teammates once again. And, just like at BOOM, their roster is brimming with Chicago roots. Besides the trio of ND defensive backs, junior wide receiver Miles Boykin — who hauled in the one-handed 55-yard touchdown grab that sealed a Citrus Bowl win over LSU — hails from nearby Tinley Park, Ill. Tight end Nic Weishar and defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway also grew up in the Chicago area. Incoming wide receiver Micah Jones — another 2018 signee — starred at Gurnee (Ill.) Warren Township High School, about 40 miles north of the city.

It’s true, Chicago is better known for producing prodigies like Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis, Isiah Thomas, Dwayne Wade and Jabari Parker. It isn’t widely regarded as a football recruiting hotbed.

At least, not yet.

“It means a lot, because Chicago is really known as a basketball city,” Griffith said last month, when asked about the swell of Illinois DBs at Notre Dame. “I’m just trying to show that we can play football as well on a national stage.”

That’s still somewhat of a regional secret. Rivals ranked just five Illinois athletes as four- or five-star recruits in the 2018 class (not counting Griffith, who played his final two high school seasons at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.). Compare that to Florida (73 players), Texas (51), California (48), Georgia (42), or even nearby Ohio (15), and it doesn’t compare.

Still, Niklos insists that Love, Robertson and Griffith are an example of the area’s talent, not an anomaly.

“I think coaches around the country are starting to notice what the talent pool really is here,” Niklos said. “You’re getting all types of athletes. You’re getting the skill guys that, coming out of high school, are putting up 4.4s and 4.5s (in the 40-yard dash) with 38-inch verticals. But you’re also getting the 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, 300-pound linemen that can really add to a team’s run game.

“I definitely think that there is a lot more attention now in the state of Illinois, specifically Chicago. But the talent’s really always been there.”

And, if there really is as much talent as Niklos says, then Griffith wouldn’t mind adding to his group in 2019 or 2020.

“We talk about having a BOOM secondary, so now we’ve got three,” Griffith said with a chuckle. “All we need is another kid to come with us.”

Y’all better stop sleeping on Chicago football

— Julian Love (@julianlove27) January 1, 2018

Two Chicago boys make big plays at the end. Excited to join this program in January ☘️☘️Go Irish

— Houston Griffith (@___HG3) January 1, 2018

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Houston Griffith, left, and Isaiah Robertson during the Irish Invasion at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, June 18, 2016. ND Insider Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA