When former 4-star safety Derrik Allen decided to transfer to Georgia Tech earlier this week, it officially created depth concerns at safety for Notre Dame in 2019 and beyond. The Irish are, without doubt, stacked with Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott in the starting lineup, but they might need to manufacture depth for this fall and prepare their replacements in 2020.
Elliott is out of eligibility after 2019, and while Alohi Gilman has eligibility for 2020, most believe that he will head to the NFL with a big season instead of returning for a 5th year. If that happens, Notre Dame will enter 2020 with just three current scholarship safeties as of the roster today: Kyle Hamilton, Litchfield Ajavon, and DJ Brown. That’s not enough.
Kyle Hamilton, FR
At this point, everyone knows Hamilton is going to be playing and probably playing a lot this fall. The freshman phenom is the most significant piece of the depth puzzle at safety for Notre Dame in 2020. For 2019, Hamilton could be the primary answer at nickel too. In another year, Hamilton might already be in the starting lineup; but not in a year when Notre Dame has a safety tandem like Gilman and Elliott.
In many ways, Hamilton is looking like the kind of young player everyone thought Allen would be when he first committed to Notre Dame amid a lot of hype. How much safety he plays in 2019 will be interesting though as the staff could want him just focused on nickel now given the problems Notre Dame has had the position for years.
Houston Griffith, SO
Griffith has had an interesting start to his Notre Dame career. He enrolled early last spring and promptly moved to safety where the coaching staff raved about him. When Shaun Crawford tore his ACL days before the start of the 2018 season though, Griffith moved to nickel. This spring Griffith looked penciled in as a starting corner opposite Troy Pride, but he’s since been passed by Donte Vaughn.
It does not look like a starting role is in the cards for Griffith anywhere in 2019. If Griffith were to move back to safety now though, he could be starting for two years with Hamilton starting next fall. Watch for where Griffith plays the rest of the summer.
Safety seems like Griffith’s natural position and making a move now would give him an entire season of understudy work. It would also mean that even after losing a star tandem like Elliott and Gilman, the drop off at safety for Notre Dame in 2020 would not be steep.
Shaun Crawford, 5th
One of the more interesting early developments in camp was Crawford getting reps at safety. At that point, the writing was on the wall for Allen that he wasn’t seeing the field in 2019 and had an uphill battle in the future. So, it wasn’t too shocking when he announced his transfer.
Crawford does not have the prototypical size for a safety, but he does have a nose for the football and after all his injuries, playing safety could work out for him given he’s likely lost a little speed.
Crawford is a potential candidate for a 6th year after all the time he’s missed with injuries so he could factor into the mix next year too. You never can count on the NCAA to be logical though so there’s no guarantee. There’s also no guarantee Crawford will want to come back next year if he can make it through the season healthy.
An ideal world might be Crawford getting eased back in this year and, if he can stay healthy, being the primary nickel in 2020.
DJ Brown, SO
Brown came to Notre Dame as a cornerback with far less fanfare than Allen, but at the start of camp, the converted corner was ahead of Allen on the depth chart. Brown still has work to do, but expect to see him on the field this fall – especially if Griffith doesn’t move back to safety.
Litchfield Ajavon, FR
Ajavon was a 4-star recruit who got lost in the shadow of Hamilton as he rose from an under-recruited 3-star prospect to a 5-star All-American. Ajavon will factor into the mix at safety next year and could be in the two-deep in 2020.
Internal Position Change Candidates
If Notre Dame needs to get creative to create depth at safety, there are several candidates on the roster who could make a position switch – all from the wide receiving corps. Notre Dame has had luck converting receivers to defensive backs in the past. Bennett Jackson, Matthias Farley, and Keivarae Russell all had very successful careers that took them to the NFL as defensive backs after starting their Notre Dame careers at receiver.
Cam Hart (WR), FR
Notre Dame has a log jam at wide receiver right now, and there is some big-time talent coming in with the class of 2020. Hart is an intriguing prospect right now, but if the sophomore wide receivers progress as expected and the 2020 freshmen are as good as advertised, a move to safety could offer a much clearer path to playing time.
Isaiah Robertson (WR), JR
Robertson was initially recruited as a safety before moving over to offense last year. Like Hart, he faces a logjam at wide receiver and a major uphill battle for any semblance of playing time. The only concern with moving Robertson back to safety is that there was a reason the staff moved him from there originally.
Joe Wilkins (WR), SO
Wilkins was recruited initially as a defensive back as well, but he moved to offense before he arrived on campus. Wilkins has been better than advertised at receiver, but with classmates Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys, and Kevin Austin all ahead of him on the depth chart currently; he too could have a clear path to playing time on defense.
Defensive back recruiting has been a challenge for Notre Dame in this cycle. The Irish whiffed on their top targets at both safety and corner early in the process before landing a trio of their next tier prospects.
In an ideal world, Notre Dame would have a blue-chip safety like Lathan Ransom already, but that’s not the case. Among Caleb Offord, Landen Bartleson, and Clarence Lewis though; the staff has a set of defensive backs who offer some position flexibility.
Where Notre Dame goes next with their remaining scholarships will determine how safety depth will shake out. Look for Notre Dame to continue to shake some trees on the recruiting trail here using their currently sparse depth chart as bait.
Notre Dame has some options and talent to work with here, but Terry Joseph and Clark Lea clearly have their work cut out for them putting this puzzle together