It happens every season, a veteran defensive player that either struggled for much of his career, or didn’t much during his career, breaks out and has an impact final season. This spring there are five defensive veterans who have their last chance to make an impact on defense.
If those players step up it would have a significant impact on the Notre Dame defense. If they don’t have big springs they could find themselves getting passed up, or possibly never living up to expectations.
HOUSTON GRIFFITH, SAFETY — Griffith was a Top 100 recruit that earned almost 200 reps as a true freshman, but over the next two seasons he failed to make much of an impact. Notre Dame’s coaches moved him back and forth from cornerback to safety and he never got comfortable. Instead of giving Griffith a chance to step into the spotlight in 2020, the Irish coaches chose to move Shaun Crawford to the back end, and Crawford struggled for much of this past season, leading the Irish defense in missed tackles (16) according to Pro Football Focus.
Following the 2020 season Griffith understandably decided to enter the transfer portal, but the departure of Clark Lea and Terry Joseph, and the arrival Marcus Freeman changed things for Griffith. After a number of productive conversations with Freeman, Griffith decided to return for his senior season, and that is big for the Irish defense.
Griffith enters spring with his best chance yet to earn a starting role, and barring injury I expect him to do just that. Starting isn’t the ultimate goal, Griffith needs to prove as a senior that his Top 100 recruit ranking was justified and become a playmaker. He has the talent and intelligence to be that kind of player, now he needs to take the new opportunity and run with it.
A breakout season from Griffith not only gives the Irish a second talented and potential impact player on the back end, it gives Notre Dame the freedom to move star Kyle Hamilton around the field, which limits how effective teams can game plan away from him.
SHAYNE SIMON, LINEBACKER — Simon was Notre Dame’s starting Buck linebacker last season, but despite playing 297 snaps he registered just 14 tackles. That lack of production was incredibly problematic, and outside of the Nov. 7 win over Clemson, his overall play was a weak spot on the defense.
Simon is the biggest enigma on the roster. He has all the physical tools to be a great player. He is long, agile, fast and strong. Simon should be a lot better, but he played far too robotically and cautious. Instead of attacking, Simon was often slow to react and made himself far to lockable. Simon also struggled to get off blocks, which played a huge role in his lack of production.
So what happens next with Simon? He’ll get a shock to once again start at Will linebacker, but there is no way he keeps that role if he plays anywhere close to how he played in 2020. This is a big spring for him, and he’ll need to start playing with more confidence, he’ll need do a better job getting off blocks and he’ll need to start making more plays.
If the light goes on for Simon he could go from a weak spot on the defense to the strength. Those tools we talked about earlier are good enough for him to be an impact player. That’s why he was a Top 100 recruit and why I ranked him as one of Notre Dame’s best signees from the 2018 class.
Now it’s time for those tools to shine.
TARIQ BRACY, CORNERBACK — After leading the Irish in pass break ups in 2019, expectations were high for Bracy heading into the 202 season. He performed extremely well in the season-opening win over Duke, but he missed the South Florida game with an illness and also missed the Pittsburgh game with a different illness. Bracy never recovered from those setbacks, and his performance deteriorated to the point that he was not only removed from the starting lineup, but he was out of the rotation.
Bracy has shown flashes of being a top cover player due to his speed, quickness and ability to play the football. The issue is he’s been far too inconsistent. In 2019, for example, he was brilliant in the win over Georgia and had a number of outstanding performances, but he would have setbacks (Virginia), and his confidence wasn’t always there.
It’s really simple for Bracy, he must regain his confidence and be more consistent. Bracy is too good to completely move on from, and he’ll get a shot this spring to bounce back. If Bracy struggles the young corners will pass him up, but if he regains his form he’ll give the Irish a talented cover corner that can matchup on the outside and in the slot.
If Griffith, Simon and Bracy all step up and fulfill their potential it will give the Irish three athletic and talented playmaker, and it will give the defense an opportunity to not only match the level of play from the last three seasons, but to surpass it.
ISAIAH PRYOR, ROVER/SAFETY — Pryor being a transfer from Ohio State and his high recruiting profile made many believe he was a no-brainer to start in 2020. Pryor’s issues in coverage at Ohio State resurfaced last season and he was quickly moved to rover.
Now a fifth-year senior, Pryor gets a shot to compete for a starting role at either rover or the third safety spot. He’s a good downhill player, he’s strong and he has good speed, but his change of direction isn’t ideal. That could fit well at rover, but he’ll need to improve in coverage if he’s going to have a role on defense.
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