SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The grass isn’t always greener somewhere else.
For Chicago’s Houston Griffith, it took 18 days in the transfer portal in January to realize that before the talented safety ultimately opted to return for his senior season at Notre Dame. Three weeks into spring practice, that turn of events seems to be playing out to the benefit of both him and the program.
“I felt like two things needed to happen for Houston: opportunity and then making the best of the opportunity,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “What is making the best? What does that equal? I think a lot of that has been just an awareness of the situation that he’s in and using what I think is outstanding athletic ability and applying it to the particular situation.”
Griffith, whose father, Howard, starred at Illinois and won two Super Bowl rings during an eight-year NFL career as a fullback, has underachieved so far in his college career. A four-star recruit out of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, the former Mount Carmel standout made just two starts last season while mostly sitting behind sixth-year player Shaun Crawford.
After losing ground to fellow reserve DJ Brown down the stretch in 2020, Griffith was ready to explore other opportunities. He put his name in the transfer portal Jan. 4, shortly after the Irish fell to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
Four days later, the Irish won a high-profile battle with LSU for former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. That timing proved pivotal.
Over the next two weeks, Freeman joined Kelly in a series of phone discussions with Griffith. The re-recruitment went better than anyone could have expected, frustration gradually giving way to possibility, both on and off the field.
The chance to complete work toward his Notre Dame degree loomed large. So did hearing the energy from a new voice in the mix — Freeman’s — after three years of failing to launch in Clark Lea’s defense.
Pass-defense coordinator Terry Joseph, who coached Notre Dame’s safeties, also moved on after the season. So it truly seemed to be a clean slate for the 6-foot, 204-pounder who decommitted from Florida State to enroll early at Notre Dame in 2018.
“I’ve never been afraid of competition,” Griffith said. “Having that conversation with coach Freeman and coach Kelly, just knowing that I got a home and it’s something they really want — me to come here and just compete — I couldn’t turn that down.”
Kelly and Freeman made it clear throughout those talks in January: The responsibility to make this reboot work ran in both directions.
“Houston and I had a conversation,” Kelly said. “There were no promises. We didn’t promise him a starting position. All we said was that we believe this is the right place for you and we want you to be here.”
In the end, that was enough to lure Griffith back to familiar turf and a newfound leadership role.
“Myself and Marcus talked to him on the phone and said, ‘We want you to be part of what we’re doing here in 2021,’ ” Kelly said. “Both of us [were] really clear that he’s part of our plans. Then [it was] him making the decision, ‘OK, if they want me and I’m part of the plans, then I’m staying at Notre Dame.’ That’s kind of how that went down.”
Both Kelly and Griffith used the term “football IQ” several times in assessing the player’s improvement this spring. No longer, Kelly said, is Griffith “using a hammer when he needed to use a screwdriver.”
All that extra film study with Freeman and new safeties coach Chris O’Leary is paying early dividends. Griffith’s devotion has carried over to the classroom, as well.
“This offseason, I’ve really challenged myself as a football player and academically to really become a student of the game and to finish up my degree,” Griffith said. “Right now my main focus is just being present where my feet are.”
The grass beneath them is greener than ever.