Ranking Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football’s 25 Most Important Players: No. 18, Safety Houston Griffith
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Notre Dame’s 25 Most Important Players: No. 18, Houston Griffith

Over the next month, BlueandGold.com will feature a countdown of the 25 most pivotal figures counted on to help lead Notre Dame back to the College Football Playoff in 2020.

This is not necessarily about who is the best player or the top pro prospect. It’s more along the lines of individuals who need to either emerge, remain a centerpiece or significantly elevate their production to facilitate the Fighting Irish goal of climbing toward championship timber.

Much is based on talent and impact, but a premium is also placed on these questions: 1) If you subtracted this individual from the roster, how much of a setback would it be? 2) If this less proven player emerges and makes an impact, how much does that raise the ceiling (or lower it, if a breakout does not happen as expected)? The players and their ranking were determined by vote from five BlueandGold.com writers.

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At No. 18 in the countdown is Houston Griffith, who earned 34 points in our poll.

Why Griffith Is Ranked No. 18

It’s all about upside. Griffith has every chance to earn a starting safety spot and a role in Notre Dame’s base defense in 2020. He’s competing with Ohio State graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor and third-year sophomore DJ Brown. If he wins it, he has the goods to elevate Notre Dame’s defense to a level above what the others could deliver.

Griffith was Rivals’ No. 43 overall player in 2018 and Notre Dame’s highest-ranked signee that cycle. He was an early enrollee who earned nickel and sub-package roles right away. His 197 snaps were more than any Notre Dame true freshman that season. In 2019, though, Griffith bounced around the secondary and saw his playing time shift more to special teams.

In Notre Dame’s one spring practice, Griffith worked with the first team defense. In his most comfortable and natural position, he resembled the highly touted player the Irish signed two years ago. He can hit. He’s strong. He’s decisive and smart. His athleticism and coverage ability at safety give him plenty of upside there.

Notre Dame’s other safeties don’t have those traits in the quantity he does (or at all). Pryor was a former top-150 recruit himself, but had a bumpy season in 2018 as a seven-game starter. Griffith hasn’t seen snaps in bulk yet, but he remains intriguing because of the tools. His first two years aren’t the expectation for a top-50 recruit, but his play and his role have not stomped out the idea that he can be star.

Take Griffith away due to injury or effectiveness, and the safety depth becomes shaky and the position’s impact potential shrinks. Notre Dame has a collection of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen safeties behind Pryor and Brown. The latter may end up being Hamilton’s backup at free safety.

Griffith’s Status Entering The Season

The cancelation of 14 spring practices ruined what felt like an imminent breakout spring for Griffith. Instead, his competition with Pryor and Brown will play itself out in training camp.

If one practice is an indication, he’s the favorite to start a strong safety. Lea has asked his strong safeties to be box players, drop back into coverage or even play in man depending on the game. Griffith has tools to do all of them. He has to show it and earn trust in August.

Even if Griffith doesn’t nail down the starting job, he seems likely to have a role in nickel and dime packages as a safety or slot defender given the shallow depth. If he and Pryor prove to be on equal footing — good enough to play but not trusted to play every snap like Alohi Gilman or Jalen Elliott were — Lea is smart enough to find ways to highlight each’s strengths and cover their weaknesses.

Ideally for Lea, Griffith and Pryor are trustworthy enough for him to play three safeties in specific game plans or on certain down-and-distances in a game. Notre Dame used three safeties in a few situations last year, including as its base defense against USC.

Notre Dame junior safety Houston Griffith
Griffith played in sub packages as a freshman, but was shifted to mostly special teams work as a sophomore. (BGI/Angela Driskell)

What Would Be Considered A Successful Individual Season?

Notre Dame should be thrilled if he wins the starting job next to Kyle Hamilton and plays upward of 600 snaps. (For context, Gilman and Elliott each played more than 900 in 2018 and they combined for 1,401 in 2019, per Pro Football Focus). A season with around 60 tackles, three to five for a loss, and a PFF coverage grade in the 70s would make the transition from Gilman to Griffith a pain-free one.

If Pryor wins the job, something around 30-40 tackles and 400 snaps for Griffith seems plausible. He’s too skilled and the Irish lack the real depth to keep him out of the rotation if he disappoints relative to his brief spring practice showing.

Behind The Ranking

The top 25 was determined in the same manner as the Associated Press top 25. Five BlueandGold.com writers submitted their ballots, and each position on the ballot was given a point value. The top ranking was worth 25 points, No. 2 was worth 24, No. 3 worth 23 and so on down until No. 25, which was worth one point. The players with the 25 highest point totals made the list.

Individual rankings:

Patrick Engel: 16

Lou Somogyi: 18

Mike Singer: 19

Todd Burlage: 20

Andrew Mentock: 17

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Prior Top 25 Profiles

No. 19: Lawrence Keys III

No. 20: Chris Tyree

No. 21: Aaron Banks

No. 22: Bennett Skowronek

No. 23: Tommy Kraemer

No. 24: Isaiah Pryor

No. 25: Kurt Hinish

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