Notre Dame's elite freshman Kyle Hamilton brings welcome dose of normalcy to twisted recruiting world
The fact that Kyle Hamilton isn’t being peddled as some sort of unearthed puzzle piece, internally from the Notre Dame coaching staff or even from the lunatic fringe of its fan base, represents progress more than it does restraint.
The five-star label alone, that 247Sports.com elevated the freshman safety from talent hotbed Atlanta to late in the last recruiting cycle, naturally stirs expectations and comparisons and talk of insanely high ceilings.
Part of who Hamilton is — intelligent, introspective and remarkably grounded — and how that intersects with where Notre Dame may be headed as a football program perhaps just as naturally tamp that down.
That’s not to say Hamilton’s presence on the Irish roster the next three or four years won’t necessarily be impactful or even transformative. The shift in Notre Dame’s culture, from locker room to internet message board, is that it doesn’t need to all unfold in 2019.
“In so many ways, he wanted to be a part of Notre Dame more than he wanted to be a part of the recruiting hype show,” Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea said.
“When he went other places and he was promised things and wined and dined, he really kept a focus on the substance of the decision and understanding that the players that surround him — his peers — are going to be huge influences on his development.
“I really think he connected with how unique this place is in that regard. How focused our players are. I’m going to recruit to my personality all the time, but when that can resonate and connect and be appreciated, that’s usually a really good sign for his ability to adjust when he gets here.”
Hamilton arrived in mid-June with four suitcases but apparently little, if any, figurative baggage.
At 6-foot-4 (and 208 pounds), he’ll be the tallest safety 10th-year Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has had on his roster. Anywhere. Ever.
The blend of production, speed, instincts, change of direction and cornerback precision in coverage along with that propelled Hamilton from the ho-hum three-star status when he verbally committed to the Irish in April 2018 to that of the nation’s No. 1 safety and No. 15 player regardless of position nine months later.
“I kind of liked when I was a three-star,” Hamilton said. “It didn’t change my goals or who I was or who I wanted to be.”
Who Hamilton was is as intriguing as his future is promising, however that plays out.
He is the son of a black American father, Derrek, who played professional basketball abroad and now trains pro athletes — but not his own son.
“We tried it,” Kyle said, “but every time I trained with my dad, it kind of turned into an argument. Every single time. We always got over it, but it worked out better this way.”
Mother Jackie, born in South Korea, regularly sent both of her sons to academic camps when they were growing up.
“There were times Kyle went kicking and screaming,” she said, “but I think he came back liking it and he certainly learned a lot.”
Hamilton is a member of Mensa International, with a genius IQ.
His first college football offer came from Lane Kiffin’s staff at Florida Atlantic in the spring of his sophomore year. The first college coach who was wowed by his physical skill was Jimbo Fisher.
That was back when the Texas A&M head coach was LSU’s offensive coordinator and Hamilton was a 5-year-old quarterback at a camp where the minimum age was supposed to be 7.
That same weekend Hamilton learned to tie his shoes and cheered against Notre Dame for the first time, in its Jan. 1, 2007 Sugar Bowl mauling from LSU.
He had his heart broken in subsequent LSU-ND bowl encounters he attended — a 31-28 Irish victory in the 2014 Music City Bowl, and a 21-17 Citrus Bowl comeback to end the 2017 season.
He even referred to LSU in recent conversation as “we” — a habit brought on by a longtime friendship between Jackie Hamilton and a member of the Tigers’ athletic staff, and Kyle’s constant exposure to the program.
Hamilton was born on the Greek island of Crete, and briefly lived in Russia. He doesn’t remember either place, but he does remember loving basketball first and eventually football more.
In fact, he turned down a chance to go with his father and brother Tyler to an NBA Finals matchup in Toronto in June out of disinterest. Yet he played on his high school basketball team last winter at Atlanta Marist, mainly because he thought he’d be doing his friends a disservice if he didn’t.
“The Notre Dame coaches didn’t have a problem with it,” said Hamilton, who drew more than a smattering of interest from D-I schools in that sport as well. “Regardless of injury — and I’m glad I didn’t get injured — I was willing to take the risk to play.”
Not that he didn’t take his football prep seriously and pragmatically over the months leading up to enrolling at Notre Dame. That included a handful of training sessions with Clay Mack, an NFL Combine prep coach who describes himself as a “defensive back/linebacker skill, agility and technique specialist.”
