Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton's 'annoying' talents extend beyond the football field

Tyler James
ND Insider
Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton was a starter as a true freshman and an All-American as a sophomore.

Forgive Kyle Hamilton’s family for calling him annoying. 

That’s not the adjective they use to describe the All-American Notre Dame safety’s personality. Those descriptors are much more complimentary. He’s considerate, genuine, methodical and funny. 

But when you’ve watched someone be good at seemingly anything he’s tried for the past 20 years, it’s hard to describe that talent as anything other than annoying. 

At 2 years old, Hamilton could throw a plastic baseball on target with regularity. At 6 years old, Hamilton was throwing touchdown passes and running through collisions in his first season of football. At 15 years old, Hamilton received his first college scholarship to play basketball at Tulane. 

Tyler Hamilton, Kyle’s older brother by four years, was a pretty good athlete himself. He became a scholarship basketball player at the University of Pennsylvania and later made a graduate transfer to William & Mary. Yet everything seemed to come easier for Kyle. 

“He was always good at everything, which sort of is annoying as an older brother,” Tyler said. “When I was younger, stuff came a little bit more difficult to me at times, specifically with sports. He went out and played lacrosse for one year just for the hell of it. Never touched a lacrosse stick in his life, goes out, makes the team and actually gets playing time.” 

The list of Kyle’s skills seems endless. At a young age he was beating his older brother in “Call of Duty” video games. He's good at Ping-Pong, billiards and bowling. Golf has become the latest leisure activity in which Kyle routinely dominates. 

When Kyle went home for summer break this year, he played golf nearly every day. Derrek Hamilton, Kyle’s father, estimates Kyle is a 6-handicap golfer. Derrek, a regular on the links, is a 12 handicap himself. 

“He’s ridiculous at golf,” Tyler said. “It’s not even fun playing with him. He’s so strong, he doesn’t even use his driver.” 

“He just hits the ball so far where it’s not even fun,” Derrek added. “He hits a 2-iron 280 (yards).”

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The athletic traits of both Tyler and Kyle shouldn’t be surprising. Their father was a star basketball player at the University of Southern Mississippi, a third-round pick in the 1988 NBA Draft and a professional basketball player overseas for more than a decade. 

Their mother, Jackie, passed on some artistic and academic traits as well. Before changing careers to become an HR manager for a marketing company, Jackie worked as a high-end painter specializing in faux finishes, murals and furniture. 

Kyle dabbled in painting a little bit when he was young. His work was good enough to be selected by his school to be shown at a local museum and some pieces still hang around Jackie’s home. 

Oh, and one more thing. 

“Did I tell you he's a Mensa?” Jackie said. “He's a Mensa member. He doesn't act like it. Sometimes he does some silly stuff, but he’s a certified Mensa member.” 

The Mensa organization recognizes people who score within the upper two percent of an approved intelligence test. Kyle backed up his Mensa bona fides by scoring a 30 on his ACT to the chagrin of his older brother. Tyler, who has since completed a Master of Business Administration, took the test three times and was proud of his 29. Then Kyle one-upped him on his first attempt. 

“He likes to have that little bragging right,” Tyler said. 

Kyle certainly has the football bragging rights in a family so closely linked to basketball. But football was always something Kyle connected with even at a young age. He first asked his mother to play the sport at 3 years old when he was watching his older brother play. Jackie told him he had to wait until he was 6 years old in accordance with league rules. 

On Kyle’s sixth birthday, he woke up his mother to let her know that he was ready to play football even though it was only March and he still needed to wait five more months until the next season started. 

He excelled on the football field just like everywhere else and a love for the game blossomed. Derrek did his best to adapt some of the drills he used to train professional basketball players to help Kyle’s football development.

Kyle had dreams of becoming a professional athlete, but he entered high school at 5-foot-8 and 135 pounds.

“I was like any other kid,” Kyle said. “I wanted to be in the NBA. I wanted to be in the NFL. But at the time it was pretty bleak. 

“Then my dad's genes kicked in, I guess. I was 6-3 by the end of my sophomore year, so the dream got a little more real.”

Kyle Hamilton was a three-star safety recruit in 2019 out of Atlanta Marist High School, but was bumped up to five-star status late in the cycle. He was an All-American for Notre Dame last year as a sophomore.

Then football scholarships came. Major football programs, including Notre Dame, Clemson and Ohio State, joined the pursuit of Hamilton following his junior season at Atlanta’s Marist School. Months after he committed to the Irish, 247Sports, which originally slated Kyle as a three-star recruit, named him a five-star prospect as one of the top 32 players in the 2019 class.

Kyle Hamilton, then a recruit, is shown visiting Notre Dame before the Michigan game Sept. 1, 2018.

“He was always one of the better players, but how do you know if that is enough to be at this level, right?” Jackie said. “I had no idea how good he was until he was good.” 

What is left for Kyle Hamilton to prove? 

In two seasons at Notre Dame, Kyle Hamilton managed to both meet the elite expectations thrust upon him and not quite maximize the potential in his game. 

A left ankle injury that first occurred in the season opener against Duke nagged Hamilton throughout his sophomore season last year. Yet he still was named a first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America, a second-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association and the Walter Camp Foundation, and a third-team All-American by the Associated Press. 

Hamilton missed part of the Duke game, sat out the entire South Florida game and was ejected in the first half of the North Carolina game for targeting, and he still led Notre Dame in tackles with 63 — one ahead of Butkus Award-winning linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who played in all 12 games. 

Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton (14) runs back an interception for a touchdown against  New Mexico in 2019. Hamilton had four interceptions as a freshman and one as a sophomore.

Hamilton spent a lot of time in the training room to keep himself available to play throughout the season, but a tweak every so often in practice left him playing at less than 100% speed on Saturdays. The long-term solution this offseason required surgery in January. 

