Notre Dame bowl opt-outs Hamilton, Williams leave behind powerful legacies

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton talks to coach Marcus Freeman's parents, Michael and Chong Freeman, after a press conference Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, at the Irish Athletic Center in South Bend.

The imprint Kyren Williams and Kyle Hamilton made on a Notre Dame football team that overachieved its way into a New Year’s Six bowl was tangible at every turn.

Even when Williams’ prowess was mitigated early in the season by the offensive line’s growing pains. Even when Hamilton turned unpaid assistant coach in the second half of the season, sidelined from playing, with a knee injury.

And suddenly the ND captains are both memories, albeit with likely lasting legacies. On Friday Notre Dame’s leading rusher and All-America safety announced they were opting out of fifth-ranked ND’s Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl matchup with No. 9 Oklahoma State in Glendale, Ariz.

They’ll also be foregoing their senior seasons to enter the 2022 NFL Draft.

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The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hamilton is projected as a consensus top 10 pick — more than likely top five, per draft analysts. The Atlanta product is the No. 1 safety in the 2022 draft, according to ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.

Williams is a projected day 2 pick (rounds 2-3). Kiper rates the 5-9, 199-pound St. Louis product as the draft’s No. 4 running back prospect. McShay projects him as the No. 3 running back.

In a 45-14 rout of Stanford on Nov. 27, Williams became the fifth Notre Dame running back in history to put together back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He joined Autry Denson, Allen Pinkett, Vagas Ferguson and, most recently, Darius Walker (2005-06).

In addition to his 1,002 yards on 204 carries and 14 rushing TDs, Williams tied for second on the team in receptions with 42, good for 559 yards and three TD receptions.

His 10.8-yard average on punt returns would have ranked 12th nationally had he had one more return to meet the NCAA minimum for inclusion in the national stats. He also returned a kickoff for 29 yards. 

Hamilton played in each of Notre Dame’s first six games, but suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of the seventh — a 31-16 victory over USC on Oct. 23.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly was insistent that Hamilton hadn’t played his last game in an Irish uniform. Then Kelly himself left Nov. 29 to become the head coach at LSU. Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was named as his replacement four days later.

Hamilton finishes his junior season with 35 tackles, including 2.5 for loss. He tied for the team lead with three interceptions and broke up four passes. He was impressive enough in a little over half a season to be named Thursday as a first-team Walter Camp All-American for the second straight year.

Then on Friday, the Football Writers Association of America also named him first-team All-America. Those are two of the five organizations the NCAA recognizes in determining consensus and unanimous All-America status.

If Hamilton is named a first-teamer by just one of the remaining three (AP on Monday, The Sporting News on Tuesday or the AFCA on Wednesday), he'll earn consensus honors.

Both players, though, were so much more than their numbers and their individual accolades. They set high standards. They enriched the Irish football culture. They inspired.

“The way that Kyren approaches the game is just different from anyone or anything I’ve ever seen,” Irish freshman running back Logan Diggs said. “His mindset is very strong. He’s very confident. That rubs off on me and it rubs off on our whole (running backs) room.”

Diggs, sophomore Chris Tyree and freshman Audric Estime will see larger roles in the running back rotation for the Irish (11-1) against the nation’s No. 5 rush defense in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Cowboys (11-2) also are No. 3 in total defense and lead the nation in sacks and tackles for loss per game.

Sophomore Ramon Henderson, a converted cornerback, has stepped in for Hamilton in a rotation that includes primarily DJ Brown and Houston Griffith as well, and intermittently Xavier Watts and Isaiah Pryor at the two safety spots.

Hamilton has done a good job of coaching, apparently. 

After ND’s first full game without Hamilton, a 44-34 survival of North Carolina on Oct. 30, the Irish were 76th nationally out of 130 FBS teams in total defense, 49th in rush defense, 31st in pass-efficiency defense, and 58th in scoring defense.

They head into bowl season 30th in total defense, 30th in rush defense,15th in pass-efficiency defense and ninth in scoring defense.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI