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Next man up: DJ Brown stepping up in Hamilton’s absence

| Friday, October 29, 2021

Listening to senior safety DJ Brown talk with the press ahead of UNC, one could have easily mistaken the Annapolis, Maryland product as a seasoned starter. It was not obvious that Brown, and his role on this team, have undergone some massive changes in the past week, as All-American junior safety Kyle Hamilton went down with an injury. After a rough season start, Brown worked his way back and ultimately replaced Hamilton on the field last Saturday night. And now, with the potential top-5 draft pick sidelined once more, Brown is prepared to take the field as a starter against a lethal North Carolina offense that averages 37 points per game — a big change from his role earlier in the season, but Brown is taking it in stride. 

“I’m trying to go hard every day, [and] prepare like I’m the starter,” Brown said. “Not much has changed for me — just have to keep doing what I’ve been doing for seven weeks.”

Brown’s season got off to an undesirable start. After graduating sixth-year Shaun Crawford, Notre Dame didn’t have a clear second starter alongside Hamilton for safety. The room had a lot of talent with not a lot of experience. So, Brown settled into a prominent reserve role. However, in the opener at Florida State, the senior missed a big tackle that allowed the Seminoles to break off an 89-yard scoring run, catapulting the hosts back into the game. Coaches immediately pulled Brown off the field and he finished the game with just a single tackle. He also didn’t see the field against Toledo in the home opener. 

However, amidst defensive struggles as a unit, Brown stepped back in against Purdue. There, he put together the best effort of his career. He notched seven tackles against the Boilermakers and collected his first career interception to help seal the 27-13 victory. Brown also combined for nine tackles and a pass breakup against Cincinnati and Virginia Tech, as he worked his way back into a big role in this improving Irish defense. 

When asked about his biggest improvement throughout the year, Brown kept it simple: “For me, it’s been tackling. I’ve been trying to work on that every day in practice.” 

Against USC, Brown’s improvements and confident preparation became undeniably necessary as the lights shined at their brightest. Facing a dangerous USC offense and arguably the best receiver in the nation in Drake London, Notre Dame played well but watched Kyle Hamilton pull up lame after a play in coverage.

Brown immediately stepped in, and while it’s difficult to fill an All-American-sized hole, the senior did his best Hamilton impression. He notched seven tackles and, although not credited on the scorecard, secured a huge end zone pass breakup with a thundering finishing hit in the second half. Brown played a major role as the Irish kept the Trojans out of the end zone until the fourth quarter. 

“When I’m on the field, I just lock in on what I have to do. Everything else is just distractions,” Brown said. “I prepared in practice every day like I was the starter, so it wasn’t a big deal. To me, it was just like playing Purdue during the day, or any other game we played.” 

For a game that most Notre Dame players and coaches note as the biggest of the year, the Irish’s biggest rivalry, such an in-the-moment attitude from Brown is impressive. 

The coaches treated the moment much the same way, according to Brown.

“They didn’t really say anything [when Hamilton went down] … I think they had trust and faith in me to go out there and help the team win. So I just went out there.”

And the longtime reserve safety delivered with a career performance in a prime setting. Brown played an important role throughout the USC game, as the Irish featured the epitome of a “bend but don’t break” defense. While the Trojans bested the Irish at 428-383 yards, the Irish featured fantastic red zone defense. They grabbed an early interception and forced a few field goal attempts, one of which USC missed. Part of that was due to Notre Dame’s success in their dime packages, which feature an extra defensive back. Brown was part of a dynamic effort in this package, forcing USC quarterback Kedon Slovis into an ugly 1-for-7 stat line for 11 yards and an interception. 

“It was really tough — always tough to see someone go down,” Brown said of seeing Hamilton leave the game. “Some of the stuff he does, you see why he’s an All-American. But I just wanted to prepare in case something like that ever happened … Kyle’s there for us; he’s doing everything he can to help us out.”

But Brown’s breakout performance is in the rearview mirror. That effort lifted Notre Dame to 11th in the AP Poll. The Irish claimed a fourth straight win over USC and a 6-1 record on the season. 

Now, the focus is on 7-1 and another night game in South Bend. Sam Howell is one of the best quarterbacks Notre Dame will see all season. And the Tar Heels bring in an offense that has exceeded 50 points twice and has notched at least 38 points in four games.

“Sam Howell is good. I didn’t realize he was as good a runner as he was,” Brown noted of Howell’s evolved skillset.

That’s certainly true, as Howell has nearly doubled his rushing attempts per game. After largely being a scrambler last season, Howell runs it about 14 times per game. Now he averages nearly six yards per pop, after notching just 1.6 yards per carry last year.

Brown in particular will be responsible for Howell’s top target, though. Even in RPO (run-pass option) situations, his focus has to be on the pass, which Brown described as his “main responsibility.” That target is Josh Downs, who notches 8.5 catches per game and has eight touchdowns. But beyond Downs, the Tar Heels have a few receivers that get less volume but average over 20 yards per reception.

Keeping an explosive offense to minimal big plays is going to be critical. Should they accomplish that, coupled with a solid offensive output, the Irish will be in the driver’s seat for a third straight victory as the pursuit for an 11-1 record continues. 

“It’s a challenge for our defense, but I think we’ll be up to the task,” Brown said.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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