Notre Dame's Next Breakout Figures
It’s virtually a yearly ritual.
Either a sophomore who did not play the year prior, or an upperclassmen who seemed to get lost in the shuffle, suddenly emerges and has a profound impact for the Fighting Irish the following year.
Two prime examples throughout the Brian Kelly era occurred last year.
Junior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was redshirted as a freshman in 2017 and saw no snaps again on defense in 2018 before having to sit out the final 11 games because of foot surgery.
Yet this past year he tied for the team lead in tackles (80) and sacks (5.5), and paced it in tackles for loss (13.5), while also breaking up four passes and having the skills to play in nickel sets.
Then on offense, after not playing as a freshman in 2018, Tommy Tremble became a regular in two tight-end alignments, catching 16 passes for 183 yards and four scores while also grading out well as a blocker.
There are so many other such examples since 2010.
• Safety Alohi Gilman had to sit out 2017 after transferring from Navy, but in 2018 the former unheralded recruit was graded by Pro Football Focus as the nation’s top safety and finished second in tackles (95) on a Notre Dame team that made the College Football Playoff.
• Receivers Will Fuller and Equanimeous St. Brown were virtually non-factors as freshmen, with Fuller snaring six passes in 2013 and St. Brown one in 2015.
One season later as sophomores, Fuller detonated for 76 catches, 1,094 yards and a single season school record 15 touchdowns, while St. Brown’s 58 receptions totaled 961 yards (16.6 yards per catch) and nine scores. Both would turn pro after their junior campaigns.
• Quarterback DeShone Kizer did not play as a freshman in 2014 and was destined to be third team in 2015 — but instead accounted for 3,405 yards total offense (2,880 passing, 525 rushing) and 31 touchdowns while helping direct a 10-1 start.
• Likewise, sophomore Everett Golson helped guide a 12-0 regular season in 2012 after redshirting in 2011, and Matthias Farley that same year went from a third- or fourth-team wideout who was redshirted in 2011 to a prominent starting safety the next season on a premier defense.
• How about Louis Nix III redshirting as an overweight 367-pound freshman in 2010 to becoming a stout, durable anchor at nose guard the following year?
• Even in 2010, sophomores Zack Martin and Tyler Eifert both were redshirted a year earlier, and there were questions on whether Eifert could play at all after undergoing back surgery.
They not only became starters as sophomores — Martin in all 13 games and Eifert nabbing 27 passes — but future first-round picks as well.
So who will be that non-freshman who emerges in 2020 to prompt one to say, “Wow, I had almost forgotten about him!”
Our pre-spring (practice is slated to begin March 5) perspective has two juniors, one on offense and one on defense, as prime candidates. Maybe at the end of spring there will be a different take, but for now our duo to watch most would be:
KEVIN AUSTIN & HOUSTON GRIFFITH
Although wide receiver Austin was barred from action for the duration of the 2019 season, he was permitted to practice with the team, and all feedback on his attitude and progress — on and off the field — have received high marks.
Genuine proof on the field is next, as it was for fellow Floridian Dexter Williams at running back his senior year in 2018 despite getting suspended the initial four contests.
One of five receiver recruits signed in 2018, Austin was the lone one physically ready to play at the collegiate level, finishing with five catches for 90 yards in the 11 games he played
At 6-2, 210, he remains advanced physically and combines the element of strength, speed, catch radius, playmaking and route running perhaps better than anyone on the roster, although Northwestern graduate transfer Ben Skowronek (110 career catches) would have a huge advantage in actual on-field production.
For the first time since 2007, when the Irish finished 3-9, the top three pass catchers in yardage from the previous year don’t return, so opportunity is abundant.
The easy step for Austin last year would have been to depart. A payoff should await, not via entitlement but through ability and continued toil and newfound maturity.
Remember Griffith — who just happened to be the No. 1-rated recruit in Notre Dame’s 2018 class (No. 43 overall)?
As an early entrant that spring, he made a strong impression with his instincts and playmaking skills, to the point where the coaching staff believed he needed to be on the field in some capacity.
The nickel role was selected for the safety recruit, and he was a regular with 183 snaps. However, his wheelhouse was not necessarily in coverage, and by the end of the year the decision was made to have senior Nick Coleman in that capacity.
Last spring, in an effort to get Griffith on the field again because of the return of captains Gilman and Jalen Elliott at safety, Griffith was shifted to corner to replace Julian Love, who departed for the NFL after his junior season.
Throughout much of the spring it was Griffith and returning starter Troy Pride Jr. lining up at corner, but again it became evident that the position was not necessarily his forte. He won the position by default because both Shaun Crawford and Donte Vaughn were sidelined with injuries.
Once Crawford and Vaughn returned, Griffith took a step back in August camp, and the eventual return to safety — where freshman phenom Kyle Hamilton was excelling behind Gilman and Elliott — became permanent so he can finally concentrate exclusively on that position.
Although Griffith was a regular on special teams and appeared in all 13 games, he finished with only 104 snaps on defense last year, or an average of eight per game.
Now with Ohio State grad transfer Isaiah Pryor entering the fray to team with Hamilton at safety, where does that leave Griffith?
It could be on the outside looking in again in terms of a full starting role. However, now that Griffith is settled into one position, there is reason to believe that a three-man rotation/lineup there can be as effective as it was the Gilman/Elliott/Hamilton trio last season.