Notebook: Coach Chris O'Leary kept Notre Dame's safeties on track without Kyle Hamilton
SOUTH BEND — The most talented player Chris O’Leary ever coaches may end up being one he coached in his first season as a full-time position coach in Division I college football.
When O’Leary was promoted from graduate assistant to safeties coach in February, he was given the opportunity to lead a group at Notre Dame headlined by All-American safety Kyle Hamilton.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Hamilton could make just about any coach look good. He did exactly that in the first six games of the 2021 season. Hamilton led a one-loss Irish team with three interceptions, recorded the second-most tackles on the team with 28 and added 2.5 tackles for a loss and three pass breakups.
Coaching Hamilton was a blast for O’Leary.
“I tell guys all the time, to coach a guy that’s a top-10 pick or top-5 pick that has the character that he has, the mental capability that he has, I’ve never seen anything like that,” O’Leary said. “The guy asks questions that we haven’t even thought about as coaches.
“You always want guys with those intangibles, but then with his talent level, you couldn’t pick a better guy to coach. You can put him anywhere you want to put him.”
Unfortunately for O’Leary, the only place Notre Dame could put Hamilton after he suffered a knee injury in game seven against USC was on the sideline. All of a sudden a position group that only had three safeties with meaningful experience was left without its best player.
O’Leary had to lean on two seniors — Houston Griffith and DJ Brown — and a pair of sophomores who weren’t safeties to start the season — Ramon Henderson and Xavier Watts — to account for the loss of Hamilton. O’Leary knew how that unit performed would be a reflection of how well he prepared them.
“The guys in that room between Ramon, DJ, Houston, X, I love those guys,” O’Leary said. “When I get the opportunity to see them play more, that’s exciting for me. Because whatever we lost in Kyle, I knew as a group they could fill in.
“The challenge of that is you have to spend more time in the meeting room. You have to be a little bit harder on them in practice. You have to be more detailed in practice. For me, that was kind of an opening to invest more time in those guys and see the product on the field.”
The product wasn’t flawless but it never became a liability for Notre Dame either. The biggest test came in the first full game without Hamilton against North Carolina. Tar Heel quarterback Sam Howell completed 24 of his 33 passes for 341 yards, but the Irish secondary recorded as many interceptions as Howell threw touchdowns passes.
Brown’s fourth-quarter interception matched the 33-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Antoine Green.
“He has the best on-field football instincts of anybody I’ve been around,” O’Leary said of Brown. “That’s what allows him to make plays. His football IQ, his ability to anticipate what’s going to happen is as good anybody I’ve seen. That’s up there with Alohi (Gilman) and guys like that.
“That is to me what shows up on game day. For him, the transition was doing it in practice and on scout team to now when the lights are on, he does the same thing. Once he got to that level, that’s why he’s been playing so well.”
Henderson, who Notre Dame recruited as a cornerback and saw game action at nickelback early this season, didn’t make the full transition to safety until the week of the Virginia game. He started against the Cavaliers and caught the first interception of his career. After the game, Henderson credited Brown for putting him in the right position.
“After week one, (cornerbacks) coach (Mike) Mickens and I looked at ourselves and said he might be the safety of the future. Just because of what we had seen in the game at nickel and the way he moved around — long and rangy,” O’Leary said. “When he got in game situations at nickel the first four or five games, he executed better than we even expected. He locked the receiver down. He was confident.
“If you talk to Ramon, he’s quiet and kind of reserved. When he got in the game, that went away. That confirmed for us if we need another DB somewhere, he’s the next guy. So that was easy once that happened.”
O’Leary also guided Watts’ transition to safety after he was previously moved from wide receiver to rover earlier this season. Notre Dame’s defensive coaches had their eyes on Watts since he enrolled as a freshman. When it became clear he could get on the field as a safety this season, O’Leary didn’t hesitate in giving him an opportunity.
The physicality Watts played with as a receiver stood out to O’Leary.
“With his body type, he’s twitchy and explosive,” O’Leary said. “Then you watch him block as a receiver. At the time before the receiver injuries happened, we had a deep receiver room. It was like, ‘This guy has to play somewhere.’ We moved him to rover than to safety and he found his home at safety.”
Griffith, who considered transferring out of Notre Dame before O’Leary was named safeties coach, became a consistent voice at the position. He played more snaps at safety (485) than anyone else on the roster.
“When you lose a guy like Kyle, who everybody looks up to on the team, you have to fill that void,” O’Leary said. “We filled it with a unit more so than one guy, but Houston did a great job of taking his vocal leadership to the next level.
“He’s always been smart and knows what he needs to do, but he got bolder as the season went and he got more confidence. He’s always been a guy that’s been consistent this year, been where he needs to be. He kind of stepped out of his comfort zone a little bit.”
The unexpected stability at safety in the absence of Hamilton allowed the Irish to finish the regular season ranked No. 17 in the FBS in passing efficiency defense. Griffith (38) and Brown (37) narrowly edged out Hamilton’s seven-game total in tackles (35). Brown matched Hamilton’s three interceptions on the season.
But the group won’t be defined by its statistical production. The growth the unit made alongside its coach can’t easily be measured.
When O’Leary first joined Notre Dame’s program as a defensive analyst in 2018, he worked with Griffith and Brown as freshmen. Hamilton joined the team the following year. He credits those relationships for making his first season as a safeties coach easier.
“Beyond being the coach at Notre Dame and all those things, that’s why I wanted the job,” O’Leary said. “I love going into this with DJ, Houston and Kyle. Those three guys, I’ve been with them since they got on campus.
“Beyond all the other stuff, I wanted a chance to coach them and watch them develop and get the most out of them. Stepping into this role, that made it fun and enjoyable, but it allowed me to push them because they know who I was. They knew I had their back.”
What’s next at safety?
No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) will rely on its two seniors and two sophomores to play safety in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 (1 p.m. EST on ESPN) against No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2). Hamilton opted to sit out the game.
Both Griffith and Brown will be eligible to return next season, and the future looks less bleak with the emergence of Henderson and Watts. But O’Leary has work to do in developing depth beyond them.
Senior Litchfield Ajavon and freshman Khari Gee entered the transfer portal following the regular season. Junior KJ Wallace and freshman Justin Walters are the only remaining scholarship safeties on the roster.
Walters, a former three-star recruit, showed some playmaking ability in preseason camp.
“As a safety, Justin has a bright future,” O’Leary said. “He moves well. He’s physical. He has to grow here (points to head) the most. Just getting used to the competition. You’re not going to win every rep. In his mind, he wants to win every rep. When he doesn’t, things tend to go downhill.”
All three of the defensive backs that Notre Dame signed during the early signing period this month have been projected as cornerbacks by Rivals and 247Sports: four-star recruits Jaden Mickey and Benjamin Morrison and three-star recruit Jayden Bellamy.
Bellamy seems most likely to end up at safety of the trio. He played the position as a senior at Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic.
O’Leary isn’t ruling out anything yet.
“We don’t know which ones (will end up at safety),” O’Leary said. “That’s kind of our deal. We want to take the best DBs in the country and they’re going to fit somewhere. Kind of like Ramon did.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.