Analysis: Houston Griffith leads five players to watch during Notre Dame's October run

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Houston Griffith’s college football evolution — from cornerback to safety to nickel, all before he played his first college game — may have caught up with the versatile and uber-skilled Notre Dame freshman.

Opposing offenses are beginning to try to isolate and pick on the 6-foot, 205-pounder — the highest-ranked prospect, per Rivals.com, among ND’s 27-man freshman class (No. 43 overall nationally regardless of position).

Stanford did so with alarming success on a night when the defense otherwise dominated in a 38-17 victory over the then-No. 7 Cardinal.

That trend, which conflicts with Griffith’s still-high ceiling, puts him atop the list of Irish players to watch during an October run, which starts Saturday night at 24th-ranked Virginia Tech (3-1). Kickoff is 8:21 EDT on ABC.

Griffith and the others who made the list are players who could help solidify sixth-ranked Notre Dame’s burgeoning profile as a playoff team when the first set of CFP standings are released on Oct. 30.

None of those players are stars at the moment, and perhaps most won’t approach even starter status by season’s end. But they’re all potentially important pieces that could help boost the Irish (5-0) into the College Football Playoff for the first time in year five of its existence.

As for Griffith, safety may ultimately be his best position fit long term, but there was an immediate need at nickel once Shaun Crawford was lost in late August for the season to a knee injury.

Griffith and senior Nick Coleman have combined for 17 tackles at the position, but just two pass breakups, and zero interceptions, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries. and the tackle numbers don’t accurately reflect success at the position or lack thereof since many of them have been made after an opposing first down has been achieved.

“Technique. Technique. Technique,” Kelly said when asked earlier this week for the key to Griffith’s improvement. “He’s got to hone those skills. He’s very talented athletically. But that commitment to a technique that is necessary to really continue to advance at that position.”

2. Aaron Banks, offensive guard: Senior Trevor Ruhland has played well both times he’s been called upon for long stretches — starting at Wake Forest Sept. 22 for injured right guard Tommy Kraemer, and relieving for injured left guard Alex Bars, Saturday night against Stanford.

At 6-foot-4, 295, he doesn’t have the strength, size or athletic ability of Bars (6-6, 315), but he is assignment-correct and extremely valuable in recognizing fronts and pressures.

“He knows everything that goes on with the entire offensive line,” left tackle Liam Eichenberg said. “You could plug him in at any position, and he’d do well. and he’d start at center at any other school except this one, because we have Sam Mustipher.”

If the Irish can eventually get the recognition/knowledge base out of athletic, 6-6, 319-pound sophomore Banks, that might be the best long-term solution. Banks, 344 pounds when he verbally committed to the Irish, moves much better as a college sophomore. But most his practice reps since enrolling early, in 2017, have been at tackle.

So don’t expect him to emerge there right away.

3. Ade Ogundeji, defensive end: The 6-4, 255-pound junior is seeing the first meaningful playing time of his career, rotating in with classmate Khalid Kareem. and he’s been quite productive, with 12 tackles, a pass breakup and a QB hurry in a testament to ND’s rebooted player development model.

Where it would get challenging is if Kareem’s seemingly weekly ankle tweaks become more serious, amping up Ogundeji’s reps from complementary player to something much more than that.

“He likes the applause he gets when he goes down,” Kelly deflected when asked about Kareem’s long-term prognosis. “So we were confused why he went down so much.”

Eventually, the coach conceded that the bye week, after the Oct. 13 game with Pitt, would be Kareem’s only realistic stretch to rest the ankle.

“He’s a tough kid,” Kelly said. “He’ll come back out, and he is going to practice hard even if he’s a little dinged up. But he’s going to get three or four days in the bye week, and that will have to be good enough.”

The biggest different between Kareem (15 tackles) and Ogundeji is that the former is more twitchy, more explosive and tends to make more plays behind the line of scrimmage and force turnovers.

If Kareem is limited, look for Daelin Hayes to rotate in at both end spots, which would keep Ogundeji in a comfortable-but-productive role.

4. Jordan Genmark Heath, linebacker: The freshly applied cast on starter Drue Tranquill’s left hand is a reminder of how close Genmark Heath is to being pressed into a major role on defense.

That true freshman Shayne Simon is cross training at rover and the buck linebacker spot is a reminder how big the gap is between Tranquill and Genmark Heath at the moment and how eager the coaching staff is to finding a fast track to Plan B.

Neither Tranquill, not Genmark Heath played the position until this year, as both are converted safeties (Tranquill had the intermediate step at rover in 2017). But in four of the first five games this season, Tranquill — ND’s second-leading tackler — has played almost every down possible.

What Genmark Heath has going for him is intelligence, pure speed to make up for minor mistakes, and a history of coming on strong in the second half of the season, which he did last year at safety.

5. Kevin Austin, wide receiver: One of five freshman receivers on the Irish roster, Austin is one of only two who has played, and the only one who has recorded any kind of statistic (3 catches, 39 yards).

The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder is much more than a backup-plan in case of injury to one of the outside receivers, as evidenced by some appearances in high-leverage situations in game.

Look for his opportunities and production to expand as offensive coordinator Chip Long tried to keep the receiving corps fresh over the long haul of the season.

Notre Dame’s Houston Griffith (3) breaks up a pass intended for Ball State’s Corey Lacanaria (11) during the Ball State at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

Who: No. 6 Notre Dame (5-0) vs. No. 24 Virginia Tech (3-1)

When: Saturday at 8 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Lane Stadium; Blacksburg, Va.

TV: ABC

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 6