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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Safeties Go Through Spring Ball as the Position Group with the Most to Prove

April 5, 2023
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The Notre Dame safety room has endured loss after loss over the last few months.

First, five-star safety Peyton Bowen flipped from Notre Dame to Oregon and then to Oklahoma during the early signing period in mid-December.

Next, pre-season All-American Brandon Joseph declared for the NFL Draft despite an unproductive 2022 season that ended with him sitting out due to injury.

Then, Justin Walters medically retired from college football. 

In March, Notre Dame released four-star athlete Brandyn Hillman, a projected safety, from his letter of intent.

“Admissions denied me for Notre Dame,” Hillman told The Athletic. “As you can see, I could have committed to any other school. Notre Dame had requirements I had to meet, and I didn’t meet it.”

Safety entered spring as the thinnest position group on the roster and coach Marcus Freeman openly questioned if the team might need to bolster the position through the transfer portal.

“We have to look at our safety room and say, ‘ok after spring, do we need to get a transfer for the depth of the room?’” Freeman said. “That's what 15 practices will be able to tell us,” Freeman said. “That's the beauty of this thing. You're not really preparing to win a game on April 22nd.”

                        Notre Dame Returning Safety Production from 2022

Player Snaps Tackles Sacks/TFLs PD Int.
DJ Brown 504 48 0.5/0.0 2 0
Thomas Harper* 397 30 1.5/0.0 2 1
Xavier Watts  366 39 2.0/1.0 4 0
Ramon Henderson 319 23 2.0/0.5 0 0
Ben Minich -- -- -- -- --
Adon Shuler -- -- -- -- --
Luke Talich -- -- -- -- --

*Thomas Harper played in seven games at Oklahoma State in 2022.

Still, it could be much worse. DJ Brown was granted a sixth season of eligibility due to the pandemic season and returned in 2023 without a guaranteed starting spot. The same goes for Thomas Harper, who transferred from Oklahoma State in the offseason after playing at least seven games in four seasons with the Cowboys.

Rising seniors Xavier Watts and Ramon Henderson began their careers at wide receiver and cornerback before coach Marcus Freeman moved them to the backend of the defense. 

Without those moves, the Irish might be in dire straits, but there’s still hope for the Notre Dame safety position in its present form. The four veterans all played at least 300 snaps last fall, even if a bonafide starter has yet to emerge.

“There’s really not a weak link,” Irish safeties coach Chris O’Leary said. “You look at rooms across the country where you have guys at the bottom, it’s the bottom. For us, I feel really good about the young guys. I feel really good about the guys who have been here.”

Now that he's fully committed to the safety position, Watts appears to be on the cusp of a breakout season. 

He first moved to the position in 2021 but was forced to split practice reps at safety and wideout in fall camp 2022 due to depth issues within the receiver room. Early in the spring, the coaching staff saw him as too valuable at safety and let him focus on one side of the ball, which paid off. 

“We saw flashes through fall camp,” O’Leary said. “He had to switch back to receiver, back to safety. All those things, it took time. When it finally came on late in the season, I don’t think there’s any looking back now.”

At 5-11 and 198 pounds, he’s a sure-tackler who earned the highest Pro Football Focus run defense grade at Notre Dame in 2022, totaling 13 defensive stops — “tackles that constitute a ‘failure’ for the offense” — which is the same number that defensive tackle Howard Cross III recorded. 

As a former wide receiver, he also has excellent ball skills. He hasn’t picked off an opposing quarterback yet, but he tied for the team lead in pass deflections with four while averaging just 28 snaps per game. 

“He has always had the natural instincts, natural athletic ability, all that, to be a big-time safety,” O’Leary said. “It just took him a year-year and a half for that light switch to come on and really grasp what we’re doing on defense. To do that at this level in one year is unbelievable when you think about it. To me, that’s all it was.

Henderson is Notre Dame’s most athletically gifted safety. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he’s long, fast and agile, which has enabled him to play all over the defense.

O’Leary believes his versatility may have stunted his development at safety. 

Since 2021, Henderson has played slightly more snaps at slot and corner (335) than at either safety spot (321), but that should change now that defensive back Clarence Lewis is spending more time playing nickel.

“He has played in games at three, four different positions because he’s so talented,” O’Leary said. “Me and [Mike Mickens] always say he’s one of the most valuable guys because of what he can do. He can cover anyone on the field. He can go to corner, safety.

“This year, we’re trying to trim it down and make him truly a safety. That will be field and boundary. Through seven practices, we’ve seen that growth of not worrying about playing nickel, dime or whatever and starting to make plays a safety should make.”

Based on his athleticism, Brown won’t blow anyone away, but he’s experienced and growing more confident with Al Golden’s defense.

“He’s an extremely smart player,” O’Leary said. “The plays he makes because of what he sees is about to happen gets faster and faster. He will see things before they happen from the offense where some of us on the sideline are like, ‘Holy cow, that’s an amazing play.’ That’s what I’ve seen from him.”

Harper participates in spring practice but avoids full-contact periods after shoulder surgery last fall. 

It’s unclear how much he will play safety. In 38 games at Oklahoma State, Harper played 63.6% of his snaps came at slot or cornerback and committed to Notre Dame to replace nickel cornerback TaRiq Bracy.

                            Thomas Harper Snaps by Alignment, per Pro Football Focus
Season Total Snaps Slot Free Safety Box Corner DL
2022 397 259 61 64 12 1
2021 268 117 66 57 21 7
2020 434 261 77 63 12 21
2019 71 2 0 8 60 1

“He will be a little bit of a hybrid guy,” O’Leary said. “When you talk about losing TaRiq Bracy, who for us was unbelievable last year in what he did in the slot and blitzing and all that. Harper will fill in there.”

Adon Shuler and Ben Minich are four-star prospects and mid-year enrollees. Shuler will miss all of the spring due to offseason shoulder surgery, but Minich has impressed the coaching staff through seven practices.

“He’s fast, tough and extremely intelligent,” O’Leary said. “With those three things, he’s going to be a really good player for us. He has a really good skill set playing the post and breaking on the ball. He might have the most picks this spring for us. He’s going to turn into a good player.”

Incoming freshman Luke Talich will enroll over the summer. He’s technically a walk-on, but the three-star prospect signed with Notre Dame with the potential to earn a scholarship after turning down offers from Oregon State, Utah and Wyoming.

Talich brings rare size and athleticism to the position. He’s a 6-foot-3 and 190-pound athlete with a personal best 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash. 

He hails from the 10,000-person town of Cody, Wyoming, so it may take time for him to adjust to the level of competition at Notre Dame. But he has the traits to be a significant addition to the safety room, especially in light of offseason subtractions.

The Notre Dame coaching staff will re-evaluate its roster after the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. 

It’s certainly possible Freeman and O’Leary will feel satisfied at safety in 2023 if Watts and Henderson emerge, but both may leave with Notre Dame degrees in hand at the season’s end. 

More than likely, the Irish must look to the portal soon. 

“We’ll continue to add a piece here or there,” O’Leary said. “whether it’s in May or after next season, but right now, we have a really good group.”

 
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