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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Roster Review | Safety

February 28, 2023
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Notre Dame knew they had big shoes to fill after Kyle Hamilton left for the NFL after the 2021 season. They thought the blow would be softened by adding graduate transfer Brandon Joseph from Northwestern.

Unfortunately for them, Joseph did not have the kind of season that anyone expected. Outside of a pick six versus Syracuse, we didn’t see him around the football as much as he we saw at Northwestern or in our brief viewings of practice. He finished with only three total havoc plays (interceptions, forced fumbles, tackles for loss, and pass breakups) and no one was able to fill the playmaking void at the position.

It leaves Notre Dame in an interesting position in 2023.

Joseph, despite his disappointing season, declared for the NFL Draft. Three others with experience return and they’ve added some competition via the transfer portal as well as three freshmen. It’s difficult to project how things will turn out with the depth chart at this time.

One thing that is certain is that Xavier Watts is going to be a factor. When Notre Dame was dealing with numerous injuries at the wide receiver position, the calls for him to switch back to offense were loud. The coaching staff made it clear that him moving there wasn’t a full-time move and that they thought his future was bright at safety.

They were proven correct with how he finished the season. He led the position in total snaps in the final four games of the season and the production matched his participation (four total havoc plays, 22 tackles).

Watts not only projects to be a starter, but he might end up as one of the top players on the defense this fall.

It’s a little less unclear after him, though. It’s a good thing for Notre Dame that DJ Brown chose to return for a sixth season. He’s played a lot of football over the past three years and his experience is invaluable. He has starting experience and he’s played under the bright lights in several games. The ceiling isn’t high for him, but he provides a baseline that has to be met for the position.

It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens with Ramon Henderson in ‘23. He played the most snaps out of any game all season in the Gator Bowl (51) and the former corner played in the Dime during the season while matching up in the slot at times as well. He simply hasn’t found the football or provided the splash plays that he did in his first career start against Virginia in 2021 to be considered a favorite to win a starting position.

He can play and help the Irish, but he needs to make a significant jump if he’s to become a starter.

The transfer added to the mix is former Oklahoma State safety Thomas Harper. He was solid for the Cowboys last season in their three safety defense, is aggressive as a perimeter defender, and has the skill set to compete in the nickel as well as getting into the mix at safety.

He has starter potential, but some of his snaps may be matchup dependent based on his size (5’11” 180). The other options for the Irish are simply bigger.

At this point, I don’t think there should be any expectations for Justin Walters and Ryan Barnes at the position. Walters is physical, but the questions about him in coverage as a recruit have persisted in college. Barnes is someone who is making the transition from corner after being stuck behind several other players there. We haven’t seen enough of him to know if he can compete at safety.

Unfortunately we won’t be seeing early enrollee Adon Shuler this spring while he recovers from shoulder surgery. That likely hurts his chances of breaking into the two-deep in the fall, but if he gets healthy in time for fall camp, he’s on the list of freshmen who could find a role in the defense.

Shuler is more physically ready to compete in college than Ben Minich, also an early enrollee, but I think Minich is one of the more underrated prospects in the class. He should get reps this spring based on the lack of bodies at the position so it’s a golden opportunity for him to enter the chat.

Brandyn Hillman is one of the most exciting athletes to sign with the Irish this cycle and him starting out his career at safety seems likely based on the depth chart and his skill set. He doesn’t arrive on campus until the summer, so we’ll see if he can stand out enough in August to play this fall.

Notre Dame really needs the last ⅓ of the season for Watts to be a sign of things to come because they desperately need a playmaker at safety. After that, it turns to whether or not one of the other three safeties they know can play can elevate their game to the necessary level on defense.

If not, then there might be a possibility for another corner to shift to safety (Clarence Lewis?).

They weren’t bad at safety last season. They just weren’t good. They can be better in 2023 and with the young talent they landed in the ‘23 cycle, the future should be bright as well.

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