Notre Dame returns a ton of experience on the defensive side of the ball from a unit which only surrendered 19.7 points per game last season. The Irish finished that 2021 campaign ranked 15th in scoring defense, and did not lose too much in the way of experience.
Kyle Hamilton was an all-world type of player at safety, but he only played in seven games. And Drew White was a steadying presence and fine player at linebacker, but he is the only player among ND’s top five leading tacklers who did not return to South Bend. So the sum of the parts should be solid, despite losing a first-round NFL Draft pick (Hamilton) and a former captain (White).
White’s production should be adequately replaced by some combination of Bo Bauer (13 games, one start in 2021) and Marist Liufau, who missed the 2021 season, but started games in 2020. Hamilton, on the other hand, was arguably ND’s best defensive player – when healthy – during each of the last three seasons. In 31 career games for the Irish, he totaled 138 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 8 INT and 16 passes defended. When he was not directly involved in a play, he was at least a part of the mental equation for opposing offenses.
Hamilton’s presence will be missed. Fortunately for ND, they may have added an even better playmaker at the safety position. His name is Brandon Joseph, and he is 2022’s first Defensive Player to Watch.
If Joseph’s name sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Or at least it should be, to Ohio State fans not living under a rock for the past few years. Then again, I’m not sure I could blame you if chose to do so intentionally. It’s been a wild ride.
Joseph made his mark in the Big Ten, playing three seasons for Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats. He joined their program in 2019 after a decorated high school career in football-rich Texas. But NU’s academic reputation likely drew him out of the Lone Star State, which is somewhat surprising given that he grew up in the literal backyard of Texas A&M. Joseph attended College Station High School, and helped lead that team to a state championship as a senior.
But Jimbo Fisher’s loss was Fitzgerald’s gain, as the star safety developed into arguably the best Northwestern football player since Fitzgerald himself.
The now-former Wildcat played sparingly in 2019, appearing in just four games as a true freshman. Joseph was credited with four total tackles, the first of which came against — you guessed it — Ohio State. It was an unassuming season, to say the least. And there were few, if any, flashes of the player he would eventually become. But four games was apparently all it took for Joseph to get acclimated to big boy football. He hit the ground running in 2020, and had arguably the breakout performance of the year. It was one that very few saw coming, and not just because it looked like the Big Ten might punt on football altogether.
As a second-year safety, Joseph took a monumental leap. In eight games, he came down with six interceptions (!), tying him for the NCAA lead, and totaled 46 tackles from his secondary spot. He picked off three passes during the course of NU’s first three games, and had seven tackles and two INT in an upset of 10th-ranked Wisconsin. The Wildcats started out 5-0, with Joseph and a trio of linebackers driving the bus. They held opponents to 12.6 points per game over that five-game stretch, and eventually earned a spot against the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Ohio State defeated Northwestern in an ugly game, but Joseph’s play stood out. He and his teammates gave Justin Fields and Ryan Day all sorts of problems, limiting the Buckeyes to a mere 22 points. Fields completed less than 50 percent of his passes and was picked off twice, including a highlight grab by the star DB to prevent a touchdown. It was a heartbreaker for NU, but they rebounded to stomp Auburn in the Citrus Bowl, and their second-year safety was recognized for his stellar play. Joseph earned First Team All-Big Ten and First Team All-American recognition, becoming the first Wildcat defender to do so since Fitzgerald in 1996.
Northwestern’s Brandon Joseph with an ode to Kenny Moore II. Another incredible one-handed interception pic.twitter.com/BS2s6yA84x— Taylor Tannebaum (@TaylorTannebaum) December 19, 2020
2021 saw more of the same from Joseph, as he came down with three interceptions and was credited with 79 total tackles. He also added his first and only career sack, as well as a single fumble recovery. His team, however, faltered in a major way. Northwestern came crashing back down to earth with a 3-9 record, and the outlook for 2022 did not appear to be any more promising.
With the writing potentially on the wall, Joseph entered into the transfer portal and ended up in South Bend as part of a talented defense. Now he will be looking to make life difficult for the Buckeyes again, and perhaps even the score in big games.
As a player, Joseph can do it all. He is known for his center field prowess, and I would argue that he is an impressive, underrated tackler. While he might not bring the lumber a la Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame’s new star safety had 54 solo tackles (out of 79) in 2021, showing an ability to hit and wrap, as opposed to hit and wait for help. That being said, patrolling the back end is where Joseph does his best work. Nine interceptions in 20 starts is flat-out impressive at any level. Joseph combines range with elite awareness and instincts, and I expect him to make C.J. Stroud really work for downfield completions.
The Fighting Irish have few studs on the defensive side of the ball, including Isaiah Foskey and J.D. Bertrand, but Joseph is the difference maker for me. He knows where to be, and more importantly, when to be there. He will be a deterrent to the Buckeyes making big plays over the top, which is something I think they would like to do — especially with a reshuffled offensive line and at least some curiosity surrounding the run game. Saturday will be a challenge for the Ohio State offense, but here’s hoping they can come out firing against Joseph and a solid Notre Dame defense.