ND FOOTBALL POSITION BREAKDOWNS: Secondary looks to replace all four starters from 2019

Notre Dame freshman Kyle Hamilton (14) seals the win with an interception late against Virginia Tech on Nov. 2, 2019, in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame only had one spring practice before everything was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

So, where do these cancellations leave coach Brian Kelly’s squad? Let’s take a look at each position and see how the Irish fare heading into the summer.

Our final defensive position breakdown looks at the defensive backs, which will look to replace all four starters from a season ago. Fortunately for the Irish, a superstar backup is returning to lead the unit in 2020.

KYLE HAMILTON SHOW

A lot of hype surrounded Kyle Hamilton coming into 2019. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he was the biggest defensive back on the Notre Dame depth chart. His physical traits were present. It was just a matter of his game translating to the college level.

And then he had three interceptions in the first fall practice last August, and those questions were answered immediately.

Hamilton didn’t start last year, as the freshman played behind redshirt junior Alohi Gilman, but that didn’t stop him from being productive. The free safety played in all 13 games last year, Hamilton recorded a team-high four interceptions, returning his first one for a 34-yard touchdown against New Mexico.

He also had a game-sealing interception in the final seconds against Virginia Tech, using his 6-4 frame to rise above everyone and haul in the pass. His 41 tackles were good for seventh-best on the team in 2019.

One of the few negatives of Hamilton’s play was his defense against the rush, as the youngster had issues at times coming down and helping in the run game. If he can clean up those mistakes, he’ll quickly become one of the best all-around safeties in the country.

Even with four starters graduated from last year, Hamilton coming back should give Notre Dame fans confidence in the secondary. He has three years of eligibility left, but if he continues the level of play he had last year, he’ll most likely leave a year early and go into the NFL Draft.

QUESTIONS ABOUND

After Hamilton, the Notre Dame secondary has a lot of question marks.

Shaun Crawford returns after his appeal for a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA was approved. The Lakewood, Ohio, native has missed two full seasons — 2015 and 2018 — due torn ACLs and had his 2016 season cut short two games in due to a torn Achilles. Crawford also missed time in 2019 due to a dislocated left elbow, coming back in just three weeks from the injury.

In nine games last year, Crawford recorded 28 tackles and an interception. When he’s on the field, Crawford is a solid cover corner. He’s a little small at 5-9 and 180 pounds, but he’s the most experienced cornerback returning for Notre Dame in a secondary that doesn’t have much of it.

Along with Crawford, junior TaRiq Bracy is expected to start at cornerback this season. Bracy played in 12 games last season, recording 34 tackles, seven passes defended and two fumble recoveries. With the graduation of Donte Vaughn, Bracy will move into his starting role in 2020 barring injury or poor play.

Mid-way through 2019, questions lingered as to who would replace Jalen Elliott as the starting strong safety in 2020. Those questions were answered, though, with the graduate transfer of Isaiah Pryor.

Graduating from Ohio State in three years, Pryor now has two years of eligibility for Notre Dame. After seeing considerable playing time in his freshman and sophomore seasons in Columbus, Pryor only played four games for the Buckeyes in 2019. This allowed him to redshirt last season and retain two years of eligibility. For his career, Pryor has appeared in 31 games, recording 41 tackles and one interception. At 6-2 and 202 pounds, Pryor and Hamilton will be one of the tallest safety tandems in the country.

Junior Houston Griffith and redshirt sophomore DJ Brown are expected to contend for playing time at the safety positions as well. Cornerback Isaiah Rutherford could see some serious playing time as well after redshirting last season. Combine that with four incoming freshmen cornerback recruits, and youth will be the storyline to follow with the Irish secondary in 2020.

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.

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