Notre Dame at mid-spring: Surges by Houston Griffith, Cam Hart are needed signs of progress

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most telling answer Houston Griffith gave to the barrage of questions coming at the Notre Dame senior safety Saturday may have been the only one he skirted.

Why he plopped himself into the transfer portal for 18 days in January.

Maybe it’s because that player doesn’t exist anymore, or at least that particular version of him. That’s what Irish head coach Brian Kelly seemed to suggest Saturday after practice No. 7 of 15, of what he’s seen from Griffith since his Jan. 22 portal U-turn.

"I've felt like two things needed to happen for Houston,” Kelly said. “Opportunity, and then making the best of the opportunity. For me, I think a lot of that has been just an awareness of the situation that he's in and using what I think is outstanding athletic ability and applying it to the particular situations.

“And I think he's doing that very well this year. I think at times (in previous seasons) he was using a hammer when he needed to use a screwdriver on particular plays. Here, where we're at now, I just feel like he's playing the game with a high football IQ. And, to me, it just is coming easier to him.”

Griffith, now 6-foot and 204 pounds, has shown every winter in the weight room why he was the highest-rated prospect, per Rivals in ND’s 2018 recruiting class (No. 43 nationally). There have been flashes in the springs at three different positions (cornerback, nickel and safety), but longer and more consistent stretches in the fall when things didn’t come easy.

“We've always seen the physical tools that he's had,” Kelly said. “I just think he's a lot more confident. He has the opportunity, so he's getting a lot of work and a lot of reps. That has to be obviously taken into consideration, because he didn't get as many reps as he's getting now.

“But I think this football awareness piece is really starting to show itself as to why he can continue to excel and ascend at the position."

It’s critical to Notre Dame’s 2021 bottom line that Griffith does.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (left) likes what he’s seeing for cornerback Cam Hart (5) this spring.

Coming into spring practice, the secondary was the position group that presented Kelly with the most questions, and had the fewest obvious answers. Which is quite a statement, considering the best player on the team at any position — All-America junior free safety Kyle Hamilton — is a part of that.

It’s still the area of the team most likely to coax an addition or two from the portal after spring practice concludes May 1 with the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Continued headway by players like Hamilton and junior-to-be cornerback Cam Hart could change that thinking.

Hart’s name came up Saturday when Kelly was asked to identify which of the young defensive backs perhaps were working their way into the mix.

Hart — by far ND’s largest corner option (6-3, 207) — was poised to do so last spring after recovering from shoulder surgery during his freshman season. But having the final 14 of 15 practices canceled because of COVID-19 deferred the converted wide receiver’s growth at the corner position.

“He's elite in terms of his length,"  Kelly said. "He's got a really strong skill set, and to play the corner with that kind of size and athletic ability, he can be a really, really good football player. He's still learning.

“There are still parts of his game that he's got to clean up, but as I sit here today and (seven) practices in, he's making really good progress at that position."

Collectively, the secondary fell way off in terms of production in 2020. After finishing in the top six nationally in pass-efficiency defense in 2018 and 2019, the Irish slid to 34th last season. And they’ve lost two starters, in cornerback Nick McCloud and safety Shaun Crawford, to the pursuit of the NFL dream.

“It’s going to be a dog fight in the room,” McCloud offered recently about who might be paired with sophomore returning starter Clarence Lewis at cornerback, “but it’s going to be healthy competition.

“(Cornerbacks) coach (Mike) Mickens is going to motivate those guys to do well. A guy for me that’s on my radar is Cam Hart from him being underneath my wing the whole season last year. I’m definitely excited (about) what he’s going to do.”

That No. 34 ranking in 2020, by the way, is still better than the five seasons that preceded Clark Lea being elevated to ND’s defensive coordinator, but nowhere near the designs Lea’s successor — Marcus Freeman — has for 2021 as he implements a more attacking scheme using multiple looks in the front seven.

“It’s something that the secondary and linebackers and defensive line, we really enjoy,” Griffith said of the defensive evolution. “Everybody’s going to be able to go out there and just utilize their skill set and just go out there and play fast and just play with an edge. Play with a lot of effort and attitude.

“We talk about swarming to the football and just playing with a nasty attitude, because we want teams to feel us every time. And we’re going to bring a lot of pressure. And we’re going to be about that action at the end of the day.”

