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Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive backs, somehow stable despite losing Kyle Hamilton

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

The position where Notre Dame lost a likely top-five NFL draft pick is also somehow the position where the Irish are the most stable. That is, of course, in part because Kyle Hamilton missed most of last season with a knee injury, but it is also because the defensive backs are the one position group that return their assistant coaches.

Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and safeties coach Chris O’Leary have not been at Notre Dame long — two seasons and one season, respectively — but they provided the only version of position-coach stability for Marcus Freeman this offseason.

Hamilton’s injury may have cost the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl faceplant, but aside from that, Freeman managed to piecemeal together a defensive back rotation to overcome losing his best player. That included surprise performances from players who worked at receiver less than a year earlier in Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson, a duo that created flexibility and depth at safety.

Henderson, in particular, changed the possibilities for the Irish last season. Listed at only 6-foot-1, his wingspan covers more ground than that, a fact on full display beginning with his start (and interception) at Virginia.

Notre Dame still relied on veterans Houston Griffith and DJ Brown more than anyone else, but the fact that multiple Irish defensive coordinators continually looked around for the best safety to pair with Hamilton shows just how hard it has been for either of the now fifth-year safeties to command the position.

Henderson and Watts — the latter a more physical option, moving from linebacker halfway through last season — created the multiplicity that Freeman needed to survive 2021 without his defensive linchpin.

2021 STATS
Clarence Lewis: 53 tackles with two for loss including one sack; one interception with four passes broken up and one forced fumble.DJ Brown: 42 tackles with one for loss; three interceptions with one pass broken up.Cam Hart: 42 tackles with four for loss; two interceptions with seven passes broken up.TaRiq Bracy: 38 tackles; one interception with two passes broken up and one forced fumble.Houston Griffith: 38 tackles; one fumble recovered.Kyle Hamilton: 35 tackles in barely more than six games with two for loss; three interceptions with four passes broken up.Xavier Watts: 15 tackles.Ramon Henderson: 14 tackles with 0.5 for loss; one interception and one fumble recovered.Justin Walters: 3 tackles in four games.KJ Wallace: 1 tackle.Litchfield Ajavon: 1 tackle.

The arrival of Northwestern transfer and 2020 All-American Brandon Joseph may change all the dynamics that carried the Irish secondary through 2021. Suddenly, O’Leary has an abundance of players at safety while Mickens may be looking for some stability at cornerback. And among O’Leary’s plethora, Joseph, Griffith and Henderson have all spent at least some time at cornerback.

The first wonder will be who starts at safety, with Brown, Griffith and Joseph the frontrunners. If two separate themselves, the next thought will be if the bronze medalist could be a better 2022 cornerback than rising junior Clarence Lewis.

That seems somewhat unlikely, given that determination was never made with Brown or Griffith in 2021, but after Lewis’ struggles in the Fiesta Bowl, a springtime reevaluation may be in order. For example, a similar order of events once led to a similar reevaluation of now-fifth-year TaRiq Bracy, leading to Bracy becoming a part-time starter. He will be another piece of this conversation, but nonetheless, Lewis probably retains his starting spot, and rising senior Cam Hart certainly will. At that point, defensive coordinator Al Golden and his defensive backs coaches will have the luxury of needing to find a home for that third safety, as well as Henderson.

Notre Dame’s defensive backfield depth is uncertain, but there should be just enough to head to Ohio State with some confidence that the backline will not be a liability. Well, it will not be any more of a liability than every secondary will be against what should be the best offense in the country in 2022.

That confidence will give the Irish time to work in the seven underclassmen with four years of eligibility remaining.

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