“It was a smart thing to do because it was bothering me the whole season last year, and I was still able to play pretty well,” Hamilton said. “But at the same time, I feel like I could have made a couple more plays if not for that. I don't want to make excuses, but I just want to play as healthy as possible.” 

That meant Hamilton was able to do very little in his first spring with new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and new safeties coach Chris O’Leary. Hamilton liked what he saw from Freeman and was already comfortable with O’Leary from his time as a graduate assistant. Hamilton described Freeman’s scheme and approach as something that will bring the best out of him and his teammates. 

Watching it being put into place rather than experiencing it himself wasn’t exactly a fun time for Hamilton though. 

“Camp’s going to be really big for me in terms of just getting comfortable within the defense, knowing my assignments, knowing how to play it and how things play out on the field,” Hamilton said. “Getting actual, physical reps rather than mental reps will be really helpful for me.” 

Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton (14) reacts after breaking up a pass intended for Louisville’s Chatarius Atwell (1) Sept. 2, 2019. It was Hamilton's first game with the Irish.

Freeman can’t wait to have Hamilton at his defense’s disposal either. He wasn’t afraid to describe Hamilton’s 6-foot-4, 221-pound body as beautiful even though he knew it might be a strange way to talk about a player. Freeman saw so much talent in Hamilton that it informed how he will design his defense around him. 

“We all know he looks different,” Freeman said. “We all know that he's performed at great heights. But I'm excited to see him grow. He's a guy that I'm going to push.” 

Shortly after being hired in January, Freeman reached out to Hamilton to identify mistakes he made last season. Freeman used those examples to show Hamilton how becoming better with spatial awareness and in tackling can make a difference in games. He also challenged Hamilton to become a better leader.

DRAFT DEFENDERS

Hamilton’s teammates have plenty of reasons to respect the All-American safety who could become a first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft. He will need to take a more vocal role in the defense, but leading by example will come easier to him. Showing that he’s not worried about individual success or whether this will be his last season at Notre Dame can only help in his leadership role. 

“I'm just trying to play my game, follow the game plan, be a good teammate, be a good leader and everything will fall into place,” Hamilton said. 

Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton tackles Clemson's Travis Etienne during the 2020 ACC Championship in Charlotte, N.C.

Hamilton won’t pretend he doesn’t see the NFL chatter on social media. As a five-star recruit who played immediately as a freshman, he’s no stranger to these kinds of expectations. Hamilton knows that his draft stock can change quickly. But he doesn’t have to become someone else for the NFL scouts to continue to covet him. 

“If you can play man coverage, you can get your hands on people, you can close space and then you can be physical at the point of attack, you have a chance to be a first-round pick,” Freeman said. “Obviously that’s why Kyle Hamilton has that potential.” 

Who is the real Kyle Hamilton? 

Outside of his freakish athletic ability and Mensa-level IQ, Kyle Hamilton is a pretty typical 20-year-old man. 

He likes to hang out with his friends, family and girlfriend in his spare time. He plays video games and golf. He loves to listen to Drake and watch LeBron James play basketball. 

Except Hamilton’s obsession with those last two might go a little bit further than most. Many of his recent Instagram posts are captioned with lyrics from Drake songs. He’s been listening to the Canadian rapper since fourth grade and revisits his music whenever he needs to reset.  

For Hamilton, Drake could be the soundtrack to a late-night drive or a pre-game focus.  

“Drake can kind of get you into the mindset that’s like, ‘I’m that dude,’ and give you some confidence,” Hamilton said. “He is and he lives what he raps and I appreciate that. I don't like to get outside of myself before games. He's more of a chill vibe and just kind of talking, confidence and brings me some serenity and peace of mind before the game.” 

Hamilton doesn’t get that kind of peace when watching James play basketball, apparently. 

“He hasn’t been able to watch a LeBron game in the past two years,” said his brother, Tyler, “because he says he gets too nervous watching the games.” 

Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton returns an interception against Boston College as a true freshman in 2019.

Maybe more anecdotes like that will be revealed in the podcast Kyle started with his three roommates: cornerback Cam Hart, safety KJ Wallace and wide receiver Conor Ratigan. They named it “Inside the Garage” and want to use it to show what life as a college athlete is like. 

“There's not really many college football players on notable teams doing podcasts,” Hamilton said. “We can provide for that market. We have some good ideas and people definitely want to see what our life is like, some stories behind the scenes, even talking about other stuff like conspiracy theories.  

“We're always having hour-long conversations and arguments about stuff like this, so we were like, ‘Might as well record it.’” 

Hamilton knew it could help them with name, image and likeness opportunities, but he made it clear that’s just an added bonus and not the impetus for the podcast. Listeners will likely find him more relatable off the field than he is on it. 

The glimpses of Hamilton that fans have seen on Saturdays are heightened versions of himself. Even if he’s not as outwardly animated as running back Kyren Williams on the field, Hamilton forces himself to be more aggressive and assertive in competition. 

“When he's coming through the tunnel, that's when he turns into Kyle Hamilton football guy,” said his father, Derrek. “As soon as he walks off the field, he's back to the person that everyone knows he is.” 

That’s why Marcus Freeman wouldn’t have been surprised if the guy he saw making plays on film was loud, arrogant and wanted to be the center of attention. 

Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton (14) celebrates after making a tackle against Navy in 2019.

He quickly learned that Hamilton’s as unassuming as star athletes come. And certainly far from annoying. 

“He’s more of a quiet worker,” Freeman said. “He's a humble worker.  

“You can see him. You’ll notice him. Anybody can notice him, because he looks different. The way he works, he doesn't say much. He goes out and does his job, but he's always looking to improve.”

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.