Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 27, 2021

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

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6 NOV. 27, 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY PATRICK ENGEL L ife after Kyle Hamilton was already a challenging enough reality for Notre Dame to navigate this offseason. The task took an apparent downgrade to untenable when Hamilton hit the Notre Dame Stadium turf in the first quarter Oct. 23, grabbed his knee and left the game. Yet a month later and still awaiting Hamilton's return, the Irish were unde- feated without him and had allowed zero touchdowns in the last eight quarters. Senior DJ Brown raised his hand first and stabilized the Hamilton-less posi- tion against USC and North Carolina's pass-heavy offenses. Now, two sopho- mores who began the season at other positions have given it depth from un- likely sources. If their contributions in Notre Dame's 28-3 win over Virginia Nov. 13 are a preview for the remainder of 2021, they'll be in the mix to start next year if Hamilton makes an ex- pected departure to the NFL Draft. Ramon Henderson and Xavier Watts combined for nine tackles (0.5 for loss) and an interception in 66 snaps in the Irish's victory in Charlottesville. Hender- son made a surprise start over Brown after moving to safety full-time from boundary corner five days earlier. Watts, the former receiver who flipped to defense in Sep- tember, saw his first action since the move versus Navy a week earlier. They're part of Notre Dame's increased underclassmen usage in recent weeks. "The development during the year, some of them weren't ready to play at a high level, but as the year went on, they were called upon," head coach Brian Kelly said. "I'd look at [defensive lineman] Ry- lie Mills, who may not be ready to play at a high level early, but he was later. Cer- tainly, Ramon Henderson would be in that category, as well as Xavier." Notre Dame had openings at several important positions and returned 47 per- cent of its 2020 production (123rd na- tionally). This year was ripe for in-season development. The yield on that front is encouraging for 2022 and beyond as well as helpful in 2021. Notre Dame's offense has five fresh- men starters or role players (not including Blake Fisher, the opening-day left tackle who was injured in his first half of ac- tion). On defense, six players who totaled no more than 40 snaps in 2020 have ei- ther started at least one game or found themselves as a key part of a game plan. Furthermore, only Fisher was part of the Week 1 plan among that offensive group. Neither Watts, Henderson or sophomore vyper Jordan Botelho played more than 40 total snaps in Notre Dame's first three games. Botelho, it should be noted, was unavailable for the first two, but played five or fewer snaps in three of his first four outings. "This is just the natural development of guys going out and developing and playing as we go, getting better each week," Kelly said. Henderson's game at Virginia was a day of firsts. He started for the first time. He made his first tackle for loss and interception as well. It all looked natural — especially his interception. He avoided falling for the quarterback's eye bait and covered 17 yards on his break from midfield to the numbers. "It's not been one week," Kelly said of Henderson. "We don't just say, 'You're ready to go.' It has been loading work on him, getting more confident in his ability to play the position. He has been showing that and it has been coming." Henderson had played 94 snaps in the prior three games, mainly in nickel and dime packages. His involvement wasn't out of nowhere, but his move was. Notre Dame found his potential long-term home. "His length and range really stood out for us as a safety in terms of what we were looking for," Kelly said. "As we played him more at the nickel position, those things kind of stood out to us. When we got him in the game, it became apparent safety was a comfortable position for him." Watts, meanwhile, landed at safety after initially dabbling at rover. His five tackles at Virginia tied for second-most on the team. He made three straight stops on one second-quarter series. He showed the burst and change-of-direction ability that made him a coveted receiver recruit. His physicality was hard to miss. "We just continue to impress upon some of the fundamentals with him," Kelly said. "That next stage of development with him is being a little more aggressive and tackling. He has so much to offer." As long as Hamilton is out, it seems Notre Dame will give him the chance to show it. The same goes for Henderson. The two roommates earned their first taste of being safety mates this month. They'd like to remain there, this year and beyond. So would Notre Dame. ✦ UNDER THE DOME YOUTH MOVEMENT Sophomores Ramon Henderson and Xavier Watts emerge as potential contributors at safety for this year and next Henderson made his first career start at Virginia and snagged an interception. PHOTO BY KEITH LUCAS/SIDELINE MEDIA

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