Kyle Hamilton's counterpart Houston Griffith could determine prowess of Notre Dame safety group
Before losing team captains Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman this offseason to expired eligibility, Notre Dame had already established a succession plan teeming with promise.
Critical to reviving a safety group that went interception-less in 2017, Elliott and Gilman helped Notre Dame finish top 10 nationally in pass-efficiency defense in 2018 (No. 6) and 2019 (No. 5). Yet replacing the multi-year starters hardly seems as daunting as it may sound.
Kyle Hamilton looks primed to secure a featured role in the Irish defensive backfield as a sophomore. Despite playing less than half the snaps of the starters as a rotational player, Hamilton (four) joined LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (six) as the only true freshmen nationally to record at least four interceptions last season.
The Athletic named Hamilton to its Freshman All-America team. Hamilton also appeared among 90 players in the preseason watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award, which recognizes the nation’s top defensive player.
How formidable Notre Dame’s safety unit becomes, however, figures to be contingent on Hamilton’s counterpart. Houston Griffith emerged as a leading candidate following his mid-season position switch back to safety from cornerback. The junior will presumably challenge for a starting spot with Isaiah Pryor, a graduate transfer from Ohio State who committed to Notre Dame last November.
Pryor’s experience and recruiting pedigree as a former four-star recruit made his addition a low-risk, high-reward situation. The notion that Griffith returned to his most natural position also fueled optimism into the unit’s outlook. Junior DJ Brown and sophomore Litchfield Ajavon are backups who are considered long shots to receive significant playing time.
“We’re loving what we’re seeing out of Houston Griffith,” said head coach Brian Kelly about the safety’s progress in July.
The 6-foot, 204-pound Griffith should hope his latest position switch will be his last. He moved from corner to safety to nickelback before his first collegiate game. At nickel, covering shiftier wide receivers in space proved to be a challenge for Griffith as a true freshman.
Griffith then moved to corner until he appeared as a safety in garbage time against Bowling Green on Oct. 5. He played all 13 games in limited action last season, tallying five tackles and a pass breakup.
Both Pryor (2017) and Griffith (2018) were ranked among the top 150 overall players nationally as four-star recruits in their respective classes. They were once roommates while at Bradenton (Fla.) IMG Academy. Either one reaching his potential would make safety one of Notre Dame’s best position groups.
By playing just four games for the Buckeyes in 2019 and graduating last December, the 6-2, 199-pound Pryor brings two seasons of eligibility to ND. He started seven games for Ohio State as a sophomore, totaling 31 tackles, one tackle for a loss and an interception.
Notre Dame previously accepted grad transfers from wide receivers Cam Smith (Arizona State) and Freddy Canteen (Michigan), cornerback Cody Riggs (Florida) and safety Avery Sebastian (California).
Pryor told the Tribune last fall that he aims to accomplish what those four didn’t: becoming a Notre Dame captain. The Irish also added cornerback Nick McCloud (N.C. State), receiver Ben Skowronek (Northwestern) and running back Trevor Speights (Stanford) as grad transfers this offseason.
“I’m an extremely hard worker,” Pryor said last November. “You can ask anyone on my Ohio State team. I was one of the hardest workers over there. I want to make sure that everyone else is trying to get to my level as far as work ethic and teamwork building.
“I feel like I’m a real leader. I’m ready to step up into more of an experienced role.”
The numbers suggest Hamilton should be equipped to handle being elevated from the niche capacity he served in last season. Hamilton rotated with Gilman or Elliott every few defensive series and joined them in a dime package, used during obvious passing situations on third downs.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hamilton recorded a 1.3 passer rating across 250 coverage snaps. He also recorded 41 tackles, six pass breakups and a tackle for a loss. In his first play at Notre Dame Stadium, Hamilton returned an interception for a 34-yard touchdown against New Mexico.
Ed Miller, founder of The Rack Performance Athletic Center in Atlanta, started training Hamilton once the coronavirus pandemic canceled spring football practices nationwide in March. Miller said he expects Hamilton to be a top-five NFL Draft pick, but that he needed to focus on stretching and improving his mobility this offseason.
The former five-star recruit also bulked up 11 pounds, bringing him to 6-4, 221.
“He’s got to be looser with his hips,” said Miller in March about Hamilton’s key for improvement. “In the past, he’s had some lower-back problems, which I’m sure they are aware of. He’s had ankle problems. His left ankle, he constantly rolls for whatever reason. So we will do some ankle stability and mobility stuff as well. Make sure that his lower back is loose.”
With Hamilton expected to shine, the Irish will rely on Griffith and Pryor to handle the rest. And maybe all three will be involved, regardless of who starts.
The day before he announced his commitment, Pryor attended Notre Dame’s 21-20 win over Virginia Tech. He noticed how the Irish incorporated a three-man platoon system at safety. The Irish coaching staff told him they would use a similar rotation if he joined them, Pryor told the Tribune in November.
At minimum, Pryor could filter into the game for Hamilton and Griffith to mitigate their fatigue. Or he could be used for looks that require extra defensive backs. And if Griffith struggles, Pryor proved at Ohio State that he should at least be serviceable.
“Everyone was getting playing time, and no one was complaining about it,” Pryor said about the safety rotation. “(Defensive pass game coordinator Terry) Joseph gave them the plans, saying this is what we are going to do. And then everybody said, ‘All right, let’s do it.’
“The back end played very well in the Virginia Tech game. I just want to be a part of that.”