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Lacking Kyle Hamilton against North Carolina, Notre Dame again turns to DJ Brown

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 02: Cincinnati Bearcats tight end Leonard Taylor (11) battles with Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety DJ Brown (2) for a pass during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Cincinnati Bearcats on October 2, 2021, in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

DJ Brown has stepped in for Kyle Hamilton against North Carolina before. Doing so last year after Hamilton’s first-half targeting ejection led to Brown helping Notre Dame shut out the Tar Heels in the second half of a 31-17 victory to continue a perfect regular season.

With Hamilton now sidelined by a knee injury, Brown must do it again for the No. 11 Irish (6-1) on Saturday (7:30 ET; NBC).

Of all offenses to routinely dabble against, the Tar Heels’ (4-3) may not be the ideal challenge, or it is the exact challenge someone like Brown relishes. Led by receiver Josh Downs and junior quarterback Sam Howell, North Carolina ranks No. 17 in the country with 6.76 yards per play.

While underwhelming so far this year compared to lofty preseason expectations, Howell has still thrown for 1,851 yards and 18 touchdowns through seven games, and Downs, already named the ACC Receiver of the Week on three occasions, averages more than 119 yards per game. According to Pro Football Focus, Downs has amassed 525 yards after the catch, good for second in the nation. And he finds the end zone; Downs has scored eight touchdowns through seven weeks.

Downs is relied upon nearly as heavily in the North Carolina offense as Drake London is in USC’s, and Downs will thus require a similar level of attention from the Notre Dame defense. Brown said the plan to cover him will vary from covering London, accounting for the differences in style between 6-foot-5 London and Downs, a 5-foot-10 slot receiver.

Against London’s raw physicality, there was nearly no way to keep him from the ball. Against Downs, that will be a problem once again but because of the quick-route nature of his work in the slot. Then the defensive focus becomes containment and keeping him in front of the defensive backline.

“For USC last week, it was more about being physical and always shadowing him because he was a big jump-ball guy,” Brown said. “This week, it’s just about playing our defense. We’re always going to know where he’s at, but it’s sort of a different mentality.”

North Carolina averages 36.9 points per game, a number Notre Dame has broken only twice, with a pair of 41-point performances against Florida State and Wisconsin, one needing overtime and the other a fourth-quarter defensive scoring explosion. And the Irish stakes are a bit different this year than last, vying for a New Year’s Six berth instead of a spot in the College Football Playoff, but Brown will again be asked to step in as the Irish defense looks to hold off an upset from the Tar Heels.

Kelly offered praise for Brown after he took over for Hamilton following the first-quarter injury against the Trojans, saying Brown did “a really fine job for us.”

“He did that last year against UNC, as well,” Kelly said. “So I think it’s time we start recognizing really solid football players, like DJ has done for us.”

Brown entered the program as a cornerback, not playing safety until his sophomore year. He lost the competition to start alongside Hamilton to senior Houston Griffith this year but said he and Griffith have developed a strong relationship, nonetheless, including while playing alongside each other in the spring.

Now, Brown has become a significant member of Notre Dame’s rotation, even before Hamilton’s injury, and will likely remain one even after Hamilton returns. (That return appears as though it could come as soon as Nov. 6 against Navy based on Kelly’s initial report: “No structural damage. Prognosis is really good.” Kelly added on Monday, “There’s some confidence here that we’ll have him back.”)

As Hamilton works his way back to the field, he is still maximizing his presence at practice and in the film room, providing guidance to his replacement.

“He’s just helping me out with certain things he sees that I probably can’t see while I’m playing, like certain routes and the other side of the field or things like that,” Brown said.

Brown has played in five games this year, compiling 24 tackles, an interception and a pass break-up, splitting his focus between the two safety positions. While he acknowledged the additional ease that comes with honing in on playing free safety, Brown said the rest of his routine is consistent.

“Just preparing like I have been for the last six weeks,” Brown said. “Nothing really changes, honestly.”

A senior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well, just as she did throughout 2020.

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