Griffith’s own transformation includes becoming obsessive about film study and building a strong connection with new safeties coach Chris O’Leary. Griffith, in turn, is passing all that on to the younger secondary players. Ten of the 16 safeties and corners have either no significant college experience or no college experience, period.

“Having this leadership role now is something I enjoy,” Griffith said. “It’s something that’s been able to challenge me.”

The biggest offseason challenge for him, though, may have been owning his part, albeit privately, as to why he plopped himself in the transfer portal on Jan. 4, three days after ND’s season ended with a College Football Playoff semifinal loss to eventual national champ Alabama.

“There were no promises,” Kelly said of the conversations that led Griffith back to ND. “We didn't promise him a starting position. All we said was, ‘That we believe that this is the right place for you and we want you to be here.’”

“I’ve never been afraid of competition,” Griffith said. “Having that conversation with coach Freeman and coach Kelly was just knowing I’ve got a home. And it’s something where they really wanted me to come here and just come to compete.

“I couldn’t turn that down and have the opportunity to finish up my degree, which I’m about to finish up in the next few weeks here. I’m looking forward to playing in this defense and helping this unit grow as a team.”

Lingering questions

There are plenty of other position groups, fluid with depth chart moves and more intent on fleshing out possibilities than paring down.

• On the offensive line, the search continues to figure out who’s overall linemen Nos. 4 and 5, to complete the starting group, and Nos. 6 and 7 to determine the most capable and trustworthy backups.

Injured senior Jarrett Patterson, the lone returning starter, as well as junior Zeke Correll and grad senior Josh Lugg figure to be the three locks, but not necessarily at the positions they’ve been most speculated to play.

“We're not closing our minds toward any combinations on that offensive line,” Kelly said. “And I say that, because I want to keep it competitive.”

Freshmen Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher, both mid-year enrollees, continue to remain in play for at least spots in the two-deeps.

• The wide receiver corps shows the potential to go deep. How deep will be determined by players like sophomores Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts and early enrolled freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr.

• The tight end mission is to find the best sidekick for sophomore sensation Michael Mayer and whether the other tight ends on the roster are complete enough to warrant a lot of multiple tight end looks this season.

• The running back position is about continuing to explore the best way to use junior Kyren Williams and sophomore Chris Tyree as much as and as efficiently as possible.

• Linebacker is not just about finding a new rover and solidifying the weakside ‘backer position (formerly the buck). It’s about adjusting to the multiple fronts and looks and how the various linebacker skill sets play to that.

Falling in line

The position group that continues to project as the strength of the 2021 team is the defensive line. And it’s not just about returning starters, but up-and-coming players as well who continue to impress.

Sophomore defense end Jordan Botelho (17) has surged this spring for Notre Dame.

Among those who Kelly mentioned Saturday were backups Jordan Botelho, a sophomore end, and Howard Cross III, a junior interior player.

“Howard Cross is very difficult to defend.” Kelly said. “Just great leverage, great first step quickness, very difficult to block.

“I don't think there's a guy on the defensive line that would (cause me to) say, 'Man, we're disappointed in them. They're not ascending. They're not getting stronger. They're not putting in the time.'

“Jordan Botelho is showing up all over the place. Really pleased with the depth there.”

Quarterback intrigue

With each passing practice, former Wisconsin starter Jack Coan affirms and justifies to Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees why they fished him out of the transfer portal and made him the presumptive opening day starter.

And while sophomore Drew Pyne, by all accounts, has taken advantage of being given reps as a No. 2 QB competing to push the No. 1, No. 3 QB Tyler Buchner prompted Kelly to highlight his development for the second week in a row.

Notre Dame freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) throws a pass Saturday during a spring practice session staged at Notre Dame Stadium.

“If you want to say who's made the most progress, it's probably Tyler Buchner,” Kelly said of the freshman mid-year enrollee, “just because he hadn't played a lot when he got here.

“His motion is really fluid. He's throwing the ball very well. But he's learning a lot. He has a lot to learn about our offensive structure and just the nuances. He knows football. He's very smart — tremendously smart, by the way.

“You tell him something in a meeting, and his recall is quite amazing. (But) just because you know it, it just doesn't happen naturally. He needs reps. But he's made a lot of progress.”

Safety Houston Griffith (3) has been impressive this spring for Notre Dame after an 18-day trip into the transfer portal in January.