Brandon Joseph, Notre Dame's outspoken star, wants to prove he can handle the heat

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame safety Brandon Joseph (center) holds a chicken with guidance from Unity Gardens staff member Shay Chupp (left) during Aug. 3 volunteer visit in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Brandon Joseph doesn’t back down from a challenge.

This became evident on a recent goodwill tour of Unity Gardens on the city’s west side. A three-hour, behind-the-scenes visit could have been derailed in its early stages, especially with the start of fall camp just two days away, but Notre Dame’s new star safety powered through.

It wasn’t just the midday sun beating down on Joseph and the black T-shirt he wore on a breezeless 93-degree afternoon. He’s from College Station, Texas, after all; he can handle the heat.

The Buzz Button, well, that’s another matter entirely.

Handed one of the bright yellow blooms of the potent edible flower, Joseph listened carefully to the scouting report from Unity Gardens founder and president Sara Stewart. Used for centuries as a pain reliever in South America and known alternatively as the Toothache Plant, the Buzz Button tends to overpower the most rugged of palates.

Notre Dame junior safety Brandon Joseph (left) gets dirty he picks fresh carrots along with Unity Gardens staff members Katie Lane (center) and Shay Chupp (right) during Aug. 3 visit to the Main Garden on Prast Boulevard.

“It makes your mouth numb, and then you drool,” explained one of Stewart’s assistants, a young woman named Meg.

“What do you think?” Stewart said. “Are you up for it?”

Joseph, the 2020 All-American and Northwestern transfer, barely let her finish the sentence before he extended his hand.

“I want to try those,” he said.  

Notre Dame junior safety Brandon Joseph bites into a peach during Aug. 3 tour of Unity Gardens in South Bend. The Peach Bowl on New Year's Eve in Atlanta will host one of two national semifinals in the College Football Playoff.

Moments later, after biting into the seemingly harmless bud, Joseph understood his hosts’ warning. One side of his mouth went numb, and then he couldn’t stop spitting.

Once, twice, five times, maybe 10 times in all. The Buzz Button had claimed another non-believer.

“Wow,” Joseph said, shaking his head and laughing. “My mouth is tingling.”

It took maybe a minute for his salivary glands to calm down, but Joseph had come too far to turn back now. Next thing he knew, he was in a chicken coop, carefully cradling a white-feathered friend he dubbed “Cloud,” but not before wisely asking if chickens were cool with being held.

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Maybe 30 seconds of awkward chicken snuggling and promotional photos ensued before Joseph made the smart call.

“OK, Cloud,” he said. “I’m putting you down.”

Burning questions

In addition to his sense of adventure and curiosity, Joseph also flashed an engaging, even self-deprecating sense of humor at numerous points in his extended volunteer turn.

Spotting some catnip inside one of the five greenhouses at the back of the sprawling grounds, Joseph asked garden guides Shay Chupp and Katie Lane what it was about the herb that made cats act so crazy.

“Does catnip work on dogs?” he wondered aloud.

“Y’all get stung by bees out here?” he asked amid some buzzing.

Notre Dame safety Brandon Joseph (16) during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

His parents, Gina and Jerome, have a family garden back home in College Station, but Joseph admitted he’s never shown much interest in helping. He’d always choose video games over cultivation.

As he later spent 20 minutes on his hands and knees pulling fresh carrots out of the soil, it was pointed out that he could no longer use ignorance as an excuse to shirk garden chores.

“I’m getting dirty,” he said. “I know too much now.”

Informed of this a few days later in a phone interview, Gina Joseph laughed.

“Hey, I’m putting him to work when he comes back,” she said. “He’s always giving me a hard time because my husband and I are always out in the yard. Yes, I love to garden. And yes, he didn’t typically want to help but now I’m putting him to work because he knows.”

'Am I funny?'

Asked recently for one word to describe his close friend and offseason training partner, Northwestern cornerback Cameron Mitchell didn’t hold back.

“Goofball,” he said. “Once we get that helmet and that jersey off, he is a clown.”


“He does things that cannot be shared,” Mitchell said with a grin. “He’s one of those guys that’s just funny on accident. You’re not laughing with him. You’re laughing at him. You know what I’m saying?”

Joseph’s willingness to be the target of his teammates’ jokes helped the Wildcats deal with the pressure of a 7-2 season in 2020 just as it softened the pain of a 3-9 nightmare last fall.

“He’ll laugh at himself, and we’ll laugh right at him,” Mitchell said. “He’s funny. He’s fun to be around. He’s a good time. I love him. I hate that he had to go.”

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Apprised of his friend’s assessment, Joseph pauses a moment before answering.

