Blue and Gold Illustrated

June-July 2019

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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24 JUNE/JULY 2019 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI H ouston, we have a problem at Notre Dame … Or maybe not if sophomore cornerback Houston Griffith emerges. The last time Notre Dame lost its top playmakers on all three levels of defense wasn't pretty. That 2016 unit went through enormous pangs during a 4-8 season following the departure of linebacker Jaylon Smith in the second round of the NFL Draft, cornerback KeiVarae Russell in the third, and line- man Sheldon Day in the fourth. Fortunately, the defensive recruit- ing from 2016-19 and the leadership from second-year coordinator Clark Lea puts the 2019 Fighting Irish de- fense in a much more favorable posi- tion despite the loss of lineman Jerry Tillery in the first round, consensus All-American cornerback Julian Love in the fourth round, and linebacker and two-time captain Drue Tranquill also in the fourth — not even men- tioning the team's top tackler each of the past two seasons in Te'von Coney. Those three areas — linebacker, tackle and cornerback — are spe- cifically considered perhaps the top three question marks on offense or defense for the 2019 Fighting Irish. Linebacker and tackle might both become "by committee" positions, while in late-breaking news follow- ing the review of spring practice and the Blue-Gold Game, the lead- ing contenders at the two cornerback positions appear to have swapped sides of the field. Griffith had practiced at bound- ary corner during the spring and was seemingly on track to replace the record-setting Love in that role. In early May, however, senior Troy Pride Jr. was moved from field corner to the boundary corner role, after see- ing some reps at the boundary spot during the Blue-Gold Game. For Griffith, this latest move from boundary to field cornerback high- lights his versatility after playing nickel and safety roles during his freshman season when his 183 snaps on defense were second most in his 27-man class, behind only defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola's 189. As a safety prospect, Griffith's individual No. 43 overall ranking by Rivals is behind only senior drop end Daelin Hayes (No. 31) and senior guard Tommy Kraemer (No. 41) on the 2019 Notre Dame roster. The 6-0, 205-pound Chicago na- tive was an early enrollee in 2018 who had starred at superpower IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. His bloodlines are also excellent, as father Howard Griffith rushed for nearly 2,500 yards at the University of Illinois before playing eight sea- sons in the NFL, highlighted by start- ing at fullback on two Super Bowl championship teams in Denver with Pro Football Hall of Fame backfield mates John Elway and Terrell Davis. The younger Griffith's initial reps in the spring of 2018 were at cor- nerback before the coaching staff — which was eager to get him involved in the defense right away — believed safety or even nickel would be better suited to his skill set. In game four versus Wake Forest's spread attack he made his starting debut at nickel and played a season- high 45 snaps. However, as the sea- son progressed, veteran Nick Cole- man (now a free agent prospect in the NFL) began getting the snaps there, earning starts at the position as well against Florida State and Syra- cuse, while Griffith had zero snaps. Playing nickel, which generally re- quires coverage on the slot man, was not an easy transition for Griffith, beyond just adjusting to the speed of the college game. "Being thrown in on third down, you just have to be ready to com- pete," he said. "You're in there in the slot — it's a whole lot of field to cover. You just have to use your tech- nique and be ready to play." Thus, when Griffith was initially tabbed as the man to replace Love in the boundary earlier this spring, it came as a bit of a surprise. The job description seemingly fit more to his physicality, having less field to cover and ability to play press coverage, which was emphasized more by the staff. Griffith had somewhat "won" the position by default this spring because senior cornerback Donte Vaughn was sidelined after under- going winter surgery on his shoulder, while former quarterback and run- ning back Avery Davis was making the adjustment to defense. Griffith's tackling skills were evi- dent throughout the spring, but the coverage aspect is in the develop- ment phase. However, the coaches evidently saw elements on film that made them believe that having Griffith and Pride swap sides at cor- ner would have an upside for the team as well as both individuals. "Houston has some things he's re- ally good at as a corner, and things that he is still getting a feel for," Lea sum- marized at the end of spring. "Part of our experience in spring is when we go against a really good quarterback and some really talented receivers, he's still learning physically how he presses, how he plays off man, what are transi- tion points, when is that cushion bro- ken, how do I more effectively transi- tion from a pedal to a turn position. "Those are the finer points that don't always come naturally, have to be learned — and sometimes as a cor- ner those are learned by the ball going over your head. That's part of life. "For me to yell at Houston for [get- ting beat on] a deep ball is like me be- ing a fan. I need to give him the infor- mation he can use to learn and develop from snap to snap. From a strength and power and speed standpoint, he has it. Certain techniques we're de- ploying for him he does really, really well. He's a great tackler … he's looked really good and as clean as we've had. "For him it's getting comfortable with techniques and repetition in some of the things that are more challenging for him. The potential is there." Regardless of whether he lines up at field or boundary, Griffith has pre- ferred playing cornerback over last year's nickel role. SWITCHBACK Sophomore cornerback Houston Griffith is in a development phase at his 'new' position

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