Brian VanGorder might not be sure exactly what kind of defense he will install at Notre Dame until he completes his assessment of the current talent assembled in South Bend, but one thing is certain for Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator – the bar has been raised for defensive performance at Notre Dame.
Six or seven years ago Notre Dame fans would have jumped for joy if the Fighting Irish defense ranked 27th in the country in scoring defense. This year that wasn’t the case, however, with the Irish defense serving as a source of frustration for fans many times throughout the season. See the Navy, Michigan, Pitt, and Oklahoma games for instance.
Notre Dame played pretty good defense this year considering all of the injuries it sustained, but Notre Dame’s 27th place finish in scoring defense was actually the lowest Notre Dame has finished in the Brian Kelly era. All of those teams played on a defense coordinated by the new head football coach at UConn, Bob Diaco.
While Diaco’s bend, don’t break philosophy may have frustrated fans at time, no one can argue that Diaco was anything less than the best defensive coordinator at Notre Dame in the last decade. The numbers alone back that up. Just take a look at the last 15 years of Notre Dame defensive scoring rankings.
|Notre Dame Yearly Scoring Defense Ranks 1999-2013|
Other than Kent Baer’s one season ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense in 2002 which proved to be an aberration, Notre Dame had played pretty shoddy defense in the 11 years before Diaco assumed control of the Irish defense. Greg Mattison had one season in the top 25 in scoring defense – ironically his last as defensive coordinator before taking a reduced role on Tyrone Willingham’s staff – but Kent Baer, Rick Minter, Corwin Brown, and Jon Tenuta never sniffed the sort of consistency Diaco was able to achieve at Notre Dame.
Even with the bar raised for what defensive success is for the Fighting Irish though, Diaco did leave VanGorder room for improvement. For all of the success Diaco had at Notre Dame, he still struggled to solve Navy’s triple option, one of the oldest offenses in football, in two of the four meetings between the Fighting Irish and Midshipmen.
Diaco was also only able to shut down the Michigan offense one time in four meetings despite Michigan having anything but a juggernaut of an offense in that time. This year Devin Gardner looked like a Heisman candidate against Notre Dame earlier this season, but found his Heisman campaign very short lived when he couldn’t replicate that success against any one else.
Perhaps the biggest areas to improve on for VanGorder though is in turnover production and quarterback pressure. Notre Dame was tied for 103rd in turnovers gained and 96th in sacks per game this past season generating just 17 turnovers and collecting only 20 sacks in 2013. Louisville led the NCAA with 3.31 sacks per game (43 overall) and Houston in turnovers with an impressive 43.
Even last year when Notre Dame’s defense was ranked 2nd in the NCAA in scoring defense, the Irish didn’t produce many turnovers. Notre Dame ranked just 46th in turnovers gained in 2012 with 23 and that was with Manti Te’o intercepting an impressive 7 passes on his own. Sack production, however, last year was much stronger with the Irish ranking 22nd with 2.62 sacks a game.
Argue with Diaco’s style of defense all you want – and I am guilty of doing so often – but the bottom line is that Diaco was able to put a defense on the field for Notre Dame that ranked in the top 30 in scoring defense four straight years – something Notre Dame had done just two times total in the previous 10 years.
VanGorder is said to believe in a much more aggressive style of defense based on his previous coaching stops so it will be interesting to see just what he has in mind for the Notre Dame defense. While the Irish haven’t produced many turnovers and have struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks at times, the Irish defense has largely kept opponents off of the scoreboard enough to have Notre Dame in position to win games.
And that is all despite an offense that has had a propensity for producing momentum crippling, game changing turnovers of its own over the last few years, but that is another debate for another day.
Bob Diaco was able to stabilize the Notre Dame defense and greatly improve on the performance of his predecessors. If Brian VanGorder is able to build on the foundation Diaco has laid for Notre Dame and continue to improve the Irish defense as much as Diaco did, Notre Dame is going to be in position to win a lot of football games – especially if that offense starts scoring. We’ll talk about that plenty during the off-season though.