Mack’s plan to elevate Hamilton’s game was to widen and sharpen an already impressive skill set. Hamilton’s big takeaway?
“It wasn’t physically grueling, but it made me tougher mentally,” he said. “That’s pretty valuable.”
And in the whole five-star fixation, aspects such as what’s percolating beneath and beyond the physical gifts are often lost by those on the outside gaping in.
Offensive guard Quenton Nelson, for instance, was Notre Dame’s last Rivals.com five-star on offense. He was (and still is) a mauling, freakishly athletic, powerful force who is perhaps the most impactful recruit of the Kelly Era.
But a large part of that equation was what was burning inside of Nelson and how that influenced and changed the people around him for the better.
In the curiosity of what Hamilton’s arrival at Notre Dame may lead to, what drives him may be the most compelling component of all.
“I just think my parents have worked so hard to put me in the position that I’m in today and I have a great opportunity,” he said, “And it would be a tragedy if I didn’t use it to the best of my abilities and get what I want out of it and be successful.”
Derrek and Jackie Hamilton divorced when Kyle was 3, but never stopped working as a team to put Kyle and his older brother, a college basketball player first at Penn and now at William & Mary, in situations that would foster their growth as athletes, as people, as dreamers with a purpose.
Both parents can point to key moments when a corner was turned or an obstacle cleared because of their efforts.
But the buy-in was all Hamilton’s.
“I think an internal engine is something you either have or you don’t,” Jackie Hamilton said. “I can’t give it to somebody. He’s just been driven since he was a little boy. He’s kind. To talk to him, he’s very mild-mannered. But I think when he steps on the court or the field, a switch goes off and he’s a different kid.
“He’s not nasty to the other players, but I think a switch goes off. In between these lines, you don’t have any friends. You can be friends when you step out of the lines.”
Before there was Rivals.com and 247Sports.com setting the industry standard of how to differentiate a standout offensive tackle from Seattle in a contextual standpoint from an outside linebacker in the Florida panhandle, there were college football pioneers such as Joe Terranova, Allen Wallace, Max Emfinger and Tom Lemming.
Lemming is still going and affiliated with CBS Sports Network, but no longer with pricey and now-extinct 1-900 lines.
While he might not have invented the star system of rating recruits, Lemming was ahead of the curve on popularizing it and helped refine it.
As Lemming was starting to turn a hobby into a cottage industry, Lemming asked Gil Brandt, long-time Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel (1960-88) and a visionary in the pro football scouting world, for advice on how to quantify recruiting prowess on an individual basis.
Brandt offered that he had an eight-star system that he used in his own evaluations of college players with pro aspirations.
“So the first year I did eight stars,” Lemming said. “And then I went to two stars, and then finally to five stars that we know today. I’ve always said it’s an exceptionally subjective thing, and in many cases quite flawed.”
Lemming said some recruiting services skew their rankings based on the player’s offers rather than his talent. “If you’ve got offers from Alabama and Clemson, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up a five-star,” he said.
Some are distorted based on exposure — or lack of it — to national camps and competitions. Other players have seen a drop in their rankings, Lemming said, because they committed so early in the cycle that there’s not an interest from the fan base of following them anymore.
“I always tell players to take the ratings with a grain of salt, mine included, because that’s really all they’re worth,” Lemming said. “When you look back at it and you see all the guys like J.J. Watt in the NFL and they have zero, one or two stars, it’s kind of ridiculous.”
It’s also not predictive of ultimate success on the college level.
Of the 281 Rivals five-star prospects recruited nationally between Kelly’s first cycle at Notre Dame (2010) and last season’s freshman class (2018), only 11 percent became Associated Press first-team All-Americans.
Even if you exclude the 2017 and 2018 classes and include only players who have at least completed their junior years in college, the number rises to a modest 13.7 percent.
“While ranking individual recruits is such an inexact science, accumulating collective talent is essential if you want to talk about winning a national championship,” Lemming said.
And in that vein, there’s plenty of hard evidence to show Notre Dame has to go farther to get it than say, during the Lou Holtz years (1986-96). More than 60 percent of the five-star prospects in the country in the last five recruiting cycles came from four states — Florida, California, Georgia and Texas.
Five of the states that used to be critical to Notre Dame’s recruiting success — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana — combined to produce eight five-stars in the past five cycles. That’s 22 percent of what Florida turned out on its own in the same time frame.
“There’s been a talent shift the past couple of decades,” Lemming said. “Ohio has taken a big hit. Pennsylvania has taken the hardest hit. It was always a top-five state. Now it’s not even top 15.
“The Chicago Catholic League in the ‘70s and ‘80s was the most dominant league in the country. Now it’s not top 10. Back in 1986, the year Notre Dame took 10 guys out of Chicago, 141 kids from the Chicago area signed to play Division I ball. Now you’re lucky to get 60.
“Some of it’s population moving. Some of it’s the steel mills in Pennsylvania shutting down and blue-collar people who play a blue-collar sport have to move to find new blue-collar jobs. The Chicago public schools produce one or two guys a year that would be considered Power 5 kids. In the ‘80s, you’d get 25 or 30.
“They’re still there,” Lemming continued. “They didn’t just all of a sudden stop developing the great athletes, but they don’t have the money to fund football programs. If you do have a head coach, the assistants are volunteers. You can’t afford to pay them anything. Down in the south, football is everything and they find the money to fuel that reality.”
Even with more frequent-flier miles to log for the Irish coaches, more climate shock and potential homesick-ness to conquer, both Lemming and Kelly see Notre Dame’s collective talent level on the uptick.
“In our loss to Clemson, the receiver and the quarterback were a cut above any player that we had,” Kelly said. “We mixed it up with arguably one of the best defensive lines in the country. We didn’t move the ball effectively, because we didn’t make some plays that we’re capable of making. And we weren’t effective.
“But we feel like when we went out there, none of our players felt overwhelmed. The coaching staff didn’t. I didn’t. But when I watch the Alabama game in 2012, that was different. We were overwhelmed. So the talent level has definitely equaled itself out.
“Do we have some more work to do? Yeah, and I think it’s going to be hard to catch (QB) Trevor Lawrence. There’s some guys in the NFL that might not catch him. And the receiver (Justyn Ross) was a great player that day. And we’ve got to continue to try to find that kind of receiver. But other than that, we felt pretty comfortable.”
Lemming thinks Notre Dame could end up with as many as five five-star players in the 2020 recruiting cycle, with the commitments the Irish already have.
“Slowly but surely, Notre Dame is closing the gap,” Lemming said. “I think Kelly has done a great job of bringing the talent level up by getting rid of slacker coaches.
“Clemson, Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Ohio State are ahead of them in terms of talent, but Notre Dame is in the ballgame with USC and Texas and a lot of other ones.
“Notre Dame no doubt can win national titles with where they’re at now. Getting kids like Kyle Hamilton is only going to make that a more likely reality.”
There is no protocol among the Notre Dame coaching staff on how to deal with the five-star recruit once he enrolls and arrives, other than to act like it’s normal — which it isn’t.
Notre Dame has pulled in a modest 18 Rivals five stars since it began so dubbing prospects in 2002, the same number as Sept. 21 opponent Georgia has in the past five recruiting cycles alone, and two fewer than Alabama in the same span.
Six of ND’s 18 transferred, three before they ever played a game in Irish uniform. Nine of the 18 have come in the Kelly Era. One — senior defensive end Daelin Hayes — was on the roster when Hamilton signed his National Letter of Intent in December.
“Maybe we should have a strategy,” Kelly said. “But we just don’t, and we treat them in a manner that we treat all of our other players. We try not to give them any expectation other than the ones we have for the program.
“They don’t get a new locker. They don’t get anything special from that perspective. They’re treated just like everybody else. They’re going to earn their opportunities just like anybody else.”
And if Hamilton does earn it, he’ll be an outlier in recent Irish history of sorts. Dubious history.
In the five recruiting cycles from 2013 to 2017, the middle three of which had a strong influence from deposed coordinator Brian VanGorder, Notre Dame signed 11 high school safety prospects.
Only senior starter Jalen Elliott and since-graduated reserve Nicco Fertitta didn’t end up switching positions, transferring or both. Fertitta had zero career starts and very few high-leverage snaps during his college career.
Notre Dame’s developmental model under Lea actually has potential position switches built in, as players mature physically. The VanGorder model did not, and the safety recruits who shifted tended to be perpetual scheme misfits. Drue Tranquill was an exception.
The transformation of the safety position group — the one that mortified one-and-done defensive coordinator Mike Elko when he took the job in December of 2016 — is as stunning as it is convincing.