“He’s got a point,” Joseph said. “If you don’t think I’m funny, then I haven’t opened up to you for real.”

He cited a promising relationship he thought he’d built just recently, but he was disappointed when he put it to the test.

“I was like, ‘Am I funny? Do you think I’m funny?’ “ Joseph said, sounding far less dangerous than Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas.” “And they were like, ‘Naw.’ “

Joseph was stunned and saddened.

“I’m like, ‘OK, you can’t actually know me — like know me know me — and not think I’m funny.”

It’s usually only around his family and friends that Joseph will share his most humorous insights.

“I’m surprised that you picked up on his sense of humor just because he’s not usually super outgoing,” Gina Joseph said. “He tends to be quiet. I wouldn’t really think of him as a clown because he’s more reserved. Maybe with his teammates he’s a little more outgoing, but yeah, I guess he can be a goofball.”

The outsider

Making connections with his new teammates and support system since his January arrival hasn’t always been easy.

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“It’s been weird in a way,” Joseph said. “I’m not typical, where I’ve been here for four years and built a relationship up with these guys. I hate how I go around and I don’t know everyone’s name, I don’t know everyone’s class, I don’t know where everyone’s from.”

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That goes for the student managers and ever-growing support staff as much as the extended group of coaches and analysts, to say nothing of the 120-man uniformed roster. 

Senior safety Houston Griffith, who works out with the same trainer in Chicago as Joseph, helped smooth the transition, as did the Ademilola Twins, Jayson and Justin.

“A lot of them took me in,” Joseph said. “Certain guys like Houston and most of the (defensive backs) and a lot of the D-line and the offense, even the receivers.”

It wasn’t immediate, however.

“They realized I’m the type of person that you want on a team and that you want to get closer to,” he said. “They really started to take me in, and I appreciate all of them for that. Not knowing these guys all four years, not having the same relationships as the rest of them do, you can feel like an outsider.”

Change of plans

Academics have been another hurdle for Joseph, who had hoped to earn his sociology degree by December so he could prepare for the NFL Draft in late April. Instead, due to the difficulty of transferring credits from Northwestern to Notre Dame, he expects to leave South Bend without his degree.

“That was definitely in my plan,” he said. “Whenever I hit the portal (after Christmas), the first conversations we had, it was, ‘Let’s get that (degree).’

Gina Joseph, a real estate attorney, serves as her son’s manager. Brandon Joseph said she made it clear to the admissions people at any university showing serious interest that an accelerated degree was a nonnegotiable item.

“There’s certain things I let her push,” he said, “and she pushed: ‘I don’t want Brandon to transfer, because he’s so close to graduating from Northwestern, (if) he can’t graduate.’ That hope was on the mind, the hope that it could happen. … Unfortunately, timing-wise, it’s not going to work out.”

Brandon Joseph during football practice April 2, 2022 at the Irish Athletics Center in South Bend.

Switching from the Learning and Organizational Change track at Northwestern to sociology at Notre Dame proved far more difficult than Joseph and his family initially believed. Converting credits he had accrued on Northwestern’s quarter system into the more widely used semester system in place at Notre Dame was a hurdle as well.  

“It was a double whammy,” Gina Joseph said. “I think it was going to be a challenge transferring anywhere.”

Said the safety: “Unfortunately, I knew from Day 1 when I got in, none of my (LOC) credits came. I transferred into sociology at Notre Dame because I guess I took a few sociology classes on the side (at Northwestern). So, they just grabbed a few of those, grabbed all my LOC and made what they could out of it and put me in sociology.”

Joseph and his family aren’t even sure how many credit hours he’ll need to graduate once he completes the fall semester, but the hope is that he will eventually get to the finish line, even if that means coming back after he establishes himself in the NFL.

“I think the move to Notre Dame is really good and one way for him to solidify his success, hopefully, in the draft and in the pros,” Gina Joseph said. “We thought he would be closer (to graduating). We thought there might have been a chance that he would be able to graduate before he declared, but we knew transferring that it wouldn’t be certain.”

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There’s a reason Joseph and Mitchell end every one of their regular phone calls with the same optimistic reminder: “See you at the draft.”

“He knows what he wants to do, and that’s play pro football,” Gina Joseph said. “I believe he’ll get his degree eventually. It’s just he’s got to do what’s best for his football career, and if that means he postpones graduating until he can finish some classes up over the summer, that’s what he’ll do. ... It will be just a little bit longer for the degree.”

