Notre Dame’s 25 Most Important Players: No. 2, Kyle Hamilton
Over the past month, BlueandGold.com has featured a countdown of the 25 most pivotal figures relied 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 that need to either emerge, remain a centerpiece or significantly elevate their production to facilitate the Fighting Irish’s 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.
No. 2 is sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton, who collected 117 points in our poll out of 125 possible.
Why Hamilton Is Ranked No. 2
Four of our five voters ranked the sophomore — the only one in this countdown — No. 2 in this survey, and the lowest rating was No. 5.
There are three aspects to why the dynamic 6-4, 216-pound safety is ranked this high. One is sheer “freak” talent (more on that later), two is actual production and the third is the acute need at his position.
Prior to five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith’s freshman season at Notre Dame in 2013, when head coach Brian Kelly was asked whether Smith was ready to see action as a freshman, a blunt response ensued.
“When it comes to coaching, if we make it that complicated that I can’t get Jaylon Smith on the field, then we’re not really good coaches,” Kelly said. “It’s that simple.”
That summarized it with Hamilton as well. Despite the presence of two senior captains and multiple-year starters at safety last year with Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and safeties coach/pass defense coordinator Terry Joseph found a way to make Hamilton a part of the game plan from the outset. It didn’t hurt that in Hamilton’s first practice he intercepted three passes, and would add several more in the coming weeks while consistently standing out in any open session.
In his college debut last year at Louisville, a 35-17 Irish victory, Hamilton recorded four solo tackles and two passes broken up. A week later in his first game at Notre Dame Stadium, he returned an interception for a touchdown.
Ultimately, he earned Freshman All-America honors from Pro Football Focus, the Football Writers Association of America and The Athletic. He finished the year with a team-high four interceptions — second-most ever by an Irish freshman, behind Luther Bradley’s six for the 1973 national champs — tied for second in passes broken up (six) and was seventh in tackles (41).
Wrote PFF, which grades each individual on every play in every game: “Notre Dame landed the best coverage safety in the entire 2019 recruiting class.”
Hamilton recorded a near-elite 89.8 coverage grade in his true freshman season, allowing just seven passes to be completed on 23 targets. Those seven went for 74 yards and no touchdowns. His 3.0 rating when targeted was the best among all defenders in the nation with at least 15 targets. He also was a fierce and sure tackler as a downhill player — a rare combination for someone so renowned for his coverage skills.
Finally, there is the need aspect in 2020. Minus Gilman and Elliott, Notre Dame has merely five scholarship safeties, and only Hamilton had a start in 2019 (versus USC in a three-safety look).
A 2020 Fighting Irish defense without Hamilton would be a significant setback and drop-off.
Hamilton’s Status Entering The Season
Two Notre Dame players made The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freak List,” which is a different way of phrasing someone’s immense and abnormal athletic gifts.
Hamilton was No. 9 among the 50 players listed, while senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (No. 4 in this countdown) was No. 37. Per Feldman, Hamilton’s GPS speed of 21 miles per hour was notable, but not as much as his 42.3-inch vertical leap at 6-4.
Covering the ground he does as the archetype center fielder in a defense is one thing, but to combine it with such physical data is a whole different realm.
Meanwhile, in a survey of its preseason top 25, ESPN named Hamilton as Notre Dame’s “Most Exciting Player.”
Not much, if any, debate, would occur among Fighting Irish faithful in that assessment.
All the more reason why his presence is so crucial on the Notre Dame defense that must replace three of its four starters in the secondary. This year, Hamilton cannot be just the complementary figure who also is the star in waiting but defers to the team leaders.
This time he must be both the star and leader while likely playing twice as many snaps per contest.
For more insight on what has made Hamilton what he is today, read this excellent feature profile from BlueandGold.com’s Patrick Engel.
What Would Be Considered A Successful Individual Season?
It begins with avoiding the “sophomore slump,” also known as the sophomore jinx.
That is defined as setting such an immense standard of performance in one’s first go-around that it becomes nearly impossible to surpass or even replicate the second time, or sophomore year. Hamilton could have a good 2020 season in reality, yet leave many among the fandom with the unfulfilled feeling of “I was expecting more.”
An example might include a previous Notre Dame Freshman All-American defensive back, corner KeiVarae Russell in 2012. Out of nowhere the former running back recruit had a wonderful first year during the 12-0 regular season on the nation’s No. 1 defense.
The next year, he recorded nine passes defensed (compared to only four as a freshman) — yet it just didn’t seem as productive because of the bar he had set, and it didn't help that the team finished only 8-4 during the regular season.
Hamilton averaged about 32 snaps per game last year, but this season it could be double that amount. That will put more of an onus on him, and he might have to compensate more for the errors on the front or back end, which might not always put him in ideal positions — if not put pressure on him to try to do too much and get off track.
Otherwise, it would not be a surprise if Hamilton is named at least a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the nation’s top defensive back, or earn All-America recognition as just a sophomore.
Behind The Ranking
The top 25 was determined in the same manner as the Associated Press poll. 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.
Patrick Engel: 2
Lou Somogyi: 2
Mike Singer: 2
Todd Burlage: 5
Andrew Mentock: 2