The legend of Kyle Hamilton started to build before he arrived on campus. When he committed, he was the lowest-ranked player in the 2019 class, but even then, people knew something was up. It turns out, something was up with the mid-tier three-star player out of Georgia. He quickly shot up the recruiting rankings, moving from the 1,000’s overall to #15 in 247’s in house rankings on signing day.
Given his rise in the national rankings, he went from the lowest-rated recruit to the highest, and the hype surrounding his entry began to build, culminated by a dominant week of practice at the All-American Bowl all-star game. By the time he arrived for fall practice, people* (*me) were ready to see what it was all about; anything was possible. Then on the first day of camp, he intercepted three passes, and the hype train officially left the station.
From there, his entire camp performance became a bit of a mystery. How many interceptions did he actually have? The rumor was he finished with 14 over fall practice. 14! Notre Dame put out a short highlight package after every practice; we saw lots of excellent plays. One thing we didn’t see: any Hamilton interceptions. The guy was having maybe the best camp a player has had in recent memory, and we didn’t get to see any of it!
Six games into the season, we now know he’s really freakin good. His first interception was returned for a touchdown, the entire game plan against USC was built around his ability to play deep center field, and he’s proven to be a ferocious hitter. Also, they can’t pass against him, which as a defensive back, is an outstanding trait.
Disclaimer: I track defensive targets when watching the games back. It is a very, very rough guesstimate.
That said, all ND's top DBs are allowing a completion percentage of at least 50%. That’s fine.
Expect for Kyle Hamilton, who is allowing 27.2% and 1.6 yards per target(!).
— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) October 9, 2019
However good you thought he was heading into the season, you were wrong. He’s actually better.
A quote that was circulated during the offseason came from defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who said his football IQ was on par with his own. Clark Lea knows a great deal about the game of football, so a statement like that about an 18-year-old freshman who at the time had yet to even take part in an official practice raised eyebrows. And given his physical stature and athletic ability, we’re starting to talk about the perfect player. Can he be that good?
Yes, he can, and we saw in the first game against Louisville.
Notre Dame was in a cover two look with Hamilton and Jalen Elliott playing deep halves and man coverage underneath. Neither Hamilton nor Elliott bails at the snap; they may be playing some type of hole scheme where they pick up any mid-range route without having any man coverage responsibilities. Louisville runs a version of a tight end throw back except with a tight wide receiver. The quarterback runs play action sprints right, then stops looking for the receiver sneaking across the field and behind a deep post. It fools Notre Dame linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath, who really should be sinking underneath this play, but he never sees the receiver get behind him.
For a freshman safety, playing in his first-ever game, it would be totally understandable for him to jump the post route that’s being run right at him. Makes sense, right? I’m a deep safety, here is a post right in my face, I better turn and chase this. My coach in junior college used to call this chasing the cheese because it’s a trap. If a player is running right to you, it’s probably because something is coming right behind it. Easy to say, but in your first game when your mind is moving 100 mph, also easy to take the bait. But, Hamilton doesn’t do that. He gets into his pedal, quickly sees the crosser coming across the field, he settles his feet and waits for the quarterback to let the ball go, and he pounces. Great play athletically, but they tried to fool the freshman in his first-ever game, and he didn’t have it. This is elite level recognition.
We saw something similar from Hamilton against Virginia, though they weren’t trying to fool him, just catch him napping on the backside. It was also an example of his supreme confidence.
Notre Dame has him playing the nickel linebacker spot with Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott playing deep safety. Virginia runs a curl route to Hamilton’s side and deep post outside and a deep drossing route from the slot. The quarterback Bryce Perkins wants to fit this ball to the crosser in between Hamilton and Jack Lamb. As you can see, Hamilton has this play figured out from the start.
He turns his body away from the receiver to his side, following the eyes of Perkins, who never looks over there. He takes several peaks inside and knows something is coming back toward him. You can tell because he keeps wanting to break over, but he needs to wait for Perkins to commit. He finally does, Hamilton makes his move, and it’s a stretching interception that Hamilton snatches out of the air with ease. The thing that gets me here is the confidence to bait Perkins, a senior quarterback, into throwing the pass he wants him to throw. Perkins should know Hamilton is waiting for him to let it go, but since Hamilton slow-played it, Perkins believes there could be a chance. There is not.
This is the part of his game that people did not know about and what makes him so dangerous. At 6-4, 210 most people figured “good in coverage, will need to work on his tackling.” Which is sort of true; he doesn’t love to wrap up yet. But, he has this suddenness to him when he hits people. It’s like you see him coming, ready to make the tackle and then boom, the play is over.
We saw this against Bowling Green a couple of times, one in particular against the tight end who Jalen Elliott had such a tough time with throughout the game. He catches a short crossing route, Troy Pride comes up and struggles to bring him down and then boom, done.
Hi, my name is Kyle Hamilton, and this play is over. pic.twitter.com/Hb0uxSaogl
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 6, 2019
We saw something similar to this against USC and Amon Ra St. Brown on a play over the middle. The thing about this one and the others is note how clean this is. His head is in the right place, he isn’t in danger of being called for targeting, it’s just a solid smash.
Hi, my name is Kyle Hamilton, I wish you'd chosen to be on our team, but nevertheless, this play is over. pic.twitter.com/REB3b6Bqsb
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) October 15, 2019
And in this final example, Hamilton puts it all together. He seamlessly navigates the route combinations by the trips receivers, takes away the corner route the quarterbacks wants to throw to gain the necessary yardage for the first down, forces the quarterback to go short of that, comes off his man and destroys the receiver to force a punt. (Take a look at the reaction of JOK after Hamilton makes this hit. When a player like JOK is stunned by the hit you just put on, you really did something.)
USC Game Plan
The game plan that Clark Lea came up with to stifle the USC passing game and their great receivers revolved around Kyle Hamilton being able to negate anything they tried to do deep with Michael Pittman and Tyler Vaughns. What else is there to say about a defense being built around this kid’s skill set. He’s a remarkable player who is somehow better than we thought he’d be coming out of fall camp, which says something because almost everyone thought he’d be pretty darn good. Cherish these times, folks. It’ll be over before we know it.