On Saturday, Notre Dame added a huge piece to its secondary for potentially the next few years when Northwestern safety transfer committed to Notre Dame and Marcus Freeman. The 2020 All-American immediately adds some star power to a room that was big on numbers and potential but lacked proven playmaking ability. It has it now with Joseph selecting the Irish.
Everyone knew Notre Dame would lose Kyle Hamilton to the NFL long before the season even started. The staff pinned a lot of hopes on luring the likes of Xavier Nwankpa to Notre Dame to be the heir apparent, but when those efforts failed, it seemed likely the Irish would need to dip into the transfer portal for 2022. Not only did they dip in, they plucked out a former All-American who will almost certainly lock up a starting role.
Joseph burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2020 for Northwestern with six interceptions in nine games. In the process, Joseph earned consensus All-American honors – just the 14th player in Northwestern history to do so. He also made one of the plays of the year in 2020 with his ridiculous interception in the Big Ten Championship game.
This year, Notre Dame had one safety on the roster capable of making that kind of play, and he will be a top-10 pick in a few months.
Joseph’s production fell off slightly in 2021, but it isn’t easy to replicate six interceptions in nine games. Still, he had three in another nine games this year. That would have tied him with Kyle Hamilton and DJ Brown for the team lead on the Notre Dame defense.
Joseph ended the 2021 season with 80 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. The most tackles any defensive back on Notre Dame’s roster had in 2021 was 53, Clarence Lewis. DJ Brown led all safeties with 42 tackles, while Houston Griffith had 38 despite starting every game. Hamilton did have 35 tackles in less than 6.5 games before his injury. Safeties not named Kyle Hamilton combined for 1.5 tackles for the Irish on the season.
PFF graded Joseph out as one of the best defensive backs in the country in 2020, his All-American campaign, but his grade fell off sharply in 2021. If Notre Dame gets a player anywhere close to somewhere in the middle, it’s a significant upgrade to the safety position in 2022. If the Irish get the same defensive back who was named Big Ten Freshman of the year in 2020, this is a home run addition for the Notre Dame defense.
Joseph might also be able to help revitalize the Notre Dame punt return unit under new special teams coordinator Brian Mason. Joseph averaged 28.5 yards a return on four tries with a log of 65 this past season.
For the second year in a row, Notre Dame has added a transfer who was previously an All-American. Last year it was guard Cain Madden who had an up and down season with the Irish. After a rough start, he rebounded well and found his footing with Notre Dame before ending the year with a rough outing in the Fiesta Bowl. However, he still started every game for the Irish and if the Irish get the same from Joseph, consider it a win.
DJ Brown and Houston Griffth Back for Notre Dame
The safety room at Notre Dame will be pretty full in 2022 because both potential 5th-year seniors announced they were returning to Notre Dame earlier this week. Houston Griffith was the first to announce, and then DJ Brown announced his return on Friday night. Both returning, in addition to a safety transfer, is an interesting development given some of the ascending players at the position.
Notre Dame plays a lot of three safety looks at times, but with the emergence of Ramon Henderson and Xavier Watts at the position, there should be some healthy competition at safety this spring and into fall camp.
Secondary Exposed in Fiesta Bowl
Notre Dame replaced Kyle Hamilton remarkably well in the second half of the season, but Oklahoma State was able to exploit the loss of Hamilton like no one else had. Having a month to prepare probably helped, but it still exposed some glaring holes that needed to be patched. Joseph is a great start. So too are the freshman trio of defensive backs who signed with the Irish last month.
Joseph’s experience and talent mean Notre Dame shouldn’t be forced to plug in players at safety who started the season at another position. The addition of Joseph, along with the return of Griffith and Brown, also afford the duo of Henderson and Watts more time to learn the position – Watts specifically since he started the 2021 season on offense. Given the numbers at wide receiver, I’m sure some will suggest a move back to offense for Watts, but given how highly Marcus Freeman spoke about his potential on defense, that might not be the best for the long term for both the team and the player.