Like all programs across the country, Notre Dame has had its fair share of senior breakthroughs over the years. Players who came in with high hopes but couldn’t put it all together until their final seasons. Just last year, that mantle fell to Javon McKinley. In 2021, Notre Dame is hoping that safety Houston Griffith is the next in line after he withdrew his name from the transfer portal on Friday.
Houston Griffith came to Notre Dame with big expectations as a top 50 overall prospect in the class of 2018. There was some debate before he enrolled whether his best position was cornerback or safety. Still, there was little debate that the Illinois native who played two years at the prestigious IMG Academy in Florida had immense talent. That debate foreshadowed the last three years for Griffith, who bounced back and forward between the two positions.
Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Penn State, and USC are just a few of the top programs in the country were all after Griffith out of high school. In the end, Notre Dame won a tough recruiting battle over Florida State to secure Griffith’s signature, and it wouldn’t take long for him to find his way onto the field.
Griffith found himself starting at slot cornerback when Shaun Crawford was lost for the 2018 season in camp. The position was new to him, and he struggled through most of the season, but he played in 11 games, tallying 14 tackles along the way. This past season, he would again post just 14 tackles as a true junior.
Over those three years, Griffith moved around between corner and safety before settling in at safety where most feel he has the highest upside. In 2020, however, he could not win a starting role while Notre Dame instead moved undersized Shaun Crawford to safety in fall camp resulting in a disappointing campaign for Griffith in 2020 and leading him to enter his name into the transfer portal.
Griffith needed a fresh start to reboot his career. Luckily for Notre Dame, one of the positives to come out of losing defensive coordinator Clark Lea to the head coaching job at Vanderbilt was the addition of new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. Not that Lea failed Griffith or didn’t give him a fair opportunity, but a new voice and a new defensive leader helped provide Griffith a scenario where he could get a fresh start somewhere he already knew. That became even more possible when safeties coach Terry Joseph left the program for Texas to join Steve Sarkisian’s newly formed staff.
Notre Dame’s Senior Breakthroughs Over the Years
New coordinator, new position coach, new Houston Griffith? Maybe. There are multiple precedents for a highly ranked player not really breaking through until their senior seasons at Notre Dame.
Just last season, Javon McKinley went from an afterthought to being Notre Dame’s #1 receiver. Through four years, McKinley tallied a total of 11 receptions for 268 yards, including a redshirt campaign. In 2020, he led the Irish with 42 receptions for 717 yards, including a stretch of three 100-yard games in the final four games of the regular season.
A few years back, Jonas Gray was a rarely used running back with a slight case of fumblitis before rushing for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011. And that was with his season getting cut short with an ACL injury on Senior Day.
Defensively, names like Corey Mays and George Sapp aren’t as recent, but both were highly touted defensive recruits who didn’t fulfill their promise until their final seasons. Mays was primarily a special teams player before assuming a starting role on the 2005 Fighting Irish defense and placing second on the team in tackles with 80 while adding 12.0 TFL, including 5.0 sacks. Mays, like Griffith, was a native of Chicago as well. Sapp meanwhile enrolled as a top-100 recruit but had just one career interception before recording four in 2002.
Houston Griffith Heading Into 2021
Notre Dame has a need at safety this fall. Kyle Hamilton is an All-American at free safety for the Fighting Irish, but the strong safety position is wide open. Before Griffith’s removal from the transfer portal, it looked like sophomore KJ Wallace and senior DJ Brown would fight it out in the spring – perhaps with a graduate transfer added to the mix. With Griffith back, there is no need to dip into the portal for another safety.
Notre Dame’s best chance at landing someone out of the portal, had they gone that route, was Griffith. He knows Notre Dame, and he has the talent. There was not a safety with more raw material to work with Griffith available.
The combination of Marcus Freeman and a new position coach – who Notre Dame is searching for – give Griffith a chance for a fresh start and one final chance for him to tap into the immense potential he possesses.
It’s not a given that Griffith will transform into an impact player just because of new coaches the way Mays or Sapp did for the Irish in the past. Notre Dame’s chances of the strong safety position being a strength versus a liability are better with Houston Griffith back than they would have been if he transferred.