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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024
The Observer

‘My heart was still at Notre Dame’: Griffith finds definitive role on Irish defense

Houston Griffith arrived in South Bend with high expectations. A top 100 national recruit, Griffith was the highest rated member of Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class. And after five seasons and one position change, Griffith has delivered on those expectations, developing into a lynchpin and model of consistency in a changing Irish secondary and defense.

Griffith’s path to Notre Dame started early on. The Irish were one of the first teams to get involved in Griffith’s recruitment, with that initial interest playing a major role in the IMG Academy product eventually choosing to commit.

“Coming to Notre Dame always came back to them being one of the first schools to recruit me when I was young,” said Griffith. “I always was coming up here for recruiting visits, whether it was spring ball or just regular visits. They were just so consistent with my recruiting process, I just fell in love with the staff and then fell in love with the school and the team. What the University could provide for me after college, they always talked about four for forty, that was a big thing my parents cared about. That was something that really struck us and led me to Notre Dame.”

Griffith’s becoming a staple of consistency in the Notre Dame secondary was far from an immediate process. He slowly but surely established himself in the Irish defensive back rotation, making just three starts in his first three seasons in South Bend.

After that third season, in which Griffith played in all twelve games but only made two starts, he entered the transfer portal. With his spot in the defense unclear following the departure of Clark Lea, who had been defensive coordinator for the entirety of Griffith’s Notre Dame career to that point, it would have been hard to blame the then-junior for exploring opportunities elsewhere. But, he was convinced by newly hired defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, and the rest of the Irish defensive staff to stay.

“The trust in Marcus Freeman’s defense [brought me back],” Griffith said. “Just knowing where I would fit in the defense, knowing that I was welcome back at the program. The coaches were talking to me throughout that whole process, those two and a half weeks. They showed a lot of love and I just knew my heart was still at Notre Dame and wanted me to finish where I started at.”

That return from the portal would prove to be a key inflection point in Griffith’s career. The season after, the senior would prove indispensable, starting every game for the Irish. Even as Freeman shuffled his rotation at safety following Kyle Hamilton’s season ending injury, Griffith would prove a constant. His 23 solo tackles in 2021 doubled his career total up until that point. Griffith has kept up his production so far through his graduate season in 2022. Once again starting every game, his 29 total tackles sit fourth on the roster.

But Griffith’s emergence in 2021 had a deeper impact on his game than simply being a showcase of his best on-field play to that point in an Irish uniform. Griffith credits the enlarged role he took on with helping him develop his abilities as a leader in the locker room as well:

“Just being able to gel with all the different guys, knowing what they’re good at and what we can work on as a unit, we were able to play off each other’s strengths,” said Griffith. “It was awesome during the second half of that year being able to teach those young guys like Ramon [Henderson] and X[avier Watts] how our defense works and where to be on certain plays. Seeing them go out there and make plays was a nice confidence booster for [me] as a leader.”

Griffith credits the veterans of the locker room from when he was an underclassman himself with laying the foundation for him to eventually step into a leadership role:

“I saw older guys like Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, they were the leaders for me in the safety room then,” Griffith said. “So I just continued to keep that hard hat that I had and continued to show the young guys what it’s like to be a safety at Notre Dame.”

Looking back on his career, Griffith said perhaps the most memorable play he made during his time with the Irish was his first, a pass breakup in a gritty 19-14 win over Pittsburgh in 2018 that helped Notre Dame continue an undefeated regular season:

“It was a home game, right before fall break. TaRiq Bracy and I, I was the nickel corner and he was the field corner. We were both young guys, and on back to back plays we made plays and were able to help our team win the game. That’s something I’ll never forget and a moment I’ll always remember.”