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Notre Dame Football Position Preview: Safeties and James Bond Themes

A position group shaken, but not stirred

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since the departures of Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliot, the safety position at Notre Dame has been somewhat held together by duct tape and chicken wire. A transcendent talent like Kyle Hamilton made up for scattershot recruiting to a point, but intermittent injuries to him didn’t help the situation.

And now, Hamilton’s departure leaves a massive hole, one that isn’t so he easily filled by one transfer portal acquisition. So to break it down, here are the six (or perhaps five-and-a-half) Irish safeties compared to various theme songs from the “James Bond” film franchise. Off we go.

No. 16 Brandon Joseph — “Nobody Does it Better”

Big Ten Championship - Northwestern v Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The aforementioned transfer portal acquisition, Joseph spent the last three years at Northwestern before joining Notre Dame as a graduate transfer this offseason. He’s not Hamilton, but he’s quite clearly the best safety on the Irish roster — i.e., no one else does it better than him.

Joseph is a preseason AP Second-Team All-American and on the watchlists for the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards, each given to the best defensive player in college football. The expectations are high considering the player he is replacing and his unique skillset at the position group. To be frank, no other Irish safety is pulling off a play like this:

When Joseph joined the Irish, he was hailed as a safety with ball skills (nine career interceptions, six of them in 2020) but with some concerns as a tackler (21 missed tackles in 2021 per Pro Football Focus). How much of those issues were attributable to an undue burden on Joseph amid a subpar Northwestern roster? That should be revealed rather quickly this season.

No. 2 D.J. Brown — “Goldeneye”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even if Brown goes largely underappreciated among Notre Dame fans, he has received plenty of praise from his current and former teammates. Kyle Hamilton enjoyed playing with Brown more than other safeties because of how tactically sound Brown was. Ramon Henderson also credited Brown for putting Henderson in the correct position pre-snap to be able to intercept a pass against Virginia last year.

In short, Brown has shown he has a schematic goldeneye: a solid grasp of the defense that can set him and his teammates up for success. As the presumptive starter at safety opposite Joseph, it isn’t imperative that he matches his production from last year (42 tackles, four pass breakups and three interceptions). But Brown can’t count afford to flounder like he (and several other secondary players) did in the Fiesta Bowl last season.

No. 11 Ramon Henderson — “Skyfall”

Notre Dame v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

With the veterans ahead of him and the narratives behind him, it feels like Henderson doesn’t get a lot of discussion. The redshirt sophomore seems like he’ll play a bigger role in years to come, but if the sky starts falling and a starter gets injured it could propel the second-stringer into a very prominent role this season.

At 6-foot-1, Henderson and Joseph are the tallest safeties on the roster, though Henderson feels like he could be the rangiest. There’s a lot to like with the former three-star cornerback from Bakersfield, Calif. He appeared in every game last season and recorded 14 tackles, a pass breakup and an interception.

Henderson should see a good amount of playing time this year and give Irish fans a taste of what the future holds for the Notre Dame safety position.

No. 3 Houston Griffith — “Diamonds Are Forever”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When it comes to recruiting, five-stars are like diamonds. Griffith wasn’t a five-star, but he was a top-100 player and the highest rated recruit in Notre Dame’s 2018 class per 247Sports Composite, which is close enough to “diamond” status. It seems fair to say he hasn’t lived up to that, but recruiting rankings — like diamonds — are forever, and Griffith’s ranking has loomed large over him.

To be quite honest, it’s difficult for me to write about Griffith and remain objective. That’s because we were both film, television and theatre majors at Notre Dame and had several classes together (side note: his Arkansas accent in our “Voice & Dialect” class was superb). Houston is my guy, so I’m always going to be rooting for him.

With that said, he’s underwhelmed through four years. He has just 71 career tackles and three career pass breakups to his name and has yet to record an interception despite playing in 49 career games. To me, the narrative around Griffith is similar to that around Braden Lenzy. Every year Notre Dame fans ask if this is the season that each player’s potential will finally come to fruition on the field.

For what it’s worth, one of Marcus Freeman’s first acts as defensive coordinator of Notre Dame was convincing Griffith to withdraw his name from the transfer portal after the 2020 season. The staff welcomed him back for a fifth year this season via the coronavirus waiver, so maybe he can be this season’s “Asmar Bilal Unexpected Final-Year Breakout Player.”

But regardless of whether this is the year Griffith blows up, I will not tolerate any slander of my boy. What can I say? Diamonds — and shared FTT classes — are forever.

No. 4/No. 26 Xavier Watts — “You Only Live Twice”

Navy v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Watts’ journey has been an enigma. The former three-star recruit started as a member of the 2020 wide receiver class but was moved to safety partway through last season. Now, in response to Avery Davis’ season-ending ACL injury, Watts has moved back to receiver, donning No. 26 on offense after wearing No. 4 on defense: two separate lives across both sides of the ball.

At the time Watts was moved in 2021, the Irish weren’t wanting for wide receivers, so it felt more important to find a niche for him to actually contribute. Fast forward to the spring and Davis was out with his first torn ACL, Joe Wilkins had a broken foot, C.J. Williams and Amorrion Walker had forsaken Notre Dame’s recruiting class and Kevin Austin was off to the NFL.

So why wasn’t Watts moved back to wide receiver this spring? Was there really that little faith in him as a receiver even with a new head coach and receivers coach? Was the staff confident they would add receiver depth in the transfer portal? Did they just want to spare Watts the adversity of going through yet another position change and let him develop smoothly at safety?

I’d wager that all those considerations factored into the decision not to move Watts then, but now the calculus has clearly changed. It’s unclear how his time will be split between positions and how much he’ll actually contribute at receiver on gameday. But unless the coaching staff is cruel, it’s difficult to envision them moving Watts to a position where he has no chance of playing.

No. 22 Justin Walters — “A View to Kill”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Walters seems to pretty clearly be at the bottom of the safety depth chart. That’s nothing to be ashamed of as a redshirt freshman; there simply hasn’t been much (if any) scoop on Walters from this offseason. So for the time being he has a nice view of the action from behind the other safeties.

Still, there’s upside for Walters as evidenced by the action he saw last season. He appeared in just four games on special teams, but two of those opponents were Cincinnati and Wisconsin, and he recorded a season-high two tackles against the Badgers.

That stat line certainly doesn’t turn heads, but it speaks to the confidence the coaching staff had to throw him out against the two toughest opponents the Irish faced in 2021. As an aggressive, in-the-box safety, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him get some defensive reps this season, especially against the likes of Navy and BYU.