Kyle 'Unicorn' Hamilton adds possibilities to Notre Dame safety group

Carter Karels | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

The nicknames for Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (JOK) and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (MTA) were easily generated.

But the more whimsical nicknames — like those for Canadian wide receiver Chase Claypool (Maple Bandit), Swedish linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath (Swedish Black Guy) and linebacker Drew White (White Drew) — took ingenuity.

Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton joined the Irish in June and has already made a name for himself, tallying three interceptions in his first organized collegiate practice on Sunday. A nickname, though, has yet to surface for the former five-star recruit, per 247Sports.

Hamilton’s mother, Jackie, might have a couple ideas. She calls her oldest son, Tyler, and Kyle “Manbaby 1” and “Manbaby 2,” respectively. Most recently, Jackie started referring to the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Kyle as “Unicorn.”

Time will tell whether Hamilton deserves either nickname. At minimum, he’s already the tallest safety to ever play under Irish head coach Brian Kelly. Hamilton continuing to progress could expand the possibilities at a position of strength for Notre Dame.

“We joke about it, because he’s so tall and his wingspan is so long,” said starting safety Jalen Elliott. “He’s everywhere, literally. Great frame, great mind.”

That the No. 1 safety and No. 15 overall player in the 2019 recruiting class likely won’t start for the Irish this season speaks to the strides made at the position over the past year. However, last season still saw no depth behind the first-team safeties.

Incumbent starters Alohi Gilman and Elliott rarely took plays off in 2018. The seniors pushed their bodies to maximum exertion by the regular season finale at USC. Gilman even spent all of spring football limited with an abdominal injury.

Notre Dame might not face the same challenge this season. Elliott’s versatility and Hamilton’s budding prowess could be utilized in concert.

Elliott spent part of spring football working at nickelback — an extra defensive back used during obvious passing situations. Hamilton lined up as the No. 2 strong safety, behind Elliott, in Sunday’s unpadded session at the Culver Academies in Culver, Ind.

Maybe Hamilton could see the field on third downs while Elliott slides to nickel — a position of struggle for the Irish last year. That possibility is contingent on a variety of factors. Hamilton in particular would need to cement himself before the Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville.

The Irish know their starting safeties possess a high ceiling. Elliott and Gilman spent this offseason scouring film together and offering the other constructive criticism.

“I want to get better with communication, tackling, making sure that I’m a guy that can tackle in the middle of the field,” Elliott said. “Making sure that I’m attacking the ball every time the ball is in the air and making sure that eyes get better.

“My eye discipline has to be better from last year to this year if I want to make the plays I’m supposed to make.”

Though confident with its starting safeties, Notre Dame has tinkered with its defensive backs more than almost any other position. Terry Joseph even earned a new title this offseason — from defensive backs coach to defensive pass game coordinator.

Sophomore Houston Griffith switched from cornerback to safety to nickelback before his first collegiate game. The 6-0, 198-pounder moved again prior to spring football, sliding to boundary corner.

Griffith remains at boundary, but Troy Pride Jr. overtook his starting job. Notre Dame opted to move Pride from field cornerback to boundary near the end of spring. Junior Avery Davis (running back to corner/nickel) and sophomore DJ Brown (corner to safety) were also moved in the spring.

The most notable move to begin training camp came for senior Donte Vaughn. The 6-foot-3, 212-pounder lined up as the first-team field cornerback. Vaughn struggled when replacing boundary corner Julian Love in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson.

Vaughn underwent winter surgery on a torn labrum in his shoulder. His first-team status could be temporary, but Vaughn looked the part on day one.

“He killed it this summer,” Gilman said. “He came back with the right mindset. In the spring, he was coming off an injury. He changed his attitude about some things and had a good approach this summer.

“He’s honestly the best that I’ve seen from him in a while right now.”

Shaun Crawford rotated at free safety and lines up at field corner and nickel. The 5-9, 180-pound graduate senior is coming off his third season-ending injury in four years, missing last season with a torn ACL in his left knee.

If he can remain healthy, Crawford adds versatility to the Irish defensive back group.

“From a selfish standpoint, I love it,” said Gilman of Crawford’s cross-training. “And it doesn’t surprise me. He can do it all. From nickel to corner to safety, he can compete and play right away in all three spots. It gives us some depth.”

More will be learned from Hamilton, Griffith, Vaughn and Crawford in the coming weeks. The Irish hold their fifth and final practice in Culver on Thursday. It will be their first practice wearing full pads and second with reporters present. Notre Dame will then return to campus for its subsequent sessions — six of which will be observed or partly observed by the media.

If Hamilton lives up to the unicorn billing, he would add another dimension to ND’s safety unit.

“If you go a year from today, our first practice last fall to now, the difference is huge,” Gilman said. “For me and Jalen coming off a season with a lot of experience, it can help us take our game to another level.”

Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott drops in coverage during preseason practice at the Culver Academies in Culver, Ind. on Aug. 4.