Notebook: The best is yet to come for Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, per Brian Kelly

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The Kyle Hamilton that returns to Notre Dame next season for his junior year will be a significantly better version, Brian Kelly is convinced, than the sophomore named third-team All-America Monday by the Associated Press.

“I think you’re going to see him in the weight room do some things that’s going to allow him to grow his game even more,” Kelly, Notre Dame’s head football coach, said Monday via Zoom.

“So as good of a football player as he is right now, I think you’ll see next year somebody that can possibly take his game to an even higher level in terms of blitzing, giving us some additional calls on our call sheet when we insert him into our defense.”

The thing Kelly likes about Hamilton’s game four days in advance of his No. 4 Irish (10-1) facing No. 1 Alabama (11-0) Friday at Arlington, Texas, in the relocated Rose Bowl/College Football Playoff semifinal is that he’s relatively healthy.

The 6-foot-4, 219-pounder departed early from ND’s 34-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 19 with an ankle sprain. He suffered a similar injury in the Sept. 12 season opener with Duke and missed ND’s next game with South Florida.

Monday was the third Irish practice since the Clemson game.

“We got him some rest, which he needed,” Kelly said of the team’s co-leader in tackles with 56. “But I think he’s done well, and I think he’ll be able to play at a high level, which he’ll need to, obviously.”

Obviously.

Five of Alabama’s 11 offensive starters were named first-team AP All-Americans, including Heisman finalists Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith and 6-2, 230-pound running back Najee Harris, the nation’s leader in touchdowns (27).

Jones, a junior quarterback, is No. 1 nationally in passing efficiency (202.3), while senior receiver Smith is No. 2 nationally in receptions per game (8.9), receiving yards per game (137.4) and TD catches (17).

The Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, was named the winner of the Broyles Award on Monday as the nation’s top assistant coach.

“Certainly we’re cognizant of the fact that this is an electric offense and scores bushels and bushels of points,” Kelly said.

And that’s the biggest difference in how this Crimson Tide team is constructed in 2020 versus the one that beat the Irish, 42-14, in the BCS National Championship Game at the end of the 2012 season.

That Alabama team was also No. 1 in passing efficiency, but it was 75th in passing yards per game while the 2020 squad is fifth nationally in that stat category. That Alabama team was 31st in total offense and 12th in scoring, while the current version is fifth and second, respectively.

Playing keepaway with a ball-control offense, something ND executed to perfection against high-octane North Carolina on Nov. 27 and flailed at Dec. 19 against Clemson, is key, but so is a step up in performance by Hamilton and the nation’s 20th-ranked pass-efficiency defense.

“Certainly he creates a bigger call sheet,” Kelly said of Hamilton. “You can do a lot more with somebody with his range, his ability to come down and play close to the football, but yet play deep in the middle of the field.

“That’s a unique skill set that he has. His range and coverage doesn’t hurt, either. There’s a lot of things he does extremely well, and there’s things he’s going to do better as well. He has not reached the level that he’s capable of playing at.”

More All-America love

Irish senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and senior offensive guard Aaron Banks made the AP All-America first team, with grad offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg named second team and grad offensive guard Tommy Kraemer joining Hamilton on the third team.

The AP is the first of the five “big boy” All-America teams that determine consensus and unanimous All-America status.

The others are The Sporting News (Tuesday release), the Football Writers Association of America (Wednesday), the American Football Coaches Association (Thursday) and the Walter Camp Foundation (Jan. 7).

A player must make first team on three of those five to earn consensus honors and all five to be a unanimous All-American.

• Owusu-Koramoah on Monday was named a finalist for the Bobby Bowden Trophy, honoring the college football player who best embodies the “student-athlete,” combining athletics, academics and faith.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence quarterback are the other finalists. The award will be presented on Jan. 15.

Built for speed?

The player expected to be the most dynamic piece in the Irish offense this season actually tried to make good on that premise after suffering a broken bone in his left foot for a second time in less than 90 days back mid October.

Junior Kevin Austin Jr. underwent surgery in early August the first time he suffered a fractured fifth metatarsal, but held off on surgery after sustaining the same injury in practice leading up to ND’s Oct. 24 game at Pitt.

