Entering 2021, the Notre Dame secondary is a tough position group to read. At safety, the Irish boast one of their best players in three-year starter Kyle Hamilton. However, there is a gap alongside Hamilton after the departure of the dependable six-year Shaun Crawford. Meanwhile, the cornerback position is completely clouded in mystery with a handful of potential contributors. The Irish consistently struggled at cornerback, which was a clear weak spot in an otherwise elite defense.
Florida State’s Tamorrion Terry notched 146 yards, Clemson’s Cornell Powell and Amari Rodgers combined for 294 yards in the regular-season clash, Rodgers added another 121 in the ACC Championship, Jaelen Gill of Boston College racked up 105, and Heisman winner Devonta Smith rolled the Irish to the tune of 130 yards and three touchdowns. Matchup issues against elite playmakers proved troublesome for a great defense, and Notre Dame hopes to overcome that significant struggle.
Hamilton is the obvious and most well-known name here. Hamilton is rated as the top safety in his draft class and a potential top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. A starter since he stepped on campus, Hamilton is arguably a top-three defensive player in college football. Last year, the Irish star was limited by injury but still was an impact presence for the Notre Dame secondary. He only notched one interception, but he was also rarely targeted by opposing quarterbacks. Hamilton racked up six pass breakups and 4.5 tackles for loss, and the rangy, athletic junior is capable of easily surpassing those numbers in 2021.
The Second Starter
Opposing offenses know of Hamilton’s prowess, so they’ll frequently keep the ball away from his side of the field. This makes the second starting safety possibly the most important player on the Notre Dame defense, as they’ll be targeted on a consistent basis. With Hamilton recovering from surgery, the position group had a great battle throughout Spring, competing for the second starting role. Five players showcased their talents, with freshman Justin Walters notching the only interception by a member of the secondary in the Spring game, while senior DJ Brown and juniors KJ Wallace and Litchfield Ajavon each recorded four tackles. Senior Houston Griffith, after withdrawing from the transfer portal, delivered three tackles of his own. Griffith had a very strong Spring and current projects to be the second starter, but the Irish don’t lack options.
Griffith will be the obvious choice to start. He was a top recruit when he came to South Bend and looks ready to overcome the inconsistencies that have plagued him. Brown is a veteran presence on the defense, and he notched a couple of pass breakups in 2020. Wallace and Walters are relative unknowns but had a strong Spring. Meanwhile, Ajavon did not appear to have a fantastic Spring, but he was a thundering presence in the Blue and Gold Game. Among his four tackles, Ajavon issued two bone-jarring hits, including forcing a drop on a potential touchdown pass. Late enrollee freshman Khari Gee provides another athletic option for this safety group. Should Hamilton stay healthy, defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has a luxury of depth at this position. He can rotate starters based on matchups, and packages, which could prove an enormous advantage.
The cornerback position figures to be the weaker half of the Notre Dame secondary. Youth dominates the cornerback room, and with their only full-season starter off to the NFL, questions are aplenty. Sophomore Clarence Lewis, who took over a starting role midway through 2020, maybe the biggest sure thing. He isn’t a flashy player, but Lewis stabilized some of the issues the Irish faced at the CB2 spot. Lewis notched seven pass breakups and a forced fumble on the year, notching six tackles in a pair of postseason games. Former first-team corner Nick McCloud is in Buffalo with the Bills, so Lewis likely elevates to the CB1 role this Fall.
After Lewis, there are a few options, but at this point, the most likely option seems to be senior Tariq Bracy. Bracy was replaced by Lewis in 2020 after recording just three pass breakups in six games, repeatedly getting beaten on long pass plays. Bracy could settle in as the second cornerback again, but the consistency needs to return. A strong Spring has the Irish faithful cautiously optimistic, but an opening game against Florida State, who torched Bracy in 2020, will be a fantastic measure of his progress.
Off The Bench
Lewis provides stability, but he is unproven as a first-team corner. Bracy lost a starting role last season, so there is a bevy of questions about his readiness. That makes the rest of the cornerback depth chart very important, especially if one of the aforementioned names falters. Junior Cam Hart played minimally last season, but he finished his Spring in a strong fashion. In the Blue and Gold game, Hart recorded three tackles, including one on third down, stopping a receiver short of a key first down. At 6’3, 207 pounds (as of Spring), Hart is Notre Dame’s best physical weapon at cornerback, and he could be used against physically imposing wideouts that provide matchup issues for Lewis and Bracy, who both check-in under six feet tall.
After Hart, it’s a question of whether the young guns can step up for the Irish. Ramon Henderson is possibly the most athletic corner in the Notre Dame secondary, but he tends to rely on that asset too much, and he could be exposed against polished route runners. However, measuring by pure athleticism, Henderson matches up with nearly anyone. Against athletic teams like Florida State, Henderson may be a useful weapon.
Freshman To Watch
If not Henderson, the Irish have a couple of options in their freshman class. Philip Riley is an intriguing three-star recruit, but he still may be a year out from contributing. His best path to playing time is similar to that of Lewis in 2020. Should Bracy struggle to offer consistent CB2 play, Riley may be the best option off the bench. Unlike Hart and Henderson, Riley doesn’t necessarily boast absurd size or speed, but he could quickly become the most technical cornerback on the roster. His ball-hawking abilities and scheme recognition are fantastic, and Riley is a near-certain future starter. His path to playing time is clouded, but it’s not blocked.
Another potential freshman option is Ryan Barnes, the 44th-ranked cornerback in this class, hailing from Maryland. Barnes was a track star in high school, so he provides great athleticism, but he is the least likely to receive playing time, as Hart and Henderson reside above him on the depth chart while bringing similar athletic qualities to the table. Not as technically sound as Riley, Barnes figures to be a boundary corner, so he could struggle to get snaps.
Notre Dame Secondary X-Factors
Lewis emerging as a true No. 1 cornerback
This simply needs to happen for Notre Dame to even masquerade as an elite defense. They’ve been a great unit recently, but without a number one corner, having one of the best safeties in the nation will only do so much. To run the table in 2021, a virtual requirement to make the CFP, the Irish will need a lockdown corner. Against the high-flying offenses of USC and UNC, to go with a handful of other dangerous opponents, shutdown secondary play is a must-have. Lewis is unproven, but he played well in his stint as a starter last season. Notre Dame will look for more of that production at an elevated level in 2021.
That’s it. That’s the X-Factor. Houston Griffith could elevate this Notre Dame secondary, and defense, to a new level. He entered as the fourth safety in the 2018 recruiting class and #43 overall player, so the talent is undeniable. However, the production has been shaky and inconsistent from Griffith, and he almost left Notre Dame altogether. Now he’s back and by talent and experience, he’s the best option to be the second starting safety. If he locks down that position and plays at a great or elite level, the Notre Dame secondary looks imposing. Two great safeties can at least alleviate some of the concerns at cornerback, making Griffith a critical factor in 2021.
No cornerback on the Notre Dame roster has an interception in his career. Last year only Hamilton and McCloud notched interceptions out of the Irish secondary. With an offense that has a new quarterback, wide receiver questions, and needs to find an identity, the defense needs to be Notre Dame’s strength early in the season. Forcing turnovers and giving that young offense some favorable field positions would be huge for their success. Outside of Hamilton, the Notre Dame secondary is young and inexperienced, so who can step up to generate key turnovers?
The Notre Dame defense has been a strong unit for years under Brian Kelly, and they boast that potential again in 2021. With the highly-touted Freeman calling the shots, the Irish could be a strong secondary play away from being one of the best defenses in the country.