Position group breakdown: safety
Observer Sports Staff | Tuesday, March 24, 2020
Because of the cessation of sports activities due to the spread of COVID-19 and continuing The Observer sports department’s previewing of Notre Dame football’s 2020 season, we will be doing two position group breakdowns per week for the team. First up, safeties.
Position group: Safety
Depth chart: rising sophomores Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon; rising juniors Houston Griffith and D.J. Brown; graduate student transfer Isaiah Pryor.
Key 2019 Departures:
Gilman joined the Irish prior to the 2017 season after transferring from the Naval Academy, but was forced to sit out a year per NCAA transfer rules. In two seasons with the Irish, Gilman led a stout Notre Dame secondary, one which finished No. 5 in the nation in pass efficiency defense last season. He recorded 169 tackles in his two seasons in South Bend, 91 of which were unassisted, and six tackles for loss. He also had three interceptions in his Notre Dame tenure.
Gilman was also a mainstay on the special teams unit and wreaked havoc on opponents. He forced three fumbles each of his two seasons with the Irish, including a strip on the goal line in a narrow 22-17 victory against Vanderbilt in Notre Dame’s undefeated 2018 season.
Gilman’s loss will not only be felt in terms of production, but in the leadership he offered as well. Gilman was named one of seven captains for the 2019 season and his loss is accentuated by the fact that one of the other captains was his partner in the defensive backfield.
Elliott didn’t get as much attention behind Gilman, but he was also named a captain last season and was another key piece of the Irish secondary. Last season, Elliott recorded 49 total tackles, 29 unassisted, as well as two interceptions, one coming in a 66-14 rout of New Mexico in the 2019 home opener, and the other preventing a touchdown before halftime as Notre Dame shut out Bowling Green 52-0.
For his career, Elliott recorded 173 tackles, 96 unassisted, six interceptions and one forced fumble. His most prolific season took place in his junior year as the Irish went 12-0 in the regular season. He recorded 67 tackles, one tackle for loss, four interceptions and one forced fumble.
After helming the starting safety spots with Gilman for two straight years, both of their losses will likely be felt by the Irish. However, there is a rising star that lessens the impact of their departure.
Key 2020 Contributors:
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Atlanta, Georgia product immediately made a splash for the Irish as he was one of only three freshmen to burn their four-game redshirt. He opened the scoring in Notre Dame stadium this season with a pick-6 against New Mexico off of a deflected ball by junior defensive end Daelin Hayes.
Hamilton earned First-Team Freshman All-American honors last season as he led the Irish with four interceptions and was one of only 50 players and four freshmen nationally to record at least four picks. Barring injury, a starting spot for Hamilton next season is expected, but the spot next to him will likely be filled by one of the following two options.
Griffith was the highest-rated Irish recruit in the 2018 recruiting class and the No. 43 player in the nation according to Rivals.com. He appeared in 11 games as a freshman and all 13 last season. His 14 total tackles in 2018 dipped to only five last season.
Part of Griffith’s struggles may have been due to the fact he was moved to cornerback, but given the lack of depth and experience at safety he is expected to make the switch. While unproven, he has the opportunity to get plenty of reps both in practice and live in games without Gilman or Elliott ahead of him.
Pryor has yet to don a Notre Dame jersey. After playing the first four games of the 2019 season, Pryor elected to maintain his redshirt and transfer from Ohio State, which held the No. 1 pass efficiency defense mark in the FBS. He has two years of eligibility remaining.
A member of the Buckeyes’ No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, Pryor was the No. 106 player in the nation and the 12th best safety, per Rivals. His best season in Columbus came in 2018 when he recorded 31 tackles, 20 unassisted, one tackle for loss and one interception. However, through the three games he played in last season, he recorded only three tackles, precipitating his decision to transfer.
In terms of measurables, the Irish will be getting an athletic player with good size at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. However, it is especially beneficial that he has said he wants to be the first graduate transfer captain in Notre Dame history, which would suggest he has the attitude to help make up for some of the leadership lost from Gilman and Elliott.
Hayden Adams — Sports Editor
Hamilton is a proven player at safety. However, it’s one thing when you essentially have a three-man rotation of Gilman, Elliot and Hamilton compared to one of Hamilton, Griffith and Pryor, of whom the latter two have promise but are both unproven as starters. Of course, other players such as D.J. Brown and Litchfield Ajavon could step up and contribute to the rotation, which would be ideal, but neither has had an opportunity to really show what they’re made of before now. For the time being, I am hesitant to give a resounding endorsement of this position group given the state they would be in should Hamilton go down for any reason (knock on wood). B+
Ellen Geyer — Sports Writer
There are very big shoes to fill in the secondary, and the pickings to fill them are slim. Kyle Hamilton is a star who should be even more reliable this season with a year of experience under his belt, but the absences in the backfield for the Irish cannot be understated. It will take awhile for Notre Dame to adjust, and it certainly won’t happen overnight. B-
Nate Moller — Sports Writer
With former captains Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott departing to the NFL, most would expect the Irish to be worried about the safety position next year. Luckily, the Irish have plenty of talent remaining at the position, and I anticipate that they will be just as good, if not better, at the position come the 2020 season. Incoming sophomore Kyle Hamilton proved last year that he has the potential to be one of the best safeties in the league by the time he is an upperclassmen. I expect him to continue to develop this year and make a huge impact. The other player that I anticipate developing a lot this season is Houston Griffith, who has the size for the position and was one of the top recruits in the class of 2018.
Having a guy like Isaiah Pryor will also be a huge difference for the Irish. Although Pryor did not get much playing time last year against Ohio State, he definitely will receive plenty of playing time next year, and I think he has the motivation and determination to become the best safety on the team. Overall, I think this safety group might be one of the best in recent memory for the Irish, but there is definitely still some maturing that needs to be done during the season. A-