A day after Notre Dame’s thrilling 45-38 victory in the Gator Bowl over South Carolina, the off-season roster carousel continued with the news that Brandon Jospeh decided to enter the NFL Draft with two years of eligibility remaining.
Joseph came to Notre Dame last year from Northwestern, looking to rebound from a subpar 2021 campaign that followed an All-Big Ten selection in 2020 with the Wildcats. Joseph picked off six passes in 2020, but that total fell to three in 2021 with Northwestern. Unfortunately, his fortunes didn’t change a whole lot with Notre Dame. Joseph picked off just one pass in ten starts for the Fighting Irish this season.
It’s fair to say that Joseph’s brief tenure with Notre Dame was a disappointment. His final stat line for the season included a single interception, 30 tackles, 1 pass breakup, and 1 fumble recovery.
Joseph had the third-best coverage grade on the team per PFF, behind only Benjamin Morrison and Clarence Lewis. So it’s not that he was a liability in coverage, he allowed just one touchdown all season, but he also wasn’t much of a playmaker in the Irish defense either. Besides his pick-6 against Syracuse, Joseph didn’t produce many negative plays for the Irish defense. Joseph did not make a single tackle for loss all season long. The only member of the secondary to play substantial snaps to not produce a tackle for loss was true freshman Jaden Mickey.
Where Joseph projects in the draft will be interesting to watch now that he has decided to enter the draft. His production, or lack thereof, this season likely didn’t do much to enhance his draft stock from where it once was. For now though, let’s focus on how this impacts Notre Dame in 2023.
The safety position was not an area of strength for Notre Dame in 2022. The hope was Joseph would replace some of Kyle Hamilton’s playmaking, but that obviously didn’t happen. Xavier Watts continued his late-season ascent from 2021 and looks like a player on the rise, but outside of Watts, there are some question marks for Notre Dame. That is why the loss of Peyton Bowen – Signing Day drama notwithstanding – was such a significant loss for the Irish.
Ramon Henderson started in place of Joseph in the Gator Bowl with Joseph injured and has shown some promise, but I don’t think anyone has a start spot locked up heading into the spring at this point.
Watts and Henderson ranked 17th and 18th in coverage grades from PFF this season. DJ Brown logged 502 snaps this year and is eligible for a 6th year, but he also graded out as Notre Dame’s 37th-rated defender on the season per PFF.
Notre Dame has an abundance of young corners who have been passed on the depth chart by Jaden Mickey and Benjamin Morrison, so perhaps the staff looks for some corners who could move to safety. Of course, they could look to the portal again as well. Notre Dame just signed two safeties who will enroll later this month – Ben Minch and Adon Shuler.
Whatever the staff does, the safety position needs a lot of work for Notre Dame this off-season. Watts looks like someone who could be a playmaker – he was around the ball a lot in 2022, even though he didn’t produce a lot of game-changing plays. Still, think back to the season and how many times you saw #26 on the screen right in the action. Watts was still learning to play defense after moving over to defense during the season in 2021 – first to ROVER, then to safety. Another off-season on defense, on top of the experience from 2022, should serve him well.
After Watts? Still a lot of question marks for Notre Dame. If there is anything that the College Football Playoff games on New Year’s Eve taught us, it’s that defense might be optional in college football now, so maybe the questions at safety aren’t the biggest deal for Notre Dame? I kid, I kid.
Odds are Notre Dame makes a run for someone in the portal that can be a plug-and-play starter while they develop the younger players for the future. But, if that plan fails, I always point back to 2012 when it looked like Notre Dame had no one for the secondary, and then Matthias Farley emerged as a redshirt freshman, Bennett Jackson became a solid starter after converting from receiver, and Keivarae Russell stepped on campus as a wide receiver and started a BCS Championship game at corner five months later.