Father's words, son's heart coaxing Houston Griffith up the Notre Dame depth chart

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Howard Griffith has eight TVs on when he’s working, which is not only tolerated but encouraged at his job as a college football analyst with the Big Ten Network.

Seven of them are tuned to games relevant to Griffith earning a paycheck. The eighth sometimes happens to be the only window through which the 50-year-old former University of Illinois and NFL standout fullback can watch the college football career of his son, Houston, unfold.

Which to this point has been a bit of a blur.

Since early-enrolling at Notre Dame in January, the highest-ranked recruit per Rivals in the 2018 Irish class has been an ascending backup cornerback, a revelation at safety, and — most recently — an emerging No. 1 option at the nickel position, an extra defensive back used on obvious passing downs.

The 6-foot, 194-pound Griffith, in fact, displaced senior Nick Coleman at that position for ND’s 22-17 win over Vanderbilt last Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, with the healthy Coleman not playing a single snap against the Commodores, and Griffith recording the first four tackles of his career.

Which doesn’t necessarily lock Griffith into an exclusive role at nickel for Saturday’s road test for the eighth-ranked Irish (3-0) at Wake Forest (2-1). Kickoff is noon EDT. ABC has the telecast.

Offensive tempo — the Demon Deacons are No. 2 nationally in offensive plays per game (93.3) — and sophomore slot receiver Greg Dortch are two reasons there could be either a time-share this week or perhaps even a shift of junior Julian Love inside at times to handle the nation’s No. 2 receiver.

The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Dortch was targeted on 18 of Wake’s 105 plays in a 41-34 loss to Boston College last Thursday night. He caught nine passes for 93 yards against the Eagles.

Seventh-ranked Stanford, which visits Notre Dame Stadium a week from Saturday, will provide different challenges from its offense.

“I think he’s obviously a guy that each and every week when he gets a chance to play, we see more and more from him,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said this week. “It’s just a true freshman playing. He’s got a nice skill set, but he’s learning every time he goes out there.”

Still the question remains, has Griffith found a position home for the long term? A season-ending injury to incumbent nickel Shaun Crawford in late August eventually coaxed an audition for Griffith there. But safety may be his best fit eventually in the Irish defense.

“I don’t see practice every day, so I’m just a dad,” Howard Griffith said. “They see him. I think one of the things that got coaches excited about him originally was his versatility. So that’s kind of how he’s kind of moved around.

“From my perspective, it’s about just getting reps and playing wherever he’s going to play — and playing in games, because games are different from practice.

“You’ve got to get out there and you’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to have growing pains and it’s going to be some tough times, but that’s major college football. If you want to play at the highest level, you’re not going to be great all the time. So you’ve just got to learn from your mistakes and try to get better.”

Initially, Houston Griffith was learning and making mistakes — albeit few of them — on the offensive side of the ball.

He played running back in youth football, and was very good at it, then dabbled as an option quarterback at Chicago Mount Carmel.

He was in line to be the varsity starter there, running the veer offense, when just ahead of his junior season he transferred from the Illinois 12-time state championship program to national prep power IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

Houston’s gravitation toward defense was at Howard’s urging. His landing at IMG was despite Howard’s misgivings initially. Both moves profoundly helped fast-track Houston Griffith as an elite college defensive back prospect.

“He loved playing running back,” Howard said. “And I told him really early, ‘This is not where you’re going to play. You’re going to end up on the defensive side of the ball.’

“The way I looked at college ball and his skill set, if you can run, you’re tough, you’re willing to hit, you’re aggressive, that’s the best side of the ball to be on. and I think there are more opportunities on the defensive side than there are offensively — at least in the Midwest, where I am.

“Most kids don’t want to play DB. They don’t. You could go to anybody’s camp right now, and there’ll be 75 kids in the wide receiver line. and there’ll be 15 kids that are playing DB. It’s just amazing.

“(Ohio State offensive coordinator) Kevin Wilson said something to me early in the recruiting process. He said, ‘Howard, once a kid has had the ball in his hands, it’s really hard to get him to play without the ball. You’re getting all this notoriety. Everybody knows you because you’re scoring touchdowns. You’re doing all this, that and the other. It’s hard to get away from that.’

“Houston just wanted to play.”

A couple of Notre Dame connections helped convince the Griffith family to have Houston play his final two high school seasons at IMG.

“It was always something Houston had talked about,” Howard said of IMG. “One of the reasons was a chance to graduate early and enroll early in college and get that extra spring practice in. He couldn’t do that at Mount Carmel. When he finally started to try to make this happen, he called me while I was on the road.

“My oldest son (Howard II) was with me, and after we hung up and I said to him, ‘Your mother is never going to go for this, especially because they want a decision in like two weeks.”

Little did Howard know, Kim Griffith had earlier befriended Notre Dame offensive tackle Robert Hainsey’s mother long before the phone call. Hainsey had left his high school in Pennsylvania to finish up at IMG and was a year ahead of Griffith there.

So Kim Griffith, in fact, was fully prepared “to go for this.”

Irish running back Tony Jones Jr., graduated from IMG before Houston transferred there, but Jones’ father and Howard had a mutual friend who connected them, and the elder Jones helped sway Howard. IMG did the rest.

“He needed to get away from home,” Howard said of Houston. “He needed to go figure it out himself. and that’s what he was able to do. Nothing against the traditional high school, but for the most part, they can’t give you what a place like IMG can give you from a maturity standpoint, on and off the field, in the classroom.

“People think of IMG as just football. and football is important. But you compete in the classroom. You wake up competing in everything you do. and he had his struggles there.

“The speed that they play with in the state of Florida is a different animal. It’s very different from the Chicago Catholic League. But he was able to make the transition work for him.”

By the time Houston showed up at IMG, he already had conquered the challenge of having a guy for a dad with two Super Bowl rings with the Denver Broncos and an eight-touchdown college game while playing for Illinois.

“He got his first college offer, from Illinois, in the eighth grade,” Howard said. “And things just started rolling from there. He handled it well from the start.”

But not everybody around him did.

“If you’re a young kid coming into a situation where you have offers, and some of the older guys that have been there don’t have offers, that can create a problem for you.

“But as we always talked about, his mom and I when we’re talking to him, ‘The first thing that you have to do is be a great teammate. If you can be a great teammate, then you’ll develop relationships with everybody on the team.

“‘Not everybody on the team is going to like you, but be a hard worker. Do what you’re supposed to do and then even some more.’ So we always took that approach. From a very early age, there was always going to be a target on his back. He had to understand that and what that meant.

“So even now that means he has to be the hardest worker on the field. He needs to be there early, stay late. If he needs to carry bags, carry the bags and just keep going.”

Notre Dame freshman Houston Griffith (3) brings down Vanderbilt wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb (16) during ND’s 22-17 win over Vanderbilt, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.