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Notre Dame adds Northwestern transfer, All-American safety Brandon Joseph to suddenly deep secondary

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 19: Northwestern Wildcats defensive back Brandon Joseph (16) intercepts the football intended for Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Garrett Wilson (5) in action during the Big Ten Championship game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats on December 19, 2020 at Lucas Oil stadium, in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Notre Dame lost one All-American safety this winter when Kyle Hamilton declared for the NFL draft. The Irish will replace him with two returning fifth-year safeties in Houston Griffith and DJ Brown, both announcing their intentions this past week, as well as another All-American. Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph, a 2020 consensus first-team All-American as a sophomore, announced his commitment to Notre Dame on Saturday morning.

“Coming to Notre Dame is a Legacy commitment for me,” Joseph wrote on Twitter. “The history of this program and the players who have worn this uniform are held to the highest standards in both football and education. I am honored to be a part of this next chapter in Notre Dame football history.

“For me and my family, Notre Dame presents an opportunity to continue my education at one of the best Universities in the world, along with a chance to compete for a National Championship.”

Joseph had 46 tackles and nine interceptions in 2020 in only eight games, a shortened season as a result of the pandemic. He added 79 tackles and three interceptions, along with four pass breakups and one fumble recovery, in Northwestern’s struggle of 2021. The Wildcats went 3-9 this season, a low point in the long tenure of head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Adding Joseph to the roster the same week that two veterans, who both played well as the Irish defense finished the regular season strong, may seem counter-intuitive, but it cannot be argued the one-time All-American with three seasons of eligibility remaining (Joseph preserved a year of eligibility in 2019; the universal pandemic eligibility waiver then added another season to his clock.) betters the Notre Dame roster.

Irish head coach Marcus Freeman has been clear with his team that potential transfers who improve the team will always be considered.

“I told the players, so we’re always on the same page, we’re always looking to enhance our team,” Freeman said last month. “We’re always looking to find a better way. That’s it. Challenge everything.

“If there’s a better way, if there’s a better person or someone out there that’s going to enhance our roster, then we’re going to investigate it for sure. But as I told the coaching staff and I told the players in the team meeting, we will never bring somebody into this program that we don’t feel is the right fit.”

Part of that right fit is how a player meshes with the Notre Dame locker-room culture that was such an emphasis in Freeman’s hiring process, and part of that fit is simply getting into the University, particularly difficult for any undergraduate transfer. The latter worry was less of a hurdle given Joseph was coming from Northwestern, and that helped allay the former concern, as well. Receiver Bennett Skowronek fit in well with the Irish in 2020 after transferring as a graduate student from the Wildcats. His impression left the coaching staff more open to Northwestern possibilities in the future.

Joseph played some cornerback early in his Wildcats career, and while he excelled as a safety, his real use to Freeman may be as a defensive back utility knife of sorts. Notre Dame relied on a three-man rotation at safety after Hamilton’s season-ending knee injury — seniors DJ Brown and Houston Griffith and sophomore Ramon Henderson — with a fourth impressing more and more in the final weeks, sophomore receiver-turned-linebacker-turned-safety Xavier Watts. Meanwhile, the Irish have remained young and short-handed at cornerback, a roster failure for years now.

If the safety group contains more than two of Notre Dame’s best defensive backs, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and safeties coach Chris O’Leary may find ways to get more safeties on the field, even if that means they line up and play as cornerbacks.

That may be Joseph, or his presence may lead to one of those other names — Griffith and Henderson, in particular, have past experience dabbling at cornerback — to move in the defensive backfield.

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