SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No one needed to tell Houston Griffith he had to give more in the wake of Kyle Hamilton’s season-altering knee injury against USC.
Notre Dame’s senior safety from Mount Carmel (by way of IMG Academy) just instinctively knew.
“When you lose a guy like Kyle, who everybody looks up to on the team, you’ve got to fill that void,” Irish safeties coach Chris O’Leary said before the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday against ninth-ranked Oklahoma State. “Houston did a great job of taking his vocal leadership to the next level.”
While Hamilton’s brilliance was such that he still was named a consensus All-American despite missing the second half of the season, Griffith and new backline partner DJ Brown made sure the secondary held things together for the No. 5 Irish. It took more than 14 quarters of November play for a Notre Dame opponent to reach the end zone.
“Houston has always been smart and known what he needs to do, but he got bolder as the season went on and he got more confidence,” O’Leary said. “He stepped out of his comfort zone. He sensed he needed to do it. He’s such a team guy that he felt that, and he stepped into that role.”
Without Griffith’s guidance, underclassmen Ramon Henderson and Xavier Watts probably couldn’t have made such a successful transition on the fly to becoming key parts of Notre Dame’s dime package. Watts, a converted wide receiver who had a brief stopover at rover, credits Griffith with boosting his confidence while tutoring him on some of the game’s finer points.
“Houston’s been really helpful,” Watts said. “Ever since I got here, he’s just always been by my side, looking out for me. Even when I was on the offensive side, he was giving me compliments and teaching me things.”
Just watching Griffith from the sideline gave Watts a high-level football education.
“He’s physical, he’s really smart and he knows what to do,” Watts said of his off-campus neighbor. “He’s a senior. He’s been here. He’s seen a lot of stuff. He sees things I have to work on, and we talk about it. He’s just a good guy.”
Griffith’s path to a starting role at Notre Dame hasn’t been the smoothest. He even placed his name in the transfer portal after last season following the departures of defensive coordinator Clark Lea and safeties coach Terry Joseph.
Ultimately, the son of former NFL running back Howard Griffith — a two-time Super Bowl champion now working as a Big Ten Network analyst — opted to stay put and play for O’Leary and new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. In light of Hamilton’s injury, retaining Griffith proved to be one of the program’s most important recruiting wins of the year.
Familiarity with O’Leary, a former graduate assistant who went back with Griffith to his freshman year, certainly helped.
“I had a long relationship with him,” O’Leary said. “When Coach Freeman and I sat down with him, [the emphasis] was just the stability and the investment: ‘Hey, we’re going to get the most out of you. You can go anywhere you want, but if you stay here we’re going to tap all the potential you’ve got.’ ’’
That pitch prompted Griffith to make a U-turn.
“He trusted that,” O’Leary said. “He wanted to be a part of this. He’s a team guy. Sometimes that gets brought up. It was a tough situation but he’s been all in ever since. He got a bit of a fresh start this year.”
Griffith finished with a career-high 38 tackles and had a fumble recovery in the regular-season finale at Stanford. He opened the year with an eight-tackle game in the overtime win at Florida State — where he initially committed before Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M — and later played at Soldier Field for the first time since his sophomore year at Mount Carmel (a 21-14 victory against Marist).
“The whole transfer portal thing, that’s in the past,” Griffith said earlier this season. “I’m here and I came back for business. I’ve been working on my leadership skills. I’m just trying to go out and ball out and show all my talent.”