Noie: Second time around totally different for Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

ATLANTA — Seventy-two miles of mostly interstate separate the home of Georgia’s state capital (Atlanta) and the home of a quintessential college town (Athens).

On a good day — one that’s not expected to be bogged down by traffic headed due east to see some Southeastern Conference football — those 72 miles can be covered in about 73 minutes. The two cities don’t feel all that different, but when it comes to playing college football and Notre Dame sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton, they might as well be on opposite ends of this land. A night and day difference. Literally.

First time Hamilton, one of two Irish who call Atlanta home, returned to the Peach State to play college football, he was greeted by more than 93,000 fans at Sanford Stadium on a warm and humid and electric Saturday evening last September. It was No. 7 Notre Dame against No. 3 Georgia and it was a four-hour assault on the senses when every play, good, bad or indifferent, elicited a response from the crazed crowd.

Then a freshman, Hamilton hoped to get on the field in some specific situations. Get a snap on this series, maybe two more on that one. Working behind a pair of safeties that would move on to the NFL in Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman, the tall and rangy and ridiculously talented Hamilton would have to wait his turn.

Second time back in Georgia this weekend — with No. 4 Notre Dame (5-0; 4-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) in midtown Atlanta to play Georgia Tech (2-4; 2-3) in a game that was originally ticketed for night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in November but since moved up Techwood Drive to an afternoon kick at Bobby Dodd Stadium (expected capacity 11,000) — Hamilton has gone from someone hoping to see the field to someone who basically never leaves it.

Hamilton went back to Georgia the first time a boy. The second time, he’s a man.

One reason the Irish defense has become the Irish defense five weeks into this weird college football season is No. 14. He patrols the back end of that unit like a veteran beat cop making sure all order is kept. No shenanigans. No big plays. No busted assignments. Just all business. The picture painted of Hamilton often is one who’s mature beyond his years. He’s grown up since that first trip back in myriad ways. Off the field. On the field. As a person. As a player.

No moment seems too big; no spotlight too bright. He just rolls with it.

“Being more commanding on the field, being more of a leader, someone everybody can look to,” the 6-foot-4, 219-pound Hamilton said earlier this week of his growth since the Georgia game. “I had wide eyes in that Georgia game. Now things are starting to become more normal for me.”

That also goes for being someone who can sit in front of the Zoom camera for six, seven, eight minutes and serve as a spokesperson for a defense that’s climbed into The Top 10 nationally in four categories, including total defense (ninth, 273.0 yards per game). Last year, nobody really knew Hamilton. He didn’t talk during the week. He didn’t talk after games. He was a mystery, someone the program kept in the background while Elliott and Gilman and the team’s veteran leaders did the tackling and the talking.

In advance of Saturday’s game, Hamilton met the media for the second time in three weeks. He operated as if he’d been doing it for three years. He’s become a go-to quote guy. Not yet a Mike McGlinchey in terms of a talker, but nowhere near a Nyles Morgan. That happens when you’re the leading tackler (22) on the nation’s No. 4 team. People want to hear from you. Constantly.

Growing his game

How Hamilton handles everything is one reason — maybe the reason — why he never gave serious thought about staying home for college. Georgia Tech’s a quick trip down I-75 from the Marist School, where Hamilton prepped. Making that move would’ve been cool, but Hamilton wanted to see the world outside that ATL bubble.

“Staying in Georgia would’ve been a great experience,” he said. “But I also would’ve been kind of closed-minded being around the same people I’d been around for my whole life. I feel like I’ve grown more as a result from here (at Notre Dame) rather than being in Georgia.”

The growing never ends as Hamilton seeks to get his game better. That includes taking a notebook with him to every meeting. It also includes watching film on safeties past and present. He studies how Seattle Seahawks safety Jamal Adams uses his speed from sideline to sideline. He watches the way Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu always seems to know where to be, and then gets there. He’ll also boot up old video of the late Sean Taylor, who never hesitated to come up from his safety spot and hit somebody close to the line of scrimmage with the force of a linebacker.

Hamilton takes bits and pieces of everybody and applies it to his game. He’s good, but he’s also not satisfied with good.

This weekend, Hamilton returns to town a member of a defense that’s found its dominance the last two weeks. Since allowing a surprising 26 points in a win over Florida State earlier this month, the Irish held Louisville to seven and Pittsburgh to three while climbing to as high as No. 3 in the polls, if only for a week. While questions constantly hover over the Irish offense, there remain so few around the defense. Especially after what they did at Pittsburgh. And how they’ve allowed a combined 23 points to opponents not named Florida State.

“It’s just been an evolution by a lot of different people in a lot of different position groups,” said linebacker Bo Bauer.

That evolution includes Hamilton, who continues to be a play-maker and difference-maker. Hamilton admitted surprise when Brian Kelly delivered his dual WIN (what’s important now; what’s important next) mantras before Notre Dame pounded Pittsburgh. So much for the one-game-at-a-time focus that so many coaches preach. Kelly counseled his team to not only look at what’s important now (Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech) but what’s next (Clemson) in this stretch of four of five on the road.

Now, the big picture is a big deal. That has allowed everyone to realize that the 12-7 grinder over Louisville won’t cut it. Not for this group. Not for this season.

Hamilton’s reaction to the head coach’s new marching orders?

“It was kind of a relief,” he said. “Honestly, I think it hyped us up a little bit. He has confidence in us and gave off the message that yeah, we’re a good team and we’re trying to win games, but we’re trying to win by a lot.

“We’re trying to dominate.”

Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton (14) will miss Saturday's ND-USF game at Notre Dame Stadium with an ankle injury.