For Notre Dame senior safety Houston Griffith, Saturday’s matchup against Wisconsin at Soldier Field in Chicago is one of those special games. It will be a return home for the Chicago native and former Mount Carmel High School standout, and Griffith is eager to get back on the field where his football career first took off.
“It's the first time I'll have played in Chicago since I was 15 years old, it's also pretty cool because I made my first high school varsity start at Soldier Field," Griffith said with a smile. "So, for it to come full circle my senior year against an opponent like Wisconsin, it means a lot to me. It means a lot to my family."
Griffith spent the final two seasons of his high school career playing at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
“I just really can’t wait to be out there," continued Griffith. "I’m really playing at home, I live about 10 minutes away from the stadium so it’s going to be exciting."
What makes it even more exciting for Griffith is the fact that his dad, former NFL fullback and two-time Super Bowl champion Howard Griffith, will be covering the game as an analyst for the Big Ten Network.
“It's gonna be one of those games that he's gonna be able to cover as well and me being his son out there is gonna be something that my family and I are really gonna cherish and embrace this moment on Saturday,” Griffith said.
So far this season Griffith has done well in his transition into a starting role for Notre Dame. He is currently tied for sixth on the team with 13 total tackles through three games.
The senior is determined to continue improving.
“I feel like that's something I've done for the past two games: my leverage and man coverage has gotten a lot better and that's something I just want to continue to grow on,” Griffith said. “Coach (Chris) O'Leary, he allows me to take one on one reps with the slots in the field rather than just covering tight ends so it's been good for me and I'm just looking forward to just continue to stack it on that and just progressing as a safety in this defense.”
As a whole, the Notre Dame secondary is coming off of its best game of the season in the win over Purdue. The Irish held a potent Boilermakers passing attack to just 5.4 yards per pass attempt and one touchdown while holding Purdue to just 57 rushing yards as well.
Griffith is proud of the way the defense responded against Purdue after two lackluster showings to start the season.
“You always win games during the week; how you prepare, how you watch film, and how you practice," explained Griffith. "I feel like last week we increased our intensity in practice and our one, two, and just understanding that if we do our jobs, how good of a defense we can be and you saw that on Saturday. We took that step and I just want us to just keep on bringing that intensity and that mentality, just be a bunch of menaces on defense.”
The senior was also quick to defend his new defensive coordinator.
“People try to write off Coach (Marcus) Freeman and his defense early but at the end of day we just need to get comfortable and I feel like we're a comfortable defense and we're just trying to keep taking steps each week and just develop as a team and develop as a unit as well.”
Specifically, in the safety room, the trio of Griffith, Kyle Hamilton and DJ Brown accounted for 19 of Notre Dame’s 86 tackles for the game, two pass breakups and two interceptions. After getting benched against Toledo for a poor performance against Florida State, Brown bounced back with seven tackles and a game-clinching interception.
“It was exciting to see another one of our safeties step up and have an opportunity to play a lot of snaps on Saturday," Griffith said. "I feel like it's a confidence booster for him and then it's also a confidence booster in our safety room that we know we got other guys that can go out there and execute our defense at a high level."
Three games into the season, Griffith believes the safeties have done a great job learning from their mistakes and that the chemistry between the unit is burgeoning.
“I enjoy being out there with Kyle [Hamilton] and the rest of the safeties," continued Griffith. "I feel like our unit has evolved from week one, week two, week three, and we just want to keep taking these next steps these next few games.”
On Saturday, Notre Dame will face its toughest challenge yet against an always physical Wisconsin team that likes to control possession and pound the ball on the ground. Defensively for the Irish, discipline will be essential.
“We just have to make sure we stay in our gaps, what Coach Freeman has been preaching to us all week is make sure we're doing our 1/11th, making sure that we're running to the football, just bringing contact on the running backs,” Griffith explained. “We know they have a good couple of running backs, they got some good linemen so we just got to play to our game and continue to take the steps we took last week and just keep moving forward this season.”
“We just have to continue to just watch film this week and work on the small details; playing assignment sound football, staying in our gap and not trying to be outside of your job,” Griffith added.
According to Griffith, continuing to work hard during the week is the biggest key for the Irish defense to put the early season woes behind them.
“I feel like everything that could possibly have happened that could have gone wrong for our defense happened in those early games so we've seen it, and we just have to continue to just make progress over the next few weeks,” Griffith said.
“And, like I said, it starts in practice. Having that mindset to understand when we see certain alignments from receivers, or maybe a wide back, what we're gonna see. So, I feel like it just starts in practice and then it just translates, it's all about how we prepare each week.”
The last time Griffith played at Soldier Field, he fondly recalled seeing the Mount Carmel student section fill up the lower bottom bowl of the stadium for a huge rivalry game against Marist high school. This time around, with both ESPN’s College Gameday and FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff scheduled to be in Chicago on Saturday, the national spotlight couldn’t be brighter for Griffith and Notre Dame, and it won’t be just the lower bottom of the stadium rooting them on.
For Griffith, it will be a chance to perform in a familiar location in front of family and friends. Oh, and also prove who Chicago’s college football team is.
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