“Kevin has managed the best he can in a difficult situation,” Kelly said. “He tried to get himself back in. Now we’re going to have to opt for the surgery. And like I said, he’s going to come back from this and he’s going to come back stronger.

“But it’s just one of those things where he tried to come back from the break again and just wasn’t going to be able to function at the level that he’s capable of playing at. And so we’ll have the surgery after the season.”

Austin rehabbed in earnest with the hope of returning in December but never got to the point where he was actually able to practice. He saw action in just two games in 2020 after sitting out 2019 because of a suspension — Oct. 10 against Florida State and Oct. 17 vs. Louisville. He had one catch for 18 yards against the Seminoles.

Another expected 2020 starter-turned-bystander, junior Braden Lenzy, will be available against Alabama, per Kelly, after battling a chronic hamstring injury all season.

But can he be impacful?

The 2019 late-season, big-play revelation has a modest seven catches for 63 yards and a TD this season, but only one reception for zero yards, Dec. 5 against Syracuse, since the Florida State game on Oct. 10.

He did not play in the ACC Championship Game loss to Clemson on Dec. 19, one of five games he missed this season.

“Braden Lenzy will help us,” Kelly said Monday. “He’s got speed, which you will need against this outstanding Alabama football team. He brings that element, and I think we’ll be able to see that on Friday for us.”

Center of attention

Kelly said the competition to start at center between senior Josh Lugg and sophomore Zeke Correll would likely result in a decision following Monday’s practice.

Junior starter Jarrett Patterson was lost for the rest of the season after suffering a foot injury against Boston College on Nov. 14. Correll started the next game against North Carolina, but suffered an ankle sprain.

Lugg started Dec. 5 against Syracuse and Dec. 19 against Clemson.

Alabama has center issues too. All-American Landon Dickerson has undergone successful surgery, per Tide coach Nick Saban, after suffering a knee injury Dec. 19 against Florida in the SEC championship game.

Senior Chris Owens steps in to replace Dickerson.

Wardlow to Charlotte

Career backup defensive end Kofi Wardlow announced his transfer to Charlotte this weekend via Twitter, almost two months after entering the transfer portal.

The 6-2, 250-pound senior from Washington, D.C., saw cameos in three games during his three-plus seasons at ND, and made one career tackle.

Charlotte (2-4 in 2020), is a member of Conference USA. The 49ers struggled mightily with COVID-19, having only one of their eight canceled/postponed games successfully rescheduled and played, and only getting in one game after Halloween.

Squibs

• It was all zeros in Notre Dame’s latest a COVID-19 testing report, released Monday. Among 188 tests administered last week through Sunday, there were zero new positives. There are also zero players currently in isolation and zero in quarantine due to contact tracing.

• Friday Notre Dame will face a third Rivals former No. 1 recruit nationally this season. Alabama running back Najee Harris was the recruiting service’s No. 1 overall prospect in 2017. The Irish faced 2018 No. 1 recruit Trevor Lawrence, Clemson’s junior QB, on Dec. 19 and 2020’s top prospect, Clemson freshman defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, twice — Nov. 7 against Clemson and again Dec. 19 against the Tigers.

• Among the 22 players in Notre Dame’s two-deeps, only backup defensive linemen Isaiah Foskey and Jayson Ademilola received scholarship offers from all four of the CFP semifinalists.

• When asked about the CFP format and the proliferation of semifinals blowouts, Saban on Monday took his answer in a different direction — the fading bowl system.

“My concern was as soon as we started to have playoffs that all the focus would be on the teams in the playoff and there would be a minimal amount of interest in some of the other games,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s healthy for college football when players opt out, don’t play in bowl games and all those things. But it is what it is, because most of the emphasis is on the playoffs.

“And in some ways that’s unfair to the other teams. And I don’t really know what the solution is.”

The 2020 AP All-America teamFIRST TEAM

Offense

Quarterback — Mac Jones, junior, Alabama.

Running backs — Najee Harris, senior, Alabama; Breece Hall, sophomore, Iowa State.

Tackles — Brady Christensen, junior, BYU; Alex Leatherwood, senior, Alabama.

Guards — Aaron Banks, senior, Notre Dame; Wyatt Davis, junior, Ohio State.

