Analysis: How Notre Dame moves on without impending transfer Derrik Allen

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The more pragmatic curiosity is not where and how Derrik Allen moves forward when he eventually exits the transfer portal, but how Notre Dame’s football program evolves without him.

Perhaps the media that follows the Irish already got glimpses of it Sunday, when cornerback Shaun Crawford dabbled at safety late in the very first practice of training camp.

Allen, a 6-foot-2, 217-pound sophomore from Lassiter, Ga., plopped his name into the NCAA’s no-frills, no-restrictions escape hatch five days later, on Friday. It was a scheduled day off for the Irish in between the break-in phase at Culver, Ind., and the practices staged on campus.

His imminent departure, since it comes before the first day of fall-semester classes, opens up a scholarship opportunity for a walk-on (Cornerback Temitope Agoro? Kicker Harrison Leonard?), but leaves the Irish with five scholarship safeties for the coming season that starts Sept. 2 at Louisville.

Three of them haven’t played a down at that position in a college game, though one of them — freshman Kyle Hamilton — sure looks like he has.

Head coach Brian Kelly has options, and his first opportunity to share them with the outside world comes after Saturday’s practice.

The one that makes the most sense for both the long term and the short term is sophomore Houston Griffith. The top prospect per Rivals in the 2018 Irish recruiting class regardless of position has already auditioned at three of them — cornerback, nickelback and for a short time in the spring of 2018, safety.

For the record, the 6-foot, 198-pounder was impressive in his short stint there, only moving to nickel by necessity when Crawford was lost for the season days before the 2018 season opener.

There are nine cornerbacks on the Irish roster, and Griffith at the moment isn’t the top option at either cornerback position or nickel. Nor would he be at safety in 2019, but he’d have a clear path to start with Hamilton in 2020 if Alohi Gilman follows his lean and heads to the NFL after picking up his degree in December. (Fellow starter Jalen Elliott exhausts his eligibility after this season.)

DJ Brown, a converted cornerback, would be in that conversation too, presumably.

Given the odd recruiting struggle going on at that position group in the current cycle, a purely longer-term project might make sense as well. An intriguing choice would be freshman wide receiver Cam Hart, a long, lean 6-3, 208-pounder fighting a numbers game at receiver but still flashing some promise.

From the time Allen arrived on campus in June of 2018, he flashed very little of his own at safety, despite being advertised as a plug-and-play prospect pretty much universally by the recruiting analyst industry. But apparently they saw exactly what Notre Dame and the other three teams in the College Football Playoff (Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma) saw too.

All four offered Allen a scholarship, as did the likes of Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Miami (Fla.), Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

If there was a miscalculation in his skill set, it was a viral one.

Allen, who will have three seasons left at his new school and presumably will sit out the coming season, not only didn’t get on the field, as expected, as a freshman, he didn’t play at all on special teams, either.

And if Allen was frustrated, it was matched by his head coach and by defensive coordinator Clark Lea. As early as January, Kelly lamented that the then 220-pounder had outgrown the position and challenged him to bring a leaner, coverage-friendly version of himself to spring practice.

He did not, but he garnered plenty of reps anyway.

Allen in 2018 was a curious outlier in a position group that had impressively transformed dramatically under Lea and defensive backs coach Terry Joseph. Some of that progress meant morphing players or by addition and subtraction.

In the five recruiting cycles from 2013 to 2018, with the 2014-16 classes having a strong influence from deposed coordinator Brian VanGorder, Notre Dame signed 14 high school safety prospects.

With Allen’s impending transfer, that leaves only senior starter Elliott and since-graduated reserve Nicco Fertitta as players in that group who 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.

Kelly never viewed Allen as a swing and a miss, but rather a cleverly disguised late bloomer. But with 13 players already committed to three linebacker positions for 2019, the head coach wasn’t about to try Allen there, where he’d still have to get past his shortcomings in pass coverage.

“If his future isn’t at safety, then he doesn’t have a very good future,” Kelly told the Tribune 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 (in the 40-yard dash). 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.”

On Friday Derrik Allen took himself out of the oven.

Wherever he ends up, Notre Dame is better off for having Allen for the time that it did. He was the first recruit to commit to the Irish after the Irish went 4-8 in 2016, joining Bo Bauer, the Ademilola twins, Ovie Oghoufo and Phil Jurkovec, all of whom committed before the meltdown.

He also was the first prospect to sign as a result of a new recruiting inroad to talent-rich Georgia. Tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister followed later in that class. Georgians KJ Wallace, JD Bertrand and Hamilton followed in the next class.

Hamilton, who played his high school football in Atlanta, 20 miles away from where Allen did, said he knew Allen well and that the latter always cast Notre Dame in a favorable light during Hamilton’s recruiting process.

And perhaps someday Allen will be better off for having been at Notre Dame, but only if he’s willing to figure out why it didn’t work out — and fix it.

Cornerback Houston Griffith, left, might make the most sense at safety for Notre Dame with the departure of Derrik Allen (center).