Notebook: Notre Dame football secondary preparing for North Carolina without safety Kyle Hamilton

Tyler James
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly knows his starting safeties on Saturday will be seniors DJ Brown and Houston Griffith. Just about everything else at the position remains a question mark for Notre Dame’s head coach early this week. 

That includes how long the No. 11 Irish (6-1) will be without All-American safety Kyle Hamilton. The junior left Saturday’s 31-16 victory over USC late in the first quarter with a right knee injury. Kelly described the injury as a pinched fat pad after the game, but he did not provide more details on the specific concerns during his press conference Monday. 

All Kelly did say with certainty about Hamilton was that he wouldn’t play against North Carolina (4-3) on Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC), though he didn't believe it would be a long-term issue. 

“I don’t want to get into the specifics, because there’s a lot of moving pieces here,” Kelly said. “There’s some confidence here that we’re going to have him back. Our medical people have done their due diligence.  

“We’ll make sure that we give everybody a chance to weigh in on this matter. There will be some further evaluations during the week. We’ll do what’s right. There will be collaboration with everybody that’s involved.” 

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More:Notre Dame's depth chart for the North Carolina game

Because a healthy Hamilton would almost certainly be a top-10 NFL Draft pick next year, the risk assessment for Hamilton’s return this season will be particularly important. Hamilton and his family will have to make that decision in the coming days and weeks with the help of medical professionals. 

The Irish cobbled together a short-term plan to play without Hamilton for the final three quarters against USC on Saturday. Sliding Brown into Hamilton’s spot at free safety was a simple solution. Brown had already been rotating with strong safety Houston Griffith and playing more in obvious passing situations. 

Brown stepped up against USC with seven tackles, which tied him for the team high with cornerback TaRiq Bracy and linebacker JD Bertrand. 

What comes next after Brown becomes the complicated part. The Irish likely can’t rely on Brown and Griffith for the entire game without extra help. Rover linebacker Isaiah Pryor played some safety against the Trojans. Junior KJ Wallace, who has been listed as Griffith’s backup at strong safety on the team’s official depth chart, didn’t play a defensive snap against USC. 

“We're going to have to do some things relative to the depth at that position,” Kelly said. “I stood up here Saturday night and said, ‘Don't pencil in Pryor at the safety position,’ but you might pencil in Pryor at the safety position after we met a little bit deeper on it.   

“We have to find a little bit more depth at that position, because asking them to play the whole game and obviously being cautious and understanding they are playing other positions as well on special teams.” 

Kelly said the coaching staff needs this week to sort out the best option behind Brown at free safety. Pryor, who played safety at Ohio State prior to transferring to Notre Dame, should be more natural at strong safety. 

Safety issues aren’t ideal for defending the passing attack of North Carolina, which entered the week ranked No. 29 in the FBS with 272.1 yards per game. Quarterback Sam Howell is the engine of North Carolina’s offense, though his offensive line has struggled to protect him. The Tar Heels, which have allowed 3.86 sacks per game, are one of only four teams allowing more sacks per game than Notre Dame (3.71). 

Notre Dame sacked Howell six times last November in a 31-17 win at then-No. 19 North Carolina. The Irish were able to limit Howell to 17-of-27 passing for 211 yards and one touchdown even though Hamilton was ejected in the first half for a targeting penalty. Both Brown and Griffith contributed to the safety effort that day in addition to sixth-year defensive back Shaun Crawford. 

That experience for Brown and Griffith last year at North Carolina combined with playing next to each other against USC should be helpful this Saturday. 

“Them playing high-leverage snaps against USC,” Kelly said, “obviously they feel really good going into this game.” 

More injury updates 

Sophomore running back Chris Tyree, who sat out the USC game, could return to the lineup this week. Tyree exited the Virginia Tech game on Oct. 9 with a turf toe injury. 

“He’s moving well,” Kelly said. “We’re optimistic he’ll be back this week.” 

Tyree rushed for 112 yards and one touchdown, caught 13 passes for 117 yards and one touchdown and returned eight kickoffs for 238 yards and one touchdown in the first six games prior to the injury. 

Three more players missed Saturday’s game with new injuries: offensive lineman Zeke Correll, defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger and linebacker Adam Shibley. 

Kelly said Correll, who started six games at left guard before being benched for fellow junior Andrew Kristofic, is working his way back from a concussion. 

Ehrensberger, Kelly said, was dealing with back spasms. Ehrensberger has played in five games as a reserve defensive end without recording a tackle. 

Shibley, a walk-on graduate transfer from Michigan, was a special teams contributor in the first six games, but his season was cut short by surgery on his rotator cuff, Kelly said. 

Brian Kelly turns 60 

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly walks into the stadium before the Notre Dame vs. USC NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Earlier in his Notre Dame career, Kelly didn’t expect he’d still be coaching the program when he turned 60. But he hit that milestone on Monday with his 60th birthday. 

His coaching career, which began at his alma mater, Assumption College, in 1983, has lasted this long by avoiding burn out. 

“In coaching, you have to have balance,” Kelly said. “It can’t be all football 24/7. Maybe in past decades, for coaches it was all football. 

“People say, ‘Do you get burnt out?’ You get burnt out if you don’t know why you’re doing it. If you’re just doing it to win games and that’s all you care about, you’ll get burnt out.  

“If you’re doing it because you love watching these guys grow and develop and make mistakes but come back from them, that doesn’t burn you out. That keeps you excited. You just have to win enough to keep yourself employed.” 

How to watch Notre Dame vs. North Carolina  

Who: No. 11 Notre Dame (6-1) vs. North Carolina (4-3) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium 

TV: NBC/Peacock 

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

Line: Notre Dame by 3 1/2 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.