News broke a little over two weeks ago that Notre Dame tabbed Brian VanGorder as it’s next defensive coordinator to replace new UConn head coach Bob Diaco. Monday Notre Dame made it official announcing the addition of VanGorder to Brian Kelly’s coaching staff.
Brian VanGorder has a resume that spans over 20 years coaching at both the collegiate and professional levels as a position coach, coordinator, and head coach.
VanGorder comes to Notre Dame after most recently coaching linebackers for the New York Jets for the 2013 season. In New York Van Gorder worked on a defensive staff that ran head coach Rex Ryan’s 3-4 defense very well in 2013 – specifically at the linebacker position. Under the coaching of VanGorder, both inside linebackers for the Jets collected over 100 tackles this season and outside linebacker Calvin Pace had a career year with 10 sacks at the ripe old age of 33. Prior to 2013 Pace’s single season best was 8 sacks in 2009.
Before his one season with the Jets, VanGorder spent a year in the SEC – one of two stints for VanGorder in the SEC – as the defensive coordinator at Auburn under Gene Chizik. Van Gorder did not return to Auburn this past season after Chizik was fired following the 2012 season.
VanGorder spent the previous five years before his one year run at Auburn in the NFL as the defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons under Mike Smith. While VanGorder was a member of the Falcons staff, Atlanta went to the playoffs three times in five years and won one NFC South title. Along the way VanGorder’s defenses feature Pro Bowl players such as John Abraham and Brent Grimes.
Atlanta wasn’t the first NFL stop for VanGorder. In 2005 he coached the linebackers of the Jacksonville Jaguars under defensive coordinator Mike Smith. When Smith became the head coach of the Falcons in 2008 he brought VanGorder with him after VanGorder spent the 2007 season as head coach of Georgia Southern.
VanGorder first made a name for himself in 2001 when he was hired by Mark Richt to run the defense at Georgia. Under VanGorder’s watch the Bulldogs consistently played great defense. During the four years in which VanGroder was part of Mark Richt’s staff, Georgia finished in the top 25 all four years, won three bowl games including a Sugar Bowl win over Florida State in 2002, and produced four defensive first round NFL draft picks - Thomas Davis, Charles Grant, David Pollack and Johnathan Sullivan.
Before joining the Georgia staff, VanGorder had coaching stints at Western Illinois (2000, Defensive Coordinator), Central Michigan (1998-99, Defensive Coordinator), Central Florida (1995-97, Linebackers and later Defensive Coordinator), Wayne State (1992-94), and Grand Valley State (1989-91). It was at Grand Valley State where VanGorder worked with Brian Kelly and Mike Denbrock.
On the surface this looks like a fantastic hire for Brian Kelly and Notre Dame. A homerun hire really. VanGorder brings a wealth of experience as both a position coach and coordinator at big time programs along with head coaching experience. And let’s be honest, he has a mustache that even Tom Selleck would be jealous of.
For most of his career VanGorder has run a 4-3 defense, but did spend the last year learning Rex Ryan’s 3-4 defense with the Jets so it is unclear which direction he will take the Notre Dame defense.
One thing is clear, however. VanGorder will bet tasked with improving a defense that was ravaged by injuries, inconsistency, and poor tackling that never resembled the dominant unit that propelled the Irish to a berth in the national championship game just a year ago. He replaces a defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, who had his ups and downs while at Notre Dame from the disaster of the 2010 Navy game to last year’s wrecking ball of a defense to the meltdown in the title game and subsequent let down performance in 2013.
Diaco didn’t leave a bare cupboard for VanGorder though. The Irish defense has potential star players at each level for next year with Sheldon Day at DE, Jaylon Smith at LB, and Keivarae Russell at CB. VanGorder will, however, have to develop depth in a hurry at defensive line and find a combination of safeties that are assets, not liabilities to the defense in 2014.
Throughout the process of identifying his new defensive coordinator, Brian Kelly said multiple times that he wanted a defensive coordinator that could implement a system that featured multiple looks such as the one run by Diaco the last four years. VanGorder’s year under Rex Ryan, one of the most successful implementers of the 3-4 defense combined with his previous experience with 4-3 defense should allow for him to do just that in South Bend.
VanGorder’s scheme will have to go on the back burner for a few weeks while he hits the recruiting trail hard over the next few weeks as Notre Dame looks to land another defensive tackle in this class following last week’s decommitment from Matt Dickerson while hopefully adding a few players in the secondary such as cornerback Terrence Alexander or safety JuJu Smith.
Notre Dame fans can now turn their attention to what Brian Kelly does to fill out his offensive staff following Chuck Martin’s departure for the head coaching job at Miami of Ohio. If Kelly is as successful filling out that side of his staff as he was on the defensive side of the ball, Notre Dame fans will have something else to smile about after a rocky start to the new year.