Safeties 'dropping like flies' as Notre Dame football considers adding another transfer

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND ― Ramon Henderson didn’t sugar-coat matters Tuesday when asked about attrition in Notre Dame’s safety corps.

“We are pretty tight right now,” the senior said after spring practice No. 7. “We’re dropping like flies, literally losing somebody every other day. I’ll get tired here and there, but I’d rather take those reps than not have any.”  

Thomas Harper, the Oklahoma State graduate transfer, is still healing from November surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. Irish coach Marcus Freeman suggested March 22 that Harper would likely be shielded from live contact until fall camp.

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Adon Shuler, the early enrollee from Irvington, N.J., is taking mental reps as he recovers from Feb. 8 surgery to repair an AC sprain in his left shoulder.

Brandyn Hillman, a four-star signee from Portsmouth, Va., was released from his national letter of intent in March and subsequently signed with Michigan. And Justin Walters, an experienced backup, medically retired before the start of spring practice.

Even with DJ Brown back for a sixth year and fourth-year junior Xavier Watts no longer pulling double duty in the receiver room, Notre Dame could explore the transfer portal for still more safety help. The spring portal window runs from May 1-15, although grad transfers can relocate any time.

“We’ll continue to add a piece here or there,” safeties coach Chris O’Leary said Tuesday, “whether it’s in May or after next season.”

Echoing Freeman’s public comments from last month, O’Leary said the spring evaluation is ongoing in terms of “how ready our two-deep (roster is) to play on the big stage and push for a national title.”

No decisions have been made.

“Beyond that, we have (roster) numbers that we want to get guys to develop,” O’Leary said. “We’re always evaluating that situation. I’ve told them we might look in the portal in May. It just depends. That’s a fluid situation. Our mind is always going on that one.”

Oklahoma's Peyton Bowen grieves sister's loss

Former Notre Dame commit Peyton Bowen, the five-star safety from Denton, Texas who ultimately landed at Oklahoma (via Oregon) after major signing day drama, has been dealing with a family tragedy.  

Bowen returned to spring practice last week with the Sooners after stepping away to grieve the loss of older sister Camylle Bowen-Ables, who died while giving birth on March 25. A GoFundMe account had raised more than $88,000 toward a stated goal of $100,000 to help baby Josephine Bowen-Ables and the rest of the Bowen family with medical expenses.

“Peyton was a really good athlete and a great person,” Shuler said on March 8. “I talked to him after he made his decision. Basically, he told me he felt as though him going to Oklahoma was the best decision for him. You can’t really be mad at that. You have to do what’s best for you.”

Early-enrolled freshman linebacker Drayk Bowen (34) goes through drills Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame spring football practice in South Bend.

Notre Dame linebacker Drayk Bowen (no relation), who publicly appealed to Peyton Bowen to stick with the Irish in the days before he flipped his commitment, said on March 8 he had not stayed in touch with his fellow freshman early enrollee.

“It was something that was shocking to everybody, but it was a choice he had to make,” Drayk Bowen said. “It was a personal choice based off what he thought was best for him. You can’t argue with that. You can’t be mad at it. You can be mad at the way he did it, but he had to make a choice based off what he thought was best for him. You can’t fault anybody for it. I wish him the best.”

'Quick' Ben Minich making an impact

Ben Minich, the four-star safety from the Cincinnati suburb of West Chester, has made the most of his opportunities as an early enrollee.

“He is fast, tough and extremely intelligent,” O’Leary said. “With those three things, he’s going to be a really good player for us. He has a good skill set playing in the post, playing deep, breaking on the ball. He might have the most picks this spring for us. He’s going to turn into a good player.”

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Minich, who ran the 100 meters in 10.47 seconds while dabbling in track as a junior, knows how to convert that raw speed into football currency.

“I feel like I’m one step quicker than everybody,” Minich said in February, “so I can give myself time to think. When I react, my first step, it’s quick and I’m out of there.”

His more experienced teammates have noticed that as well.

“He plays fast,” Watts said. “He’s making a lot of plays, tackles like he knows what he’s doing. Obviously, he’s a freshman. He’s young. People are going to mess up. But he’s confident in what he does. He’s going to be really good.”

Added Brown: “He’s really smart. He picks up stuff fast. He knows a lot more than a freshman should know with our play calls. He’s always asking me questions. He wants to get better. That’s why I really like Ben.”

'Give-and-take' with Thomas Harper

As for Harper, who is prepping as a “hybrid” safety who also sees time in slot coverage, his personality is starting to flow.

“Starting off he was a little quiet,” Henderson said. “He talks way more now. He's a real cool dude. Really funny. He’s kind of like me. He doesn’t talk too much with the outside people, but on the inside he’s a good guy.”

Defensive back Thomas Harper (13), a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State, goes through drills Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame spring football practice in South Bend.

Harper, who hoped to add 10 pounds of muscle to improve his durability, has impressed on the field despite post-surgery restrictions.

“Really smart, technician, has good feet,” Henderson said. “He gives me some insight on things that he used to do. I give him some insight on things we do here. He's a give-and-take person. If he takes one thing, he gives you two.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.