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DJ Brown Is Ready For His Opportunity To Shine

Notre Dame safety DJ Brown is ready to do his part to help the Irish slow down the vaunted North Carolina offense

It’s never a good thing to be down your best defensive player for a game, and that’s especially true when matched up against a dynamic offensive team that puts up a lot of points. That is exactly the circumstance No. 11 Notre Dame (6-1) will be in Saturday night when it takes on North Carolina (4-3). 

Notre Dame will be without All-American safety Kyle Hamilton, who went down in the first quarter of the 31-16 win over USC from this past weekend.

Ironically, the Irish were in a very similar situation a season ago against North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In that contest, a 31-17 Notre Dame victory, the defense had to play the entire second half minus Hamilton, who was ejected for targeting late in the first half. In that game, with Hamilton absent, the Irish still managed to shut out the Tar Heels for the entire second half, mainly due to strong performances from then-backup safeties Houston Griffith and DJ Brown.

With Hamilton officially out for this week’s matchup with UNC, the Irish will again turn to seniors Griffith and Brown to hold down the team’s last line of defense, with Brown set to make his first career start in an Irish uniform.

Though losing Hamilton is the last thing Notre Dame wanted, if this past weekend was any indication, Brown is capable of rising to the occasion. After Hamilton went down with a leg injury at the end of the first quarter against USC, Brown came in and played arguably the best football of his career for the following three quarters. The St. John’s College (D.C.) high school product finished the game tied with TaRiq Bracy, JD Bertrand and Bo Bauer for a team-high 7 tackles, which matched a career-high Brown initially set in the Purdue game.

Thus, Brown has come in twice in big moments on short notice in replace of Hamilton and delivered. Even though this time around Brown - and the opposition - is aware before the game has started that he’ll have an even greater role than normal, the work remains the same.

“The defensive staff really stresses that even if you're not a starter to prepare like a starter, so just preparing like I have been for the last six weeks," Brown said of the preparation changes. "Nothing really changes, honestly.”

Brown, who began playing safety for the first time ever as a sophomore for the Irish after being recruited as a cornerback, is playing the most snaps of his career this season by a wide margin after serving a more peripheral role for Notre Dame defensively over the past three seasons. So far this season, Brown has posted career-highs with 24 tackles, two passes defended and an interception in six games played.

It’s a moment the senior has been waiting for since his arrival to the program.

“I feel like this is what I prepared for and what I've always wanted,” Brown said. “For me it's about just preparing the right way and coming to practice every day with the right mindset … just attacking every day.”

Brown described his position change as “tough,” and was quick to credit some of his old teammates, specifically former Irish safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman, for being great examples that he “learned a lot from” during his transition to safety.

Yet, things haven’t always been positive for Brown this season, as the safety didn’t play a single snap against Toledo after missing a crucial tackle in the secondary that led to an 89-yard touchdown run for Florida State in the season opener against the Seminoles.

According to Brown, playing defensive back necessitates having a short memory.

“That's just what comes with playing DB," Brown explained. "If you make a mistake, just not thinking about it, and moving on. Coach [Marcus] Freeman has this saying and we talk about it before every game, he says, ‘one play one life’. So, after that play is over, it's over with, just move on to the next one.”

In just the five games he’s played since the Florida State opener, Brown has been far more effective tackling in the open field, which he singled out as the biggest challenge when it comes to playing the safety position. He’s recorded multiple tackles in every game but one since the matchup with the Seminoles.

“I think I've made good progress," Brown noted. "It really just starts every day in practice, just working on tackling. We can't take the guys to the ground or anything, but just getting in the right position and doing what I can do, sort of simulating the game … honestly 90% of tackling is just getting your chest on guys and then after that taking them to the ground is easy.

"I've learned that a lot of tackling is just confidence," continued Brown. "I mean, I feel like I'm big enough, I'm 200 pounds so I don't think it was ever a strength issue, it was just more a confidence issue and I've gotten over that so I feel like I've tackled a lot better."

Irish head coach Brian Kelly concurs.

“He’s really now a solid tackler, whether it’s on kickoff team or getting the ball down on the ground," Kelly said of Brown in his Monday press conference. "I think he’s really done a great job of shoring up that part of his game.”

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Though Brown will be starting in place of Hamilton on Saturday, he’s more concerned with staying within himself and helping the team find success than he is with trying to completely fill the void left by the injured All-American and projected first-round NFL draft pick.

“In the safety room, we always talk about having a standard; playing hard, playing fast," Brown explained. "For me, I'm not trying to match what Kyle can do, but really just upholding that standard that we have in the safety room. Just playing hard and doing whatever I can do to help the team out.”

Another member of that safety unit is Houston Griffith, who Brown competed against the entire offseason for the starting safety role opposite of Hamilton. On Saturday the two will be working together to keep North Carolina’s offense in check.

That won’t be easy, since the Tar Heels rank 14th nationally in total offense (471.1 yards per game), 17th in yards per play (6.8) and 18th in points per game (36.9). Brown is looking forward o the challenge.

“Me and Houston have a great relationship, the whole spring we were side by side together so it honestly just feels like that, just going out there and I know Houston has my back, I know we're gonna communicate well," stated Brown. "All spring we had these reps for 15-16 practices, so for me, it's just not even like there's anything different.”

After three seasons of being on the fringe, Brown is at last starting to come into his own, which is great news for a team that just lost its star player at the same position for the foreseeable future.

“I mean, everybody deals with doubts, but for me, I knew I was gonna stay at Notre Dame because it's a special place, a top-notch degree, and I have great friends…I knew I was going to stay and stick it out,” Brown said.

“Tough times don't last, tough people do.”

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