Notebook: Injured Notre Dame safety Hamilton tries his hand at coaching

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Converted Notre Dame wide receiver Xavier Watts has been taking coaching from injured safety Kyle Hamilton this week in practice.

SOUTH BEND — While Notre Dame All-America safety Kyle Hamilton settles into his recovery plan from an Oct. 23 knee injury, he’s making himself useful to the 11th-ranked Irish (6-1) in their preparations for Saturday night’s home clash with North Carolina (4-3).  

By coaching.

The junior captain’s new avocation will continue through at least Saturday night as Notre Dame will go with a four-man safety rotation of seniors DJ Brown and Houston Griffith, junior KJ Wallace and grad senior Isaiah Pryor, with Hamilton sidelined.

The Irish will be shooting for their 22nd successive regular-season victory over an ACC opponent when the two teams meet for the 22nd time ever (7:30 p.m. EDT; NBC/Peacock), with ND leading the series, 19-2.

“Not being able to play changes your perspective,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday during his weekly Zoom call with the media. “We had a conversation about what the expectations are when you're not playing.

“You are a captain. You've got to be able to leave something at the end of the day. If you're not practicing, you've got to leave something on the field. And for him, leave some knowledge. I think he's done a really good job of understanding that.”

ND vs. UNC:Safety DJ Brown is ready to tackle first career start on Saturday against North Carolina

More:Chat Transcript: Talking Kyle Hamilton's future and Notre Dame's without the star safety

Hamilton’s star pupil is converted wide receiver Xavier Watts. He’s the fifth wheel in Notre Dame’s updated safety dance at the moment. But he is surging toward the two-deeps in a strong hint at what life after Hamilton will look like in 2022, once the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Atlanta product is presumably playing in the NFL.

Given that the Irish like to play more than two safeties in some of their defensive packages, the fourth and fifth safeties are only an injury or targeting call away from being pushed into action.

The 6-0, 195-pound sophomore from Omaha, Neb., originally flipped to the rover linebacker position days after Notre Dame opened the season Sept. 5 with a 41-38 overtime win at Florida State. The Irish lost linebackers Paul Moala and Shayne Simon to season-ending injuries in that game.

But Watts has migrated to the defensive backfield lately, training as both a safety and a nickel defender.

"Xavier had a calf strain, and it really set him back a little bit,” Kelly said. “We were hoping he'd be further ahead in terms of his development, where we wanted him. 

“We're really high on, and you know I've been probably his biggest advocate, but unfortunately the young man has had some soft-tissue injuries that have put him back a little bit. But he's ready to go this weekend. 

“Actually, Kyle’s working with him directly, one on one, this week. So, that's kind of been his student. Really like his upside."

North Carolina stands 15th nationally in total offense (471.1 yards per game). And junior quarterback Sam Howell is the highest-rated QB in passing efficiency on the Irish schedule at 22nd nationally (157.3 rating). He has the nation’s longest active streak of throwing at least one TD pass in a game, at 32 straight games.

Howell is also the top rushing QB Notre Dame has faced or will face this season. His 70.4 rushing yards per game is fifth nationally among FBS quarterbacks, adding another layer of challenges for the Hamilton-less safety corps.   

“Quarterback draw, in particular, is problematic for most,” Kelly said of Howell, “because you're trying to defend the width of the field. It creates great space for him to run. He's tough. He's physical, and he's difficult to defend when he decides to run the football."

Tweeting optimism

Notre Dame freshman offensive tackle Blake Fisher recently tweeted a cryptic message, hinting perhaps that his recovery from September meniscus surgery on his knee might not keep him out for the balance of the season after all.

"Blake is ahead of schedule, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's going to put him on the field this year,” Kelly said Thursday when asked about the tweet. “He is doing really well, healing extremely well. And you don't know really how people will respond to surgery and how their tissue heals and how all those things come together. 

“He's one of those guys that things have come together really quickly for him. Moving around already, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to put him on the field any quicker. But he is ahead of our rehabilitation schedule in the training room."

Fisher has been out since suffering the injury in the first half of the Sept. 5 season opener. Sophomores Michael Carmody and Tosh Baker each started games and were subsequently injured before fourth option, freshman Joe Alt, moved to the top of the depth chart and played well enough and healthy enough to stay there.

Tyree back in the running?

No. 2 running back and No. 1 kickoff return man Chris Tyree was expected to practice in both roles Thursday after missing last Saturday’s 31-16 win over USC and most of the Oct. 9 victory at Virginia Tech with a turf toe injury.   

“He's going to have to show us (Thursday) at full speed that he's ready to go,” Kelly said. “But we like where we are." 

The 5-10, 190-pound sophomore is Notre Dame’s third-leading rusher, with 112 yards and a TD on 35 carries this season. He’s eighth nationally and fourth among Power 5 return men on kickoffs with a 29.8-yard average.

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.

Recruiting rumblings

It’s almost mind-boggling the things you can easily and legally bet on these days.

Among the inventory at BetOnline.ag is where Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler will play next year. His current Sooner team was not among the options, and he’s not in the transfer portal — yet.

And then there’s the odds of where the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in the 2023 recruiting class will verbally commit. Texas is the favorite to land New Orleans Isidore Newman quarterback Arch Manning, the nephew of former NFL stars Peyton and Eli Manning.

The Longhorns are 3-1, followed by Georgia (7-2), Alabama (4-1), Ole Miss (9-2), LSU (5-1), Clemson (11-2) and SMU (12-1).

Notre Dame, which extended an offer to the 6-4, 195-pound Manning on St. Patrick’s Day, was not listed as an option. And Manning has not visited the ND campus, though the family expressed that as a possibility much earlier in the recruiting process.

Who is visiting among a group rife with top targets in the 2023 and 2024 classes is the player who intermittently terrorized Manning in a nationally televised interstate high school matchup last Friday night.

Tampa Berkeley Prep defensive end Keon Keeley tweeted Thursday that he’ll be back on the Notre Dame campus on Saturday for the ND-North Carolina game.

Keeley is a 6-foot-6, 230-pound defensive end, who committed to the Irish on June 28. Last Friday, in a 49-24 rout of Manning’s Isidore Newman team, Keeley had an interception amid his QB pressures in the game.

He’s rated a four-star prospect by both Rivals.com and 247Sports.

Also notable on the visitors list is Denton, Texas, junior quarterback Jackson Arnold, one of seven QBs the Irish have offered scholarships to in the 2023 class.

All but Manning and Oklahoma commit Malachi Nelson have taken recruiting visits and/or attended at camp at ND in 2021.

The others are Dante Moore of Detroit King High, Nico Iamaleava from Downey (Calif.) Warren, recently offered Christopher Vizzina of Birmingham (Ala.) Briarwood Christian, and Avery Johnson of Maize (Kan.) High, who visited ND last weekend.

All three offered QBs in the 2024 class (C.J. Carr, Julian Sayin, Adrian Posse) have been on campus this year, as has the lone 2025 offered QB Ryan Montgomery.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator/QBs coach Tommy Rees deserves a lot of credit for that showing. Behind the scenes, so do Chad Bowden and Dre Brown, hired in repurposed analyst roles technically to get around ND’s pandemic-caused hiring freeze. 

"I think it's an incredible bridge to the coaches relative to constant communication with the recruits,” Kelly said Thursday of their impact. “There's never now a touch point that hasn't been, I think, constantly kept in contact.

“With Chad on defense and Dre on offense, all of those recruits are hearing from us every single day and not by text, but by verbal communication. Both of those guys have done a great job of maintaining that communication on a day-to-day basis."

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI

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