The Notre Dame secondary enters the 2022 season with arguably the most questions on the defensive unit. With a loaded group of returners at defensive line and linebacker, the Irish must solidify their final line of defense. This is arguably one of the more pressing needs on the roster as a whole. Why? For those who watched the Rose Bowl, they saw Ohio State wide receiver catch 15 passes for three scores and 347 yards. All the passes came from quarterback C.J. Stroud. Both players return to the Buckeyes next year.
Notre Dame opens at Ohio State talk about a scary way to start the season.
So, what does Notre Dame have lined up to oppose the Buckeyes’ lethal attack? Here’s a look at the starters, second-string, and other players to watch in the Notre Dame secondary.
Barring a significant defensive change, the Irish, have four available starting spots in the secondary. Here’s who’s in line to claim those spots.
Cornerback: Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis
This is likely the starting duo the Irish will roll out in Columbus. But it’s certainly not finalized. Cam Hart, who likely would have been a draft selection had he declared, is as close to a guaranteed starter as the cornerback position has. He’s the most physical corner on the Irish roster. This past season, Hart recorded four-and-a-half tackles for loss plus two interceptions. He’s an experienced playmaker that will be leaned upon all season.
However, Clarence Lewis is in a different situation. A poor performance against Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl put the rising junior under the spotlight. The physicality is a bit of a concern, but Lewis is solid in coverage. He doesn’t get beat by the big play frequently, but he did struggle to contain Oklahoma State’s Tay Martin (10 receptions, 104 yards, three touchdowns). Martin bullied Lewis on a host of 8-12 yard receptions. Given his experience, expect Lewis to retain the starting spot, but it’s not a lock.
Safety: Brandon Joseph, DJ Brown
The first spot is a no-brainer. The Irish secured the commitment of one of the top defensive names in the transfer portal. One can’t just replace All-American safety Kyle Hamilton, but Brandon Joseph, with nine career interceptions in two seasons, is about as close as it gets. He’ll be an X-factor in the Notre Dame secondary next season.
The second spot has room for debate, and this projection has DJ Brown sliding into the starting role. According to the depth chart DJ Brown, spent much of the season behind Houston Griffith last year until injuries pushed him into a starting role. Many projections have Joseph and Griffith starting, which is a possibility. However, Brown simply was a bigger impact player for the Irish in 2021. He outpaced Griffin with his 42 tackles, one tackle for loss, and three interceptions. There are improvements to be made – open-field tackling was an issue for Brown at times – but he’s a great option at safety and should take on the second starting role.
Cornerback: Ryan Barnes, Tariq Bracy
There’s little reason for this arrangement to change. Behind Hart, Ryan Barnes is the most physically imposing Notre Dame cornerback. The Irish will groom him to start once Hart leaves. But if Notre Dame feels outmatched with the slightly smaller Lewis starting, they may look to get Barnes some starting reps. That’s not likely to be a Week 1 situation, but Barnes is a name to watch throughout this season.
Tariq Bracy’s role is unlikely to change. He was solid in some of the nickel packages for the Irish this season. Thus, proving more competent as a package player for a top-level program, rather than a full-time starter. He notched two pass breakups and an interception in 2021. He’ll again provide veteran leadership as a prominent second-string player.
Safeties: Houston Griffith, Ramon Henderson
Griffith is still a solid veteran presence who should contribute in 2022. However, to elevate to the first string, it feels like he needs to be more disruptive. He’s a guy that the Irish will feel comfortable starting if injury occurs, but Griffith is a high-level second-string player if that’s where he starts.
Ramon Henderson made the switch from corner to safety last season and immediately looked more comfortable. He notched his first career interception at Virginia. He’s still a little raw at the position, but expect Henderson to get some run out of the second-string, as his ceiling should improve throughout the season.
Players To Watch
CB Jaden Mickey
Jaden Mickey is the highest-rated Notre Dame secondary recruit in the 2022 class. The four-star is not incredibly likely to play right away, but he does bring fairly traditional size to the cornerback position. A hair under six feet and 175 pounds, Mickey can compete physically, and he demonstrates elite speed. He’s not a Day 1 starter, but he’s a name to watch as the Irish try and optimize their production in the secondary.
S Justin Walters
Justin Walters played in two games and made four tackles as a true freshman. He’s not cracking the two-deep with Joseph, Brown, Griffith, and Henderson manning the top four spots. But it’s worth noting that the Irish may lose three of those players after 2022. Walters is probably the next man up in the safety room, especially after Notre Dame didn’t land a recruit at the position this year. At 6’1, Walter has the size, and he’s shown some ball-hawking ability. In the 2021 Blue and Gold Game, Walters picked off Drew Pyne. Walters is an injury away from being a significant 2022 contributor and a definite name to watch.
Where is Xavier Watts playing in 2022? Anybody’s guess to some extent. Don’t rule out a return to a thinned-out wide receiver corps. Or slotting in at rover in a deep linebacker group. But if he stays listed as a safety, Watts may have an exceptional ceiling – he looked quite good despite being raw as a defensive player in the collegiate ranks. So if he’s still in the safety room, keep an eye out for Watts. But keep an eye out for him, regardless, he might be anywhere.
The Notre Dame secondary group is a curious situation. They’ve got a star in Joseph and some competent and above-average returning talent. Is that good enough to slow down Stroud in September? Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei in November? Or Caleb Williams when the Irish close the season at USC? Notre Dame’s defensive ceiling may be set by this group of safeties and corners in 2022.