Center — Landon Dickerson, senior, Alabama.

Tight end — Kyle Pitts, junior, Florida.

Receivers — DeVonta Smith, senior, Alabama; Elijah Moore, junior, Mississippi.

All-purpose player — Travis Etienne, senior, Clemson.

Kicker — Jose Borregales, senior, Miami.

Defense

Ends — Rashad Weaver, senior, Pitt; Tarron Jackson, senior, Coastal Carolina.

Tackles — Daviyon Nixon, junior, Iowa; Darius Stills, senior, West Virginia.

Linebackers — Zaven Collins, junior, Tulsa; Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, senior, Notre Dame; Joseph Ossai, junior, Texas.

Cornerbacks — Patrick Surtain II, junior, Alabama; Shaun Wade, senior, Ohio State.

Safeties — Talanoa Hufanga, junior, Southern California; Brandon Joseph, redshirt freshman, Northwestern.

Punter — Pressley Harvin III, senior, Georgia Tech.

SECOND TEAM

Offense

Quarterback — Kyle Trask, senior, Florida.

Running backs — Jaret Patterson, junior, Buffalo; Javonte Williams, junior, North Carolina.

Tackles — Liam Eichenberg, senior, Notre Dame; Christian Darrisaw, junior, Virginia Tech.

Guards — Cain Madden, junior, Marshall; Kenyon Green, sophomore, Texas A&M.

Center — Tyler Linderbaum, sophomore, Iowa.

Tight end — Hunter Long, junior, Boston College.

Receivers — Jaelon Darden, senior, North Texas; Jonathan Adams Jr., senior, Arkansas State.

All-purpose player — Kadarius Toney, senior, Florida.

Kicker — Cade York, sophomore, LSU.

Defense

Ends — Jaelen Phillips, senior, Miami; Patrick Jones, senior, Pitt.

Tackles — Alim McNeil, junior, North Carolina State; Haskell Garrett, senior, Ohio State.

Linebackers — Mike Rose, junior, Iowa State; Nik Bonitto, sophomore, Oklahoma; Nick Bolton, junior, Missouri.

Cornerbacks —Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, sophomore, TCU; Ahmad Gardner, sophomore, Cincinnati.

Safeties — Trevon Moehrig, junior, TCU; James Wiggins, senior, Cincinnati.

Punter — Lou Hedley, junior, Miami.

THIRD TEAM

Offense

Quarterback — Trevor Lawrence, junior, Clemson.

Running backs — Michael Carter, senior, North Carolina; Mohammed Ibrahim, junior, Minnesota.

Tackles — Darian Kinnard, junior, Kentucky; Samuel Cosmi, junior, Texas.

Guards — Ben Cleveland, senior, Georgia; Tommy Kraemer, senior, Notre Dame.

Center — Creed Humphrey, junior, Oklahoma.

Tight end — Charlie Kolar, junior, Iowa State.

Receivers — Dyami Brown, junior, North Carolina; Ty Fryfogle, senior, Indiana.

All-purpose player — Avery Williams, senior, Boise State.

Kicker — Jake Oldroyd, sophomore, BYU.

Defense

Ends — JaQuan Bailey, senior, Iowa State; Kayvon Thibodeaux, sophomore, Oregon.

Tackles — Christian Barmore, sophomore, Alabama; C.J. Brewer, senior, Coastal Carolina.

Linebackers — Zion Tupuola-Fetui, junior, Washington; Micah McFadden, junior, Indiana; Dylan Moses, senior, Alabama.

Cornerbacks — Greg Newsome, junior, Northwestern; Eli Ricks, freshman, LSU.

Safeties — Kyle Hamilton, sophomore, Notre Dame; Tykee Smith, sophomore, West Virginia.

Punter — Jake Camarda, junior, Georgia.

Versatile Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton (14) gives new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman plenty of options.
Notre Dame offensive guard Aaron Banks was a consensus All-American in 2020.

No. 4 NOTRE DAME (10-1) vs. No. 1 ALABAMA (11-0)

Kickoff: Friday at 4 p.m. EST

Where: AT&T Stadium; Arlington, Texas

TV: ESPN

Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Alabama by 20