Notre Dame sophomore Houston Griffith shifts more than positions

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Before Houston Griffith unleashed his running repertoire of brash proclamations on the Notre Dame receiving corps this spring, the chatty Irish defensive back got in his own head.

“I realized after the Cotton Bowl I needed to come in with a different mentality,” said the Irish sophomore cornerback who didn’t get off the bench in the 30-3 dismissal by Clemson on Dec. 29 and had just one of his freshman season’s 14 tackles after the middle of October.

“I see how the program’s run, how college football is played,” he continued. “It’s fast. The guys are stronger.”

So he sat down with Irish director of football performance Matt Balis and implored him to point him in the right direction, and Griffith vowed to follow.

The upshot was that the highest-rated player of the 2018 ND recruiting class, per Rivals.com, turned everything in winter workouts into a competition — sprints, speed squats — any drill, any lift.

By the time spring practice started on March 2, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly trumpeted the 6-foot, 205-pound IMG (Fla.) Academy product as the defensive back on the Irish roster who most transformed his body during the winter.

It came with an attitude change and a position shift, all of which were interconnected.

The safety-turned-nickel has become a boundary cornerback, ironically the position the Irish coaching staff envisioned him at last spring when he was an early enrollee.

That means less territory to cover than field corner, Troy Pride Jr. does, but it also often means dealing with less safety help and tall and/or physical receivers.

Mentally and physically, Griffith was more suited for it this time around. And to help advance Griffith’s game, the coaching staff regularly pairs him this spring in scrimmage periods and one-one-one drills with bruising 6-4, 229-pound receiver Chase Claypool.

“I see it as a challenge, and I’m not afraid of the challenge,” Griffith said Saturday after practice No. 9 of 15 this spring.

“You may look at it and go, ‘Wow, he got beat two or three times today,’ ” Kelly said of the matchups with Claypool, ND’s leading returning receiver. “But I’d like to have the kind of competition going on with a kid that is playing corner at the collegiate level for the first time.

“He’s doing some good things for us. He’ll continue to improve. I think that we’re going to see a player like Houston continue to grow as it relates to his technique, because physically, he’s got the tools necessary to play that position.”

Griffith often picks the brain of the player who manned the boundary corner position last season for the Irish and did so with consensus All-American proficiency, Julian Love. Love, working out in South Bend as he gets ready for the NFL Draft (April 25-27), took in Saturday’s practice.

“His advice was to have fun,” Griffith offered.

Griffith seems to be able to glean that even when he’s struggling. And struggle he did when Shaun Crawford’s season-ending knee injury the week of the 2018 season opener with Michigan pressed Griffith and then-senior safety Nick Coleman into the nickel role.

“I never saw it as frustration,” Griffith said of the inability to improve over the season at the position. “I just looked at it as an opportunity that the coaches saw I could play the position.”

But he also knew he wanted to take his game to another level. Not that his trash-talk game every suffered along the way.

“If you’re a defensive back, you’re out there on an island,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to play with that type of swagger. I love talking. Never been shy. Just love having fun being me, having a personality when you’re out there on the field.”

Lamb surges

Saturday’s latest array of linebacker combinations and constant fluidity on that position group’s depth chart prompted Kelly to throw out a punch line when asked about absolutes.

“They all stink,” Kelly said with a laugh, though he wasn’t joking when he followed that up with the notion that few of the linebackers/rovers, locked in a mass audition, tackled very well in practice No. 9 of the spring.

If there’s one player who’s secured a rotation spot for sure per Kelly, it’s grad senior Asmar Bilal, last year’s starting rover who will play inside — somewhere — for the Irish this season. Sophomore Jack Lamb’s strong play against the pass, meanwhile, has him surging into relevance in the buck linebacker competition.

“I think what held him back, more than anything else, is the injuries,” Kelly said of the 6-4, 227-pound Californian, who missed a large chunk of his senior high school season with a knee injury and was intermittently sidelined both last spring as an early enrollee and throughout the fall.

“But if you ask our offensive linemen, they would tell you that he was the toughest guy that they had to deal with last year on scout team when he was healthy.

“He was physical. He was difficult to block. Now that he’s healthy, he’s making the strides necessary for us to see him on the radar.”

Squibs

• In addition to Love, among the former Irish players attending practice Saturday were wide receiver Miles Boykin, also getting ready for the draft, and current Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.

• Sophomore wide receiver Braden Lenzy has been limited the past couple of practice sessions by the mild hamstring strain.

• Safety DJ Brown, a converted cornerback who looks at home at his new position, picked off Ian Book in the end zone during one of Saturday’s scrimmage periods.

• Backup cornerback TaRiq Bracy suffered an ankle sprain during practice.

• Kelly continues to be encouraged by the play of the running backs (unexpected) and the wide receivers (expected).

“Chris Finke was the star of the game today,” Kelly said of the grad senior who’s a former walk-on.

Notre Dame’s Houston Griffith (3) runs a drill during the Notre Dame spring football practice Saturday, March 23, 2019 at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex Saturday, March 23, 2019.