An unlikely, and young, candidate enters the Notre Dame safety fray
An early-enrolled freshman has a lot on his plate. From getting up to speed in collegiate coursework to being exposed to a genuine strength and conditioning program, much of the challenge comes away from the field. It is to be expected. In the case of receiver Micah Jones, Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander argued the early-enrollment is actually 10 times harder football-wise than it is to arrive in the summer.
“When you come in as a freshman and you have the numbers in your favor as far as a group, we’re probably going 100 miles an hour,” Alexander said at the end of March. “Right now it’s going at 1,000 miles an hour for Micah. He’s at a disadvantage coming in the spring.”
Jones has had to learn only one position. How fast must it be going for cornerback-turned-safety Houston Griffith?
Apparently, not faster than he can handle.
After about half a dozen practices, the Irish coaching staff opted to move Griffith to safety from corner, to a position devoid of a single established starter from a position stockpiled with proven and experienced talent. In doing so, Notre Dame gifted Griffith with an immediate opportunity to contribute, rather than spend a year learning from the likes of second-team All-American rising-junior cornerback Julian Love.
“In the week that he has been [at safety], he has done a great job as far as picking it up,” safeties coach Terry Joseph said last week. “He’s a smart kid. Really happy how he has progressed so far.”
Joseph was not unfamiliar with Griffith before the move, but even on February’s National Signing Day, the safeties coach outright said, “He’s a guy that is going to play corner for us. We’ll see what he can do outside on the perimeter.”
When looking at Griffith’s high school tape, in which he spends time at both positions, the Irish coaching staff clearly came to the conclusion his talents would best serve at cornerback. Seeing those skills in person, though, changed that opinion.
“We think he’s a guy that has a combination of playing away from the ball and having a good sense when the ball is in the air,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday.
“We do a tackling drill virtually every day, and through our circuit tackling and live tackling, he really stood out as a good tackler. At the safety position, obviously that’s crucial.”
That tackling has been a bit of a problem for the Irish in the last two seasons, though quantifying its struggles is a difficult task. When a team’s top-four tacklers are linebackers, as Notre Dame’s were in 2017, that will immediately limit some of the chances for safeties to rack up their stats. The top tacklers at the position last year were rising-senior Nick Coleman and rising-junior Jalen Elliott with 44 and 43, respectively.
Their ball in the air abilities — or, if being harsh, lack thereof — can be decently-measured. Last offseason the critical statistic of choice was the zero sacks among returning defensive linemen. This offseason, it is the zero interceptions notched by Irish safeties. Arguably even more incriminating, they recorded only five pass breakups, three by Coleman and two by Elliott.
Hence, the competition now, and the insertion of a new candidate despite his complete and utter youth.
Griffith’s time at cornerback may help him in the position competition that should be more closely watched than even the one at quarterback.
“You like that he has the coverage skills,” Joseph said. “Because when you play a quarter system, you want a guy at safety who can have those coverage skills.
“… With how deep we are at corner, it’s one of those situations where we want to try to get the best guys on the field.”
One position’s riches may yield another position’s saving grace.
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