The incumbent starters who helped Notre Dame to a best-ever No. 6 ranking nationally in pass-efficiency defense last season are Elliott — a former all-state quarterback in Virginia — and Alohi Gilman — a transfer from Navy who was a two-star prospect coming out of high school in Hawaii.
The other four safeties on the roster are Hamilton, fellow freshman Litchfield Ajavon, sophomore and converted cornerback DJ Brown, and sophomore Derrik Allen, the latter a top 100 prospect in the 2018 cycle who played his high school football about 20 miles from Hamilton’s school, at Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga.
Allen was Hamilton in a sense before there was Hamilton, even though their measurables don’t sync up (Allen is 6-2, 220). His pedigree suggested he could even have been an eventual starter as a freshman last season.
But Allen not only didn’t play a single down at safety in 2018, he wasn’t even involved in any special teams duty.
This past spring, Allen labored to make the kind of impression that would include him in a playing rotation, in part because he’s oversized for the position per Lea and not a promising candidate to convert to linebacker.
“If his future isn’t at safety, then he doesn’t have a very good future,” Kelly said in June. “We made it clear to the young man where we want him, and he’s got some work to do.
“Listen, the kid’s got incredible talent. He runs 4.68. I mean, all day. He’s uber-talented, but he’s just got to grow up. And he’s trying to figure it out. He’s still in the oven, and we should just let him cook.
“Everybody wants to take him out of the oven. He’s just one of those kids that it’s going to take a little bit longer. But when he figures it out, he’s going to be pretty damn good.”
What Hamilton has figured out is to not appear entitled, to tap into the senior starters he genuinely respects, and let his success fuel his humility rather than challenge it.
“We jokingly always said he’s been here before, and he’s always kind of been mature for his age,” Jackie said. “He does his goofy, silly stuff that teenage boys do, but for the most part he has an old soul.”
An old soul who seems to have everything aligned to keep from becoming star-crossed.
“His balance and body control for his length was fascinating to me,” Lea said. “Then I remember the first time we spoke on the phone. It was right after I watched his film. As soon as I started talking to him, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is a Notre Dame guy.’
“He adds a component of size for us that is exciting. His athleticism, you can start dreaming up things that you can do with that body type and that personality too. He’s a serious and pragmatic person.
“I’m really excited to get him here and start to get hands on and figure out where we can go with him.”
The ND Insider 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview
Our annual season preview magazine can now be purchased online and in stores locally. You can order copies here to be shipped to you. If you'd like to pick up a copy, you can find them at these local stores.
But what exactly will you be getting in this year’s magazine?
• Our cover story is on senior defensive end Julian Okwara. When he first came to Notre Dame, he wanted to make his own name and not live in the shadow of his older brother, Romeo. Now he has his sights on setting the Irish single-season sack record.
• Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool is on track for a big season in a new role. Learn how a meal with offensive coordinator Chip Long changed their relationship and set the table for more success.
• Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton arrives at Notre Dame as a five-star talent with a three-star mindset. That combination made him the perfect match for the Irish in the pursuit of top prospects.
• Encore seasons haven’t been great for starting quarterbacks at Notre Dame in recent years. Quarterback Ian Book and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees plan to break that trend even if they weren’t aware of it at first. Get an inside look at how the two are preparing Book for an even better senior season.
• In his first months at Notre Dame, Lance Taylor had to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail. The new Irish running backs coach appears to be the right fit on Notre Dame’s coaching staff and in its offensive scheme. Hear from Taylor for the first time since he was hired in February.
• Mike Elston has created a culture of caring with his defensive linemen. The decision to connect so deeply with his players has positively impacted the product on the playing field. That’s just part of the reason the Irish defensive line coach has stayed so long in South Bend.
• Notre Dame’s quarterback recruiting has shifted, with accuracy taking top priority. The attributes of Ian Book can been seen in the quarterbacks the Irish have taken commitments from in the past two recruiting cycles.
• Brian Kelly goes one-on-one with Eric Hansen on a variety of topics, including retirement and karaoke.
The rest of the magazine includes our annual staples: predictions from our staff, an analysis and player feature for each position group, profiles on the freshman class, a recruiting roundtable with national analysts, breakdowns of all 12 opponents and much more.
Don’t miss out on this top-notch product from our award-winning staff. Click here to order your copy today.
The following story appears in the 2019 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. Copies of the magazine can be purchased here.