Fitz and the 'golden horseshoe'

When it comes to football, Joseph’s grasp of the game’s subtleties, along with his instincts and preparation, have made him one of the premier ballhawks in the modern college game.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald used to tease Joseph about having a “golden horseshoe” wedged in his posterior, but Joseph is around the football so much there’s nothing lucky about his uncommon production.

“Fitz would always say that about the golden horseshoe,” Joseph said. “They love saying I get lucky. Like, ‘You always find the ball. The ball always comes to you.  You have some type of magnet in you.’

“Man, maybe it’s because I know what I’m doing a little bit. Maybe this is my occupation. Maybe I’m somewhat good at this.”

He had six interceptions in nine games as a 2020 All-American, and through his first spring practice with the Irish he came down with at least one pick in eight of the first nine sessions.  

“Then quarterbacks finally learned,” he said. “I had to start talking: ‘Hey, stop throwing me the (freaking) ball. Let’s lock in.’ ”

Mitchell cites Joseph’s 40-inch vertical and recovery speed as key factors in a career interception total now at nine through 21 games.

“He claims he used to bait guys on purpose or (maybe) he was just getting beat, but it worked out for him,” Mitchell said. “He’s a ballhawk. He practices his catches, but I think that’s just instinctive. You can’t learn that. You can’t teach that. He was just born with it.”

Joseph agrees with his former teammate.  

“Oh, I bait,” he said. “That’s when I get to play with the quarterback: ‘I’m looking at you. I know.’ Picking the ball off is just what I do and it’s what really comes natural to me.”

Joseph’s high school experience at quarterback and receiver helps him stay one step ahead of the opponent.

“The way I understand the game, my advantage on the field is (in)surmountable,” he said. “I think every quarterback I go against is not good. My mindset is: I know more than the quarterback. I know exactly what the quarterback wants to do.”

Ignoring the sprinklers that kept passing his way, Joseph held an imaginary football and pantomimed a post-snap scenario.

“When a quarterback drops back, after they look here, I know where they’re going to move and I know where they’re going to throw the ball,” he said. “There’s a lot that I know out there that a lot of people just don’t think about.”

'That game is everything'

Joseph’s top YouTube highlight remains his one-handed circus grab in the end zone while locked in man-to-man coverage against Ohio State wideout Garrett Wilson, a fellow Texan who went 10th overall in the NFL Draft last spring.

That interception came in the Big Ten Championship Game as the 15th-ranked Wildcats led the No. 3 Buckeyes until late in the third quarter before falling 22-10.

“We should’ve won that game,” Joseph said.

Northwestern Wildcats defensive back Brandon Joseph (16) intercepts a pass in the end zone intended for Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Garrett Wilson (5) during the second quarter of the Big Ten Championship football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Cfb Big Ten Championship

More than 20 months will have passed between that upset bid and Joseph’s Notre Dame debut on Sept. 3 at Ohio Stadium, aka The Horseshoe. Justin Fields, now starting for the NFL's Chicago Bears, has given way to Heisman Trophy-frontrunner C.J. Stroud at quarterback, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Marvin Harrison Jr. are the primary receiving weapons.

Yet, Joseph can still draw heavily on how it felt to be on the same field with a loaded Buckeyes roster, competing at the game’s highest level and conceding nothing.

“The only thing I think about right now is Ohio State,” he said. “I ain’t going to lie to you. That’s everything. That game is everything. That starts our season off. After we beat them, we sail through the season as the best defense in the country, undoubtedly. My whole mindset is on Ohio State.

“I’m not focused on anything but C.J. and Jaxon and Harrison and everyone they got over there. That’s our first step. The national championship is my only goal, but with a Week One like that, I don’t think about anything else.”

Nor was it a verbal slip for Joseph to use the language of certainty — “After we beat them” — in discussing the trip to Columbus. He slyly did the same thing in his only media session of spring practice, and he has continued to speak in those terms around his new teammates.

Asked if he believes in speaking things into existence, Joseph smiled.

“One hundred percent,” he said. “Everyone I’ve talked to, at least, knows it’s not an ‘if.’ It sure as (heck) ain’t an ‘if.’ It’s a confidence thing. I know the type of player I am. I mean, maybe it’s because I’ve played them before.”

Notre Dame is a solid two-touchdown underdog at a place where Ohio State has lost just four times over the past decade. Joseph embraces the challenge.

“I played against Garrett Wilson, Justin Fields, guys about to go to the league and tear it up, where I envision myself being,” he said. “When it comes to Ohio State, it’s not a question for me of ‘if.’ It’s a ‘when we beat them, who’s next?’ type of thing. And the (Notre Dame) guys that have similar mindsets say the same thing.”

Just in case, Joseph might want to bring his golden horseshoe.

Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.