Notre Dame freshman safety Kyle Hamilton knocking down walls

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Alan Chadwick strategized how he was going to intermittently duck out of the wedding reception he was invited to this weekend with the same attention to detail that he uses coaching high school football.

One technicality slipped by him, though, until very recently.

The player he hopes to catch a glimpse of, former protégé Kyle Hamilton, and the team he now plays for, 15th-ranked Notre Dame (6-2), will be making their debut on the new ACC Network on Saturday night (7:30 EST) with a road game at Duke (4-4).

It’s been kind of a universal ugh for football fans across the country, expecting more conventional access to the game.

“I know I don’t get the ACC Network at home,” said Chadwick, the head coach at the Marist School in Atlanta since 1985 with not a single season of fewer than seven wins since he took the job. “I sure hope they have it in the bar where the wedding reception is being held.”

At least Chadwick got to see the Irish freshman safety in person earlier this season, in ND’s 23-17 loss at Georgia on Sept. 21.

And what he saw was exactly what he envisioned when Hamilton left Marist last spring as the best player he’s ever coached — a large sample size that includes LA Rams coach Sean McVay, a QB on the 2003 state championship squad.

“If Kyle can stay healthy and contribute the way he has, it’s pretty evident that he has a great future ahead of him at Notre Dame,” Chadwick said.

He certainly has a pretty impressive present.

Despite playing slightly less than 50 percent of the defensive snaps this season for the Irish as a sub and specialty package player, the 6-foot-4 (and growing), 210-pounder had registered three interceptions. That not only leads the Irish, it’s tied for 22nd nationally per game and third nationally among freshmen.

He has one fewer tackle than senior starting safety Jalen Elliott (28 to 29) and one more pass breakup.

“What comes easy for him is roaming the middle of the field,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Great instincts, vision. Plays the ball extremely well in the air. I think that's pretty obvious in terms of his coverage skills and obviously finding and seeking the football.

“I think (he needs to) continue to develop in the tackling department. He's got to fit and come downhill and be part of our run fit. And then just, the rigors of playing college football — all the games that he's asked to play and the physicality associated with it.”

Kelly even went so far as to suggest last week on his radio show that perhaps Hamilton had hit the proverbial freshman wall.

“He has three interceptions on the year — three more than me,” countered ND senior cornerback Troy Pride Jr. “Plus some (pass breakups). Plus some big hits. It's like, 'Golly, there's no wall for him.'

“The sky is limitless for that kid. He's a 6-5 safety. You don't see many 6-5 safeties that can move and can intercept the ball. He's special. There's no wall. There's no ceiling. There's no roof or anything."

Which is similarly what Chadwick used to think about Hamilton when he first came across him as an eighth-grader, except in basketball, not football.

“That’s what we all thought he’d end up doing, basketball,” Chadwick said. “He was very good at it and his dad (Derrek) had played professional basketball. And when it came to football, we actually liked him at quarterback at first.”

A wrist injury Hamilton’s freshman year at Marist pushed him off the QB track and coaxed him over to the defensive side of the ball, where he could still play at a high level with a splint on his throwing hand.

“He got so good on defense, we didn’t want to risk injury on offense, so we limited that. And he kept getting better and better.”

When Notre Dame extended a scholarship offer to Hamilton in the spring before his senior season, he was three-star prospect. By the time his recruiting cycle ended, 247Sports had elevated Hamilton to five-star status and slotted him as the nation’s No. 1 safety prospect.

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s mother Jackie made sure Kyle balanced academics with his soaring athletic profile, something she was mindful of long before Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic extended the first of the college offers.

“And the offers kept coming,” Jackie Hamilton said. “I jokingly told Kyle. It’s like Oprah, ‘You get an offer. You get an offer. You get an offer.’ We used to joke about that.

“But I always told Kyle and his brother (Tyler, a basketball player at William & Mary), ‘You could be stronger, you could be faster. Or you could catch the ball, shoot the ball whatever. But at some point in your life, all of that is going to stop. Even Michael Jordan had to retire.”

So she sent her sons to academic camps, most of them through — ironically — Duke University. Duke, which did eventually offer Kyle a football scholarship, held satellite camps at various campuses in the south for youth in the top 2 percent of test takers.

Kyle has a genius IQ and is a longtime member of Mensa International.

“One of the camps was for three weeks at Davidson College,” Jackie said. “He went kicking and screaming, but I think he learned a lot.”

Because Kyle Hamilton isn’t averse to learning on the football field, because his work ethic matches his immense talent, Chadwick believes he doesn’t just have star power but the potential to be much more.

“He would be a really good leader,” the coach said, “But he’d be a stoic one. He’s kind of quiet, not real flashy, showy. He’s not a rah-rah guy. He just goes about his job with a great deal of confidence and kind of an air about himself.

“As he becomes more comfortable, I could see that happening for him. I could see a lot of good things happening for him.

“I just hope I figure out a way to see the next chapter of it this Saturday night.”

Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton (14) makes a move after making a late interception in ND’s 21-20 victory over Virginia Tech, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton (14) runs back an interception for a touchdown against New Mexico on Sept. 14.