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Early 2021 football position group breakdown: Safety

| Friday, March 12, 2021

The Observer sports department’s way-too-early previews of the upcoming football season are back in full swing. Along with game previews, we’ve also got breakdowns of every position group. We’re working our way from the back of the defense through to the quarterback position and special teams. So, sit back and relax as we start with a position full of question marks, not least of them a new position coach.


Position Group: Safety

2021 Depth Chart: seniors D.J. Brown and Houston Griffith; juniors Kyle Hamilton, Litchfield Ajavon and K.J. Wallace; incoming first-years Justin Walters and Jojo Johnson


Key Departures:

Shaun Crawford

Crawford had a long tenure at Notre Dame, staying for six seasons with the Irish, though he did not see action in 2015 or 2018 due to injury. In 2016, Crawford only saw action in two games before suffering a season ending achilles injury.

Despite the setbacks, he had an impressive career with the Irish, recording 112 tackles — 78 of them solo — and five interceptions.

Starting his career as a cornerback in nickel packages, Crawford shifted to strong safety last offseason before operating at cornerback for one game against Florida State last season due to COVID-19 issues. Despite the position change, Crawford racked up three tackles and an interception in the 42-26 victory over the Seminoles.

Not only will Notre Dame be missing Crawford’s production and flexibility, they will also be missing his leadership, as he was named a team captain for the 2020 season.


Key Returnees:

Kyle Hamilton

A sophomore slump did not seem to find Kyle Hamilton this year as he was a key piece for the Irish secondary in the 2020 season. Starting all but one game, Hamilton recorded 63 tackles, 51 of which were solo. He had his best performance of the season in the ACC Championship game against Clemson where he picked up 10 tackles and his lone interception of the season.

The No. 8 ranked safety in the 2019 recruiting class, according to 247Sports, has certainly performed at a high level for Notre Dame, being named AP First Team All-ACC for his efforts in the 2020 season. He will likely play another key role for the Irish defense in 2021 in what is likely to be his final season in an Irish uniform.


Houston Griffith

Griffith has been bounced around between corner and safety the last few seasons but has seemed to find a little more stability in the 2020 season. He saw action in every game last season, including two starts against USF and Florida State, recording 14 tackles, 13 of them solo.

The highest-rated prospect in Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class per 247Sports, Griffith declared his intent to transfer following the 2020 season. However, with the departure of defensive coordinator Clark Lea and thanks to efforts by new DC Marcus Freeman, Griffith decided to stick around in South Bend for another season.

He has a very real chance to try and earn a solidified spot at the No. 1 strong safety position for his senior season in 2021.


D.J. Brown

Brown saw limited action in every game of the 2020 season, recording eight tackles, seven of them solo, and nearly recorded an interception against Duke in the first game of the year.

While Brown will likely play a relief role in the rotation of safeties, he does bring some experience to the table having played several more snaps than the others competing with him in the depth chart.


K.J. Wallace

Wallace also saw limited action last season in only four games, posting three tackles, two of them solo in the 52-0 win vs. USF. The Georgia native will likely need to have a strong showing in the spring in order to break into the rotation and see more playing time for 2021.


Litchfield Ajavon

Though he did not record any tackles, Ajavon appeared and saw limited action in four games last season. Like Wallace, Ajavon will need to have a promising showing in the spring in order to try and earn a spot into the safety rotation for 2021.


Isaiah Pryor

Pryor transferred to Notre Dame from Ohio State and figured to play strong safety, but Clark Lea and co. saw his best fit at the rover linebacker position in the Irish defensive scheme. He recorded eight tackles, all of them solo, one for loss and one sack into being a staple of the Irish special teams unit.

With new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman coming in, Pryor is a player to watch as Freeman brings his own personal touch to South Bend and possibly moves Pryor back to his original position.


Key Additions: 

Justin Walters/Jojo Johnson

A pair of 3-star secondary players from the Midwest, Walters and Johnson will look to make a move at a position that faced serious question marks last season outside of Kyle Hamilton. Walters is an early enrollee and could get key reps with Hamilton out following an ankle procedure, while Johnson is regarded as an underrated prospect in the 2021 recruiting class that could blossom into something special.


Position Grades:

Hayden Adams — Sports Editor

Kyle Hamilton needs no words. We all know just how important and impactful he is for this Notre Dame defense and the safety position in particular. However, last season was a come-to-Jesus moment where it became painfully clear that he could not do everything himself. Hamilton picked off a deflected pass in the ACC Championship and nearly had one to open the Rose Bowl against Alabama. After that, opponents simply isolated his counterparts in the secondary and picked them apart.

New safeties coach Chris O’Leary has got his work cut out for him in trying to do what his predecessor, Terry Joseph, couldn’t: maximize the potential of the guys behind the two starters. Recruiting efforts haven’t put him in a great position, but I’d expect Freeman to have a hand in some creative attempts at masking this group’s deficiencies.

Grade: C+


Dominic Gibson — Sports Writer

The Notre Dame secondary will be relying heavily on Kyle Hamilton once again this coming season, as he has more than proved himself a key piece. However much of a monster Hamilton may be at safety, he will not be able to do it alone and I don’t think the rest of the secondary can provide enough support. Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will certainly look to recruit more safety bodies after the 2021 season, but until that time comes, he and Chris O’Leary will need to shake up their scheming to try and make up for some of the gaps they have to fill.

Grade: C

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