Notre Dame Secondary Perhaps 2019’s Most Intriguing Position Group

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There are numerous strengths on this 2019 Notre Dame football team, most notably the depth at defensive end, experience on both lines and of course the return of starting quarterback Ian Book. However, the most intriguing position group might be the secondary.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said at Media Day that the team’s number one key to success this season will be their ability to stop the run, and the defensive backs will be a big factor into that equation. It’s also going to be fascinating to see who steps up to replace Julian Love, the CB1 of all CB1s last fall.

julian love

Love is now in the mix to become the lead nickel with the New York Giants, and he’s also listed as the backup free safety on their latest depth chart. That kind of versatility is obviously very advantageous for any individual player wanting to win a job/find a role in fall camp.

Shaun Crawford is a cornerback, who is also currently moonlighting at safety, with his best chance to contribute as the nickel. A fifth year senior who has lost three seasons (left ACL 2015, Achilles 2016, right ACL 2018) to serious injury, it’s likely he could be back for a sixth season in 2020.

The #7 rated CB in his recruiting class, Crawford de-committed from Michigan to come to South Bend and when healthy (2017) showed the college football nation what he can do when fully fit. The Fighting Irish are really going to need the four star prospect this autumn.

brian kelly notre dame

“His confidence is back,” Kelly said of Crawford at Media Day.

“His swagger, if you will, is back. He’s back talking, which is really a good thing for Shaun. He’s really going to help us in a lot of different roles, including special teams.”

Added Notre Dame defensive backs coach Todd Lyght at Media Day:

“Shaun is one of our smartest football players in terms of his football intelligence and understanding of the game and his ability to reroute combinations…He brings a lot of value to our team with his positional versatility, being able to play safety and nickel and corner. He’s an outstanding player.

“He’s a guy we have to get into the season healthy, and a guy we’re depending on greatly during the course of the season.”

As expected, senior Troy Pride Jr. (rated the #8 CB in the nation by Lindy’s) has continued to be the number one overall corner, with a strong position battle taking place on the other side. Sophomore Houston Griffith, who played sporadically in the nickel last season is the front-runner, with TaRiq Bracy and Donte Vaughn in the mix.

“Todd Lyght has done a really nice job, (Defensive Pass Game Coordinator) Terry Joseph working together, I think more than anything else it’s given them more tools in their coverage and changing things up,” said Kelly.

“TaRiq Bracy has had a nice camp. We’ve had a couple guys with some soft tissue injuries that are starting to round back into competitive work. Houston Griffith…Donte Vaughn has been out a little bit. He’s gotten the last couple of practices. He’s looked really good. Yesterday he probably pushed himself a little bit. But Donte looked really good.”

“I think our depth there is going to be really good…I just think we got a lot of depth, a lot of versatility.”

The safeties went from a weakness in 2017 to a strength in 2018. And with both starters, seniors Alohi Gillman (rated the sixth best safety in the nation by Lindy’s) and Jalen Elliot returning, the position is expected to be a team strength again this year.

todd lyght

“Alohi and Jaylon are so solid. You add Crawford,” Kelly said.

“We’ve talked about (Kyle) Hamilton. (DJ) Brown has done a really nice job for us. I mean, yeah, I stand here before you with a sense that the depth issues that have at times put us in compromising situations relative to situational defensively will not shorthand us, if you will.”

“I think our depth is outstanding. We can play players and feel really confident, keep guys fresh on the back end of the defense. I don’t know that we’ve had that kind of situation in a few years, so it feels pretty good.”

Brown could be the number two guy at free while Hamilton, a rookie, could be the primary back-up on the strong side.

“They probably played above everybody’s expectations, but at the end of the day they probably played too much…and the next step for us it to get better by having them do less, play less,” Joseph said of Gillman and Elliott at Media Day.

“Then in October, November, December, January, you can have a group of guys that can play at a high level.”

It’s been a huge fall camp for Hamilton, a 5-star prospect from Atlanta, who is not throwing away his shot at contributing this season. There’s a million things Hamilton hasn’t done on the college level, but just you wait, just you wait.

He has a special combination of length, height, and the ability to move with the agility and speed of someone much smaller. He’s a student of the game too.

“He does a lot of studying,” Lyght said of Hamilton, “which you don’t really see from a lot of younger players. There was one instance where we going out to the field for walk-throughs and he brought his notebook,”

“Thought that was pretty interesting, hadn’t seen that before. so that just lets you know how detailed he is in his preparation- he has a very bright future here at Notre Dame.”

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Kelly joked at Media Day that he has had to calm down the Hamilton for Heisman hype, but the freshman’s development this camp has really been revelation. It’s going to be impossible to keep him off the field this season.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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