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Thomas: Gator Bowl, recruiting drama puts spotlight on Irish safeties

| Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Safety has long been a position of strength for Notre Dame football. Six former Irish safeties currently populate NFL rosters, three as starters. For the three seasons prior to 2022, Notre Dame enjoyed the services of Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton racked up eight career interceptions in two-and-a-half seasons (missing the last half of 2021 due to injury). The Baltimore Ravens drafted Hamilton 14th overall.

That led to the era of Brandon Joseph, an era that may last just one season, pending his draft decision. Joseph wasn’t as impactful as Hamilton, but the former All-American stabilized a relatively inexperienced secondary. He notched a forced fumble and a pick-six. Joseph may head to the NFL draft, and it’s feasible the upcoming Gator Bowl represents the final collegiate game for three Notre Dame safeties. With that fact, plus the recent recruiting drama surrounding the decommitment of five-star safety Peyton Bowen, there’s a major spotlight on the position in Jacksonville this week. Will those with decisions to make return for another run with the Irish? Or will the Gator Bowl be their last rodeo with the blue and gold? Those decisions could make or break this secondary in 2023, and it highlights some depth concerns amidst the rest of the group. 

Joseph is the big name. He was long expected to be a one-and-done with Notre Dame. That’s still a strong possibility, but a less dynamic season dropped Joseph down some draft boards. He’s unlikely to go in the first round if he enters the 2023 draft. He faces a similar situation to that of Isaiah Foskey’s 2021 season. Foskey was a second or third-round prospect and bet on himself by returning to Notre Dame. He bumped up his draft stock to the late first, early second round. Joseph could make the same call, or he could bolt for the NFL. That decision looms large, as Joseph would instantly provide some stability to the group in 2023. 

Joseph played alongside a safety group that played solidly although not outstandingly all season long. In some ways, graduate student DJ Brown epitomizes that. He led the safety room with 44 tackles but created little havoc. He notched 0.5 tackles for loss and a single pass breakup. However, he had no sacks and no interceptions. While Brown may not strike you as one of the most impactful players on the defense, he was a steady veteran presence and cut down on tackling issues that plagued him in 2021. He walked on Senior Day, and many believe Brown is moving on after the Gator Bowl. If he doesn’t, he slots back into the rotation. If he does, the Irish lose their leader in snaps at the safety position. 

Houston Griffith is definitely done, as his eligibility expires after the Gator Bowl. The former highly-touted recruit never became a game-changing force, but he notched 33 tackles and a tackle for loss in 2022. He was one of four safeties to play over 300 snaps. Like Brown, Griffith represents a dependable and knowledgeable player, and Notre Dame will have to find a suitable replacement. 

If Brown and Joseph both leave, along with Griffith’s pending departure, that leaves a whole lot of question marks. Xavier Watts would be the most prominent returning player, leading all returning safeties with 304 snaps in 2022. After making the transition to defense last season, the former wide receiver skyrocketed up the depth chart to become arguably the best havoc-creator in the safety room. He produced two tackles for loss, a sack and two pass breakups. His role gradually increased throughout the year, and his performance in the Gator Bowl will be a storyline to watch. He may need to take the reigns and become a big-time playmaker for the Irish defense in 2023.
Beyond Watts, only converted cornerback Ramon Henderson received serious playing time at safety in 2022, notching 268 snaps. Henderson added some depth and experience at the position. But again, the group needs more game-changing ability, and Henderson may play a key role in that. 

After Henderson and Watts, walk-ons Marty Auer (nine snaps in 2022) and Eddie Scheidler (injured in 2022) are next on the depth chart. It feels improbable that either become a factor in 2023, but the Irish have seen walk-ons turn into contributors at positions with minimal depth (hello, walk-on turned scholarship receiver Matt Salerno). 

A key factor could have been Peyton Bowen. But the Irish lost their longtime five-star commitment on National Signing Day. Bowen, who was committed to the Irish since Jan. 1, flipped to the Oregon Ducks, but he promptly reneged on that the next day, committing to the Oklahoma Sooners. Regardless, he’s not part of the equation for Notre Dame in 2023. That leaves two intriguing freshmen as potential factors. Ben Minich and Adon Shuler are both candidates to play early in South Bend. Minich offers some tremendous speed, while Shuler projects as the higher-floor, lower-ceiling type of prospect that could be game-ready early in his career. 

Ultimately, the storylines remain the same. The safety group exceeded expectations in some regards in 2022. They helped stabilize a secondary that was projected to be a major weakness. However, outside of Joseph’s pick-six against Syracuse, rarely did it feel like Notre Dame safeties significantly impacted the game. The Irish are now potentially going to lose the biggest thing they had going which was stability and experience. That leaves this group in a need of improved dynamism and game-changing ability. 

Look for Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson on Friday. If the Irish aren’t sure they have game-breakers in the pair of juniors, it may be time to think about looking at the transfer portal or preparing their freshmen to take on significant roles in 2023. But Watts and Henderson need to elevate their game from good depth options to consistent havoc-creating starters. Against a lethal South Carolina passing attack, they should have the opportunity to make a statement. They project as major X-Factors when it comes to Notre Dame’s ceiling in 2023 and could demonstrate how high that ceiling is against the Gamecocks in Jacksonville.

Contact Aidan Thomas at [email protected]

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About Aidan Thomas

A senior 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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