Notre Dame will have a new counterpart to Kyle Hamilton at safety this season after Shaun Crawford's career with the Fighting Irish has come to a conclusion.
We wrap up our replace and reload series by looking at what's next at the safety position.
WHAT WAS LOST
Crawford was like a Swiss Army knife for Notre Dame hast several years, playing wherever the team needed him to play. He started at cornerback, nickel and safety at different points in his career.
The transition to safety wasn't always smooth for Crawford, but as he has done throughout his career, the veteran made clutch plays in key moments. His late pick against Florida State iced that game, and his second overtime pass break up on third down was a huge part of putting that game away.
There is a need for improvement at the safety position, of that there is no doubt, and the hope is that whoever steps into the lineup can bring more consistency and better tackling to the position. Replacing Crawford's clutch play will be much harder to replace.
GRIFFITH'S RETURN IS HUGE
The return of Houston Griffith was big for Notre Dame, and it helps shore up the safety depth chart. Griffith had originally decided to transfer, but the hiring of Marcus Freeman and some other factors resulted in him returning to the program.
After spending his first two seasons moving from corner to nickel to safety, Griffith now enters his second season as a full-time safety, his most natural position. After the 2020 spring was canceled, Griffith should benefit more than most from having the upcoming spring to get the reps needed to boost his game. The hope is finally getting to settle into one spot, and getting starting reps should allow him to become a more consistent player.
That right there is the key for Griffith, who has shown flashes of the Top 100 recruit that he was when he signed with Notre Dame. Moving around so much and not getting consistent reps resulted in Griffith not always being consistent as a player.
When Griffith is on his game, like he was against North Carolina, you can see the talent and potential he brings to the defense. When he presses and doesn't play within himself, his technique tends to go out the window and he can get beat. The extra season at safety and the extra work should allow him to start showing his instincts and playmaking ability on a far more regular basis.
If Griffith does in fact finally become the player he should, it would give Notre Dame an outstanding starting safety tandem. If Griffith doesn't settle in and consistency remains an issue the safety spot opposite Hamilton will remain a question mark.
WHO ELSE RETURNS
Rising senior DJ Brown was part of the safety position in 2020, and he earned 243 snaps on the season. Brown is a heady player, and with a year under his belt I expect him to be more effective in 2021. The issue with Brown is he lacks the physical tools (athleticism) to be a top-level safety, and if on the field for extended periods of time team's can better take advantage of him.
Brown is at his best when he's part of a rotation, and the defense can use his strengths and limit exposure in coverage. If Griffith is the player he's capable of being it also makes Brown better, because it slots him into more of a rotation spot and not a starting role, which better suits his game.
If Griffith falters then Brown will get more of a chance to push for a starting role.
Rising junior Litchfield Ajavon came to Notre Dame as a four-star recruit, but in two seasons he's played just one defensive snap and 24 special teams snaps. Seeing a player go from one snap in two years to a regular in the rotation is hard to project, but Ajavon has been a player mentioned to me a few times about performing well on special teams.
For players like Ajavon, the hiring of a new defensive coordinator and eventually a new safeties coach is great news, as it can rejuvenate players that were previously buried on the depth chart. Everyone gets a fresh start, and when you see that kind of turnover from a coaching standpoint it can result in more of a personnel shake up in the depth chart than previously expected.
WHAT TO DO WITH WALLACE
A wildcard in the secondary is rising junior KJ Wallace. Recruited as a corner, Wallace was moved to safety this past season to help alleviate the depth concerns on the back end. Wallace can play a number of positions on defense, and he's one defender that I'm curious to see develop between now and the season.
Wallace could remain at safety or he could shift to cornerback. Another option is that he becomes more of a specialist, and that's where I think he could have a significant impact in 2021. Wallace's combination of cornerback cover ability and safety tackling skills could make him an ideal player for the slot position, which often has a significant role, and at times is a starter, in the Freeman defense.
Notre Dame welcomes two new freshmen to the safety depth chart, with Justin Walters showing up in the spring and Khari Gee arriving in the fall. Both are long and talented players, and if the need arises both could find their way into the rotation, or at least a special teams role.
Getting both on the field in 2021 in some capacity wouldn't be a bad idea, as Notre Dame could potentially need to replace both safeties in 2022, and having these two with some work on their resumes would help them be in better position to push for major roles when they are sophomores.
1. Is Griffith ready to breakout - Griffith came to Notre Dame as a highly recruited and highly ranked player, but he's moved around so much that it kept him from developing the way he should have. Now that he enters year two at safety we'll get a chance to see if he's capable of a breakout. If he does it will shore up a very important position in the defense and give Notre Dame a dynamic one-two punch on the back end.
2. Will there be any surprises in the spring - There are a lot more question marks than answers opposite Hamilton. That opens up a lot of opportunities for surprises. Could a player like Ajavon or Brown emerge? Could a freshman push his way into the rotation? The opportunities will be there, and that's what makes this offseason so interesting at the position.
3. What will they do with Wallace - Wallace could play a number of spots, and the staff needs to find him a home. Is that at safety, where he could push for a rotation spot, or even a safety job? Or will he get moved to the nickel/slot role and find a home there? Wallace is a good football player, and he could help this defense if they can find a place where he's comfortable and let him settle in there.
Past Replace and Reload Features
Replace and Reload: Quarterback
Replace and Reload: Tight End
Replace and Reload: Boundary Receiver
Replace and Reload: Field Receiver
Replace and Reload: Left Tackle
Replace and Reload: Right Tackle
Replace and Reload: Guard
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