Notebook: Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton steals spotlight in Notre Dame's first practice

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

CULVER, Ind — If Brian Kelly really didn’t notice Kyle Hamilton’s three interceptions in his first Notre Dame football practice, the Irish head coach may have been the only person at Oliver Field unaware of that fact.

Or maybe Kelly was just playing coy to keep the expectations down for the the five-star freshman safety going through his first preseason camp at the Culver Academies.

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“Did he have three picks?” Kelly asked only after a reporter mentioned it during his post-practice media availability.

Before that, Kelly said he wasn’t sure if Hamilton suffered from cramps near the end of practice — reporters observed Hamilton receiving attention from a trainer — or whether he took any reps at all.

“Well, that’s a good first day. I’d write him up as having a good first day. I really didn’t see him,” Kelly said. “He probably played with the younger guys when he was in there. That’s a good first day. Good for him.”

The puzzling response from Kelly won’t take away from the dazzling first impression Hamilton made. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound product of Atlanta Marist showed why 247Sports pegged him as the No. 1 safety and No. 15 overall player in the 2019 recruiting class.

After Hamilton secured his third interception of the day — a pass thrown by sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec and deflected in Hamilton’s direction by graduate student cornerback Shaun Crawford — senior safety Jalen Elliott let everyone know Hamilton’s status.

“He’s a freshman!” Elliott shouted in delight.

Hamilton’s two earlier interceptions also came on Jurkovec throws and all three were during 7-on-7 and 1-on-1 work. On the first interception, Hamilton cut in front of sophomore wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. on an out route to the wide side of the field. Hamilton’s second interception came on a high throw deep in the middle of the field that redirected off the outstretched arms of freshman wide receiver Cam Hart.

Apparently Hamilton has a knack for finding the football. He won’t get a chance to show his tackling ability until the Irish put on pads for the first time on Thursday, the last of five practice days at Culver.

Hamilton did lose his first two reps against wide receiver Lawrence Keys III and running back Kyren Williams early in 1-on-1 action. In 11-on-11 work, Hamilton participated with the third-team defense in a special portion of practice Kelly designated for younger players.

But if Hamilton can play with consistency while making plays like he did Sunday, Notre Dame’s coaching staff may have to find playing time for him behind returning starting safeties Alohi Gilman and Elliott.

Defensive solutions

When the Irish finished practice with a pseudo-scrimmage, it offered a glimpse at how Notre Dame may fill some of its holes on defense.

At linebacker, Notre Dame used a rotating cast with its No. 1 and No. 2 defenses. The first unit started with grad student Asmar Bilal at mike, sophomore Jack Lamb at buck and junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at rover. Then sophomores Bo Bauer and Shayne Simon joined the fray at mike and buck. A trio of junior Drew White (mike), junior Jordan Genmark Heath (buck) and sophomore Paul Moala (rover) also saw action.

Expect the competition to continue to be high in numbers.

“These first five days, it’s as much repetition and as many guys that we can get in there and get looks,” Kelly said. “I can tell you for certain that there is a plan that’s there.”

Owusu-Koramoah built on his strong case for the starting rover role Sunday with an interception of an Ian Book pass during 7-on-7 action. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound product of Hampton (Va.) Bethel was the first player the Irish successfully recruited specifically with the rover position in mind in the 2017 class when former defensive coordinator Mike Elko was hired.

“He has explosiveness where he can set an edge and we could blitz him,” Kelly said. “He has all those tools if you’re really defining what that rover has wanted to look like. Look it up and that’s what it looks like.”

Senior Donte Vaughn also received reps with the No. 1 defense as the field side cornerback. Vaughn, who missed spring football with a shoulder injury, saw action for the first time since the Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson, which included a pair of touchdown passes thrown to his side of the field when he filled in for Julian Love.

Vaughn played mostly on the boundary side in previous seasons. That’s where senior Troy Pride Jr. took most of the action Sunday.

“We think that (Vaughn’s) skill set really fits in terms of what we want to accomplish defensively,” Kelly said. “It’s his time. There’s an expectation that he has, as well as we do, that he can be the kind of player that he’s wanted to be and that we think he can be. He comes into camp with a lot of confidence. He’s stronger. The things that we’re doing defensively fit his skill set. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

Crawford took turns at multiple positions in his return from last season’s ACL tear in his left knee. In addition to cornerback, Crawford worked with the No. 2 defense at safety. Staying healthy will be the key for Crawford after having three of his previous four seasons ended by injury. He will receive reps at cornerback, nickelback and safety throughout the preseason.

“We’re not going to take away his opportunity at corner,” Kelly said. “We think he can fit in at the nickel position. It’s a balancing act for us. He’s going to help this football team win. We want to be able to maximize his playing time, and he’s going to be a significant player in special teams.”

Extra points

• The special teams portions of Sunday’s practice were heavy on punting. During one period, freshman Jay Bramblett averaged 41.3 yards on 10 punts with a long of 48 and a short of 34.

Bramblett, who enrolled in January, should be in line to replace Tyler Newsome as the starting punter.

• A crew of Irish players caught punts from Bramblett and walk-on punter Jake Rittman: wide receivers Chris Finke, Michael Young, Lawrence Keys III, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Braden Lenzy and cornerbacks TaRiq Bracy and Isaiah Rutherford.

Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander threw a giant green ball at them after securing the football to imitate oncoming tacklers. Finke has served as Notre Dame’s starting punt returner each of the previous two seasons and part of the 2016 season.

• Gilman intercepted a Book pass that deflected off wide receiver Javon McKinley. The Irish safeties accounted for four of the five interceptions thrown by Book and Jurkovec.

• Freshman quarterback Brendon Clark had a tough stretch of four consecutive incompletions in 1-on-1 passing drills, but he rebounded with a few nice throws throughout practice. He received fewer reps than Book and Jurkovec in most sessions.

• The honor of the first song to be played during a Notre Dame practice this preseason belongs to Kendrick Lamar. An edited version of his song “HUMBLE.” played over the loudspeakers as the Irish stretched.

ABOVE: Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton intercepted three passes in his first Notre Dame football practice Sunday at Culver Academies. BOTTOM RIGHT: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah continues to make a strong case for Notre Dame’s starting rover linebacker role.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah continues to make a strong case for Notre Dame’s starting rover linebacker role.