Can ND contain Sam Howell without Kyle Hamilton?
The All-American safety will be out this week with a pinched fat pad in his knee
Notre Dame’s All-American safety Kyle Hamilton will miss this week’s matchup with the North Carolina Tar Heels after pinching a fat pad in his knee in the first quarter against Southern Cal. The loss of their best player is obviously a big blow for the Irish, but it may loom even larger this week as Notre Dame plays host to UNC QB Sam Howell, widely regarded as one of the better quarterbacks in the nation and a preseason Heisman contender.
The Tar Heels have not lived up to the preseason hype as they sit at 4-3 despite being ranked in the AP Poll’s preseason Top 10. Howell has also struggled slightly in comparison to this first two college seasons, but he has still managed to complete 61.1% of his passes for 1,851 yards and 18 touchdowns through the first seven games of the season. He has thrown six interceptions, nearly matching his total of seven from the two previous seasons, but he has added 494 yards on the ground with five rushing touchdowns.
Regardless of how North Carolina has performed up to this point, Howell is a dynamic threat through the air, the likes of which the Irish have only seen once this season in Desmond Ridder. Ridder didn’t torch the Irish, but he did pass for 297 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another score, ending Notre Dame’s 26-game home winning streak. While Ridder has been extremely impressive this season, I would argue that Howell is the better passing talent.
Additionally, Notre Dame also had this guy named Kyle Hamilton on the field against Cincinnati. With Hamilton sidelined this coming Saturday, Howell’s passing options expand greatly. Opposing teams often shy away from throwing at Hamilton at all, and without his presence in the secondary, the field should appear a lot wider for Howell and his receiving crew. A game that a week ago seemed like a relatively comfortable matchup for the Irish is suddenly a worrisome contest. To make matters worse, the Tar Heels had last weekend off, giving them an extra week of rest and time to prepare for the biggest game on their schedule.
But despite the loss of Hamilton, I am feeling confident that this Irish secondary can pick up the slack and keep Howell under control on Saturday night. Especially in the light of their recent performances.
Notre Dame gave up just 187 passing yards and 5.5 yards per pass against Virginia Tech, intercepting Tech QB Braxton Burmeister once and allowing him to complete just 50% of his passes. The defense continued their stingy play against USC – and while they gave up 400 yards of total offense – they held the Trojans to just 16 total points, less than a 50% conversion rate on third down, and forced two more turnovers. The first turnover was an interception that halted a USC drive in the red zone and was returned to the Trojan five-yard line by LB Bo Bauer.
Notre Dame also seemed to be in the USC backfield much more than they have been in previous weeks, as evidenced by their three sacks in the contest. Defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey stayed hot with two more sacks for the Irish, bringing his season total to a whopping 7.5 through seven games. Foskey also forced the game-sealing fumble on his sack of USC QB Kedon Slovis with 2:45 left in the game. Notre Dame was even in the backfield on the interception, deflecting the pass that was picked off by Bauer.
Overall, Marcus Freeman’s defense has really come into its own, and the 2.3 turnovers they are forcing per game are good for sixth-best in the nation. JD Bertrand has kept up his blistering tackle pace, Foskey has been a force off the edge all season, and the secondary has impressed. Safeties DJ Brown and Houston Griffith have played well opposite Hamilton, and a great surprise for the Irish in recent weeks has been CB TaRiq Bracy. Bracy had an interception against the Hokies and recovered the game-sealing fumble against the Trojans as part of his emergence as a good defender on the perimeter. CBs Cam Hart and Clarence Lewis have also played solid football. LB Isaiah Pryor has even been mixed in at safety, a look we are sure to see again in the absence of Hamilton.
Don’t get me wrong. Kyle Hamilton is an irreplaceable talent on the field for the Irish. He is going to be a Top 10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft for a reason. The fact that he will not suit up against UNC is worrisome, especially with a talent like Howell on the opposite sideline. But given the other athletes Notre Dame has in the secondary, I believe they are more than capable of bottling up Howell on Saturday. Hamilton will be needed down the stretch in tough road games against Virginia and Stanford and in a potentially ugly game against Navy, but for now I am confident that his absence will not be a glaring weakness against the Tar Heels. Let’s hope not, because the Irish have no room for error as they fight for a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl.