Notre Dame Defense – Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Jaylon Smith - Notre Dame LB
Sophomore LB Jaylon Smith is going to need a monster game for the Irish to take down the Wolverines Saturday. (Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

As Notre Dame enters its first bye week of the season, we take a close look at the revitalized Notre Dame defense led by a ground of talented youngsters who give the Irish defense hope for years to come.   We’ll analyse the switch to Brian Van Gorder 4-3 defense, the impact thus far, what to expect in 2014 and the prognosis for 2015 and beyond.


A Thank You note to Bob Diaco.

In his first 3 years, Diaco was working with a mess that he inherited, an out-of-shape mess. But in his first 3 years, Diaco engineered a defense that:

(a) reduced points per game each year
(b) reduced yards per game each year
(c) reduced rushing yards per game each year
(d) reduced passing yards per game each year

Bob Diaco - Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator
Bob Diaco seen on the field prior to kick-off of the BCS National Championship before making his customary trip to the pressbox for the game. (Photo: Steve Mitchell / USA TODAY Sports)

In 2012, his third year, the Notre Dame Defense of Coach Bob Diaco carried a new and inexperienced offense by putting up the best defensive numbers since ’66. The Defense was the strong suit as the team went 12-0 and reached the National Championship game. That is remarkable!

So, Thank you coach Diaco!


A lot has changed since Kelly arrived in 2010 and hired Diaco. The biggest change is the explosion in the uptempo, no-huddle spread offense.

  • In 2010 Chip Kelly was in his second year at Oregon, taking the fast tempo spread to new heights.
  • In 2010 Gus Malzahn was in his second year as Auburn Offensive coordinator, coaching up Cam Newton.
  • In 2010 Kevin Sumlin was building his portfolio in his 3rd year at Houston.

Tremors shook the very foundation of defensive dogma when explosive Auburn and explosive Oregon met for the national championship. The spread offense barbarians were at the gate! That Auburn-Oregon game shattered the myth that “the uptempo spread is a gimmick offense, and not a championship offense.”

The uptempo spread caught the eye of Nick Saban on the way to his pursuit of the 2013 championship. His vaunted, star-studded, even 5-star studded defense allowed 121 points to Sumlin’s A&M, Malzahn’s Auburn and Bob Stoops/Josh Heupel’s souped up OU. 40.3 ppg for the formerly proud Crimson Tide defense. Oh, two of those games were losses. Darn, Nick didn’t get that 2013 championship. His reaction was predictable. You know, Nick, football, and adversity, do not build character, they reveal it.

Saban, America’s highest salaried coward, tried to politically stop an uptempo spread offense he could not stop on the field. Hypocritically, pharasaically, sanctimoniously, Saban sought to “Advance player safety” by increasing the time between snaps thereby slowing down the uptempo spread. The uptempo spread, simply, made Nick Saban cry. This was the biggest lie since a fox volunteered to set up a security system for a chicken farmer!

To win championships, you don’t have to run the uptempo spread but you need to be able to attack it and slow it down. Are you taking notes, Nick?

The final bit of evidence of the arrival of the spread came this year. Remember “Student Body Right?” For three decades, USC’s Mike Garrett, Orenthal James Simpson, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell, Charles White and Marcus Allen ran the Mckay/Robinson version of Lombardi’s Packer Power Sweep.

In 2014 Rhodes Scholar Pat Haden, the USC AD who had to deal with Lane Kiffin, the parting gift from Haden’s predecessor Mike Garrett, hired Steve Sarkisian as his head coach.

They, uh, discussed offense during the interview. In his first game, Sark’s Trojans ran 105 plays! Simply, the uptempo spread will not be wished away. And, Nick Saban, it won’t be whined away either.

A new defensive scheme could prevent Max Redfield from fully breaking out in 2014.   (Photo: Robin Alam / IconSMI)
A new defensive scheme could prevent Max Redfield from fully breaking out in 2014. (Photo: Robin Alam / IconSMI)


Brian Kelly needed somebody who could revamp the defense, and install, teach, coach and run an attacking defense. The coach needed to have strong communication and teaching skills, and the rare blend of intensity and patience to handle the transition and the move to the next level.

Brian Kelly had one name on his list: Brian Van Gorder


Van Gorder had earned a Broyles award at Georgia, been the defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons and had achieved great success. In 2012, after Gene Chizik got booted from Auburn, where Van Gorder was the defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan, head coach of the Jets, hired Van Gorder to coach the Jets linebackers. Ryan had coordinated the Ravens’ stellar defense for seveal years. And Rex had the DNA. He’s the son of Buddy Ryan, the defensive coordinator the Chicago Bears in 1985. He was the architect of that defense, as much an unregistered terrorist organization as a conventional NFL defense. Van Gorder was smart enough to absorb “advanced classes” in pressure packages while with the Jets.


The 3-4 was out and in came the 4-3. More importantly, the empahsis was shifted to attacking rather than “Read and react.” The spread punished “containment” defense and “bend but do not break.” Simply you either make dust or eat dust. You must take the fight to the offense, disrupting flow, cutting off space, hitting key players even the QBS hard, often and early.


This type of defense tries to scramble and disorient the offense before it has time to reverse the trick. There are no free lunches. Investment professionals know of the “efficient frontier.” In investing you can only achieve higher reward by accepting higher risk. So it is with defensive football. Attacking increases your marginal likelihood to give up big plays. (NOTE: this chicken has not yet come home to roost, but it will. It is mandated by the efficient frontier). That’s football’s “efficient frontier.”

Personnel needs are different. You need bulk and power up front. The DES are run stoppers first, and pass rushers second. You need speed all over, and if you can’t pressure the quarterback with the front four, it must come from linebackers, cornerbacks or even safeties. But you ACT first, react SECOND.

Recruiting requirements shift. You are not locked into those narrow demographic profiles at Nose Tackle and Outside Linebacker as in the 3-4. Simply, there is a bigger pool of mammals to populate a 4-3 than there are for the 3-4. Just remember to get the fast ones.

Except for the two DTS and the Mike, the more speed the better. You need to have a lot of players who collapse openings and swarm to the football. If you want to see an attacking defense with no speed, then observe the Kansas Jayhawks, its putative coach daily fulfilling his primary task – reminding everyone that Kansas is a basketball school.

Enter Brian Van Gorder. And just in time to add Daniel Cage, Peter Mokwuah, Kolin Hill, Nyles Morgan and Jhonny Williams to existing commits Andrew Trumbetti, Jay Hayes, Drue Tranquill, Jonathan Bonner and Grant Blankenship.

Generally, even with an outstanding DC, it takes into a second year for a new DC to take hold. It was true for Bob Stoops at Florida, and Mike Stoops when he returned to replace Brent Venables.

Van Gorder might never achieve anything more remarkable then shaping and molding a defensive unit that allowed 31 points in its first three games. He only had to deal with new starters Romeo Okwara, Jarron Jones, Joe Schmidt, Max Redfield James Onwualu, and then deal with the suspension of two starters in KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams,

the career ending injury to Tony Springmnann and Collinsworth’s 11th hour injury. Outside of that it was a walk in the park.

Cody Riggs - Notre Dame v. Michigan
(Photo: Matt Cashore / USA Today Sports)


So far the results are remarkable, allowing 10.3 points per game, holding opponents to less than 100 yards per game rushing and 315 yards per game. 6 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries. That’s a total of 9, or 3 per game. The Defensive yards per point is a glittering, but unsustainable 30.3.

But, really how good is the 2014 Irish defense?

It will be tested by some pretty good offenses, beginning with the gauntlet of Stanford, North Carolina and FSU in 15 days in October. It will be tested by Arizona State, Louisville and USC in November. So, it seems reasonable to say that the six best offenses we will face are in our future, not our past.

Right now, it looks like a top twenty defense. Can it be better than that? The unity, the team play, the speed and Van Gorder’s leadership are there. They are playing fast and decisively, which leverages the speed on the defense.

The requirements for personnel are :

  • Run stoppers up front with Depth to the third string
  • Cover corners who can play press and enough to nickel and dime
  • Speed all over
  • Depth all over

Where must the irish improve to be a top 10 defense?

(1) More depth on the DL. We have seven now, maybe eight if you add Blankenship to Trumbetti, Rochell, Okwara, Jones, Day, Cage and Utopu. Williams’ return would help, but can we get enough out of Rabasa, Matuska, Bonner, Hayes and Williams to constitute a third string? That answer just might be yes. MIGHT. Stanford will be the stress test for the DL. Remember when they signed those three 5 star OL? Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett? They are all starting as juniors. They will pound first, ask questions later. And they keep pounding for four quarters. That will be the DL’s unforgiving moment. Notre Dame needs to enter that game with 5 playable defensive ends, five playable defensive tackles.

(2) Cover corners. This is where Russell’s absence is most significant. Riggs has limitations at CB and Devin Butler is not there yet. The wild card here might be Farley. Can he be a dime, if not a nickel? When USC puts Agholor, Farmer, Rogers, Juju and Adoree out there, THAT will be a stress test for the cornerbacks. FSU will be a preliminary stress test, but there is a lot more NFL receiving talent in Heritage Hall.

(3) Increased ability to put pressure on the QB even if with creative blitzes. Some of the upcoming quarterbacks are not as easy to rattle as ol’ 98 But, realistically, there is not a Mariota in the bunch.

(4) Stamina or “volume” in the au current phrase. E.g. Jones has to get his volume up into the high 40’s.

(5) Continued rapid growth of the frosh on defense. It is a long and winding road. September euphoria is a dangerous narcotic. So far, so good, but the jury is still out and the first juror, dressed in white with Cardinal trim, arrives on October 4th. Top 10 defensive status is achievable. But so is top 30 or top 40 status.


The defense should be more comfortable with Van Gorder’s scheme in the second year. It affects everything from mindset to weight/fitness work to film study to habits

to awareness to the climb up the ladder from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. With Van Gorder, it is the gestalt, the whole exceeding the sum of the parts. But let’s examine the parts.

Sheldon Day - Notre Dame vs. Rice
Junior DT Sheldon Day in action versus Rice in Notre Dame’s 48-17 victory. (Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

Defensive Line

The 2015 Defensive line can be outstanding. It will probably be TOP FIVE in America. We concede Alabama, LSU and Florida, no others. USC won’t be there yet.

5 starters (Trumbetti and Okwara share a spot) return. That which was labeled young defense will now be labeled vintage: Jones, Day and Okwara as Seniors, Rochell, Matuska as a Junior and Trumbetti as a soph. Then you have Blankenship and Cage. That’s 8 Plus, this year’s frosh who are incubating like Jhonny Williams, Jay Hayes, Jonathan Bonner and massive Peter Mokwuah will be a year into the program and ready to contribute. It’s a solid three deep. Few teams have the quality in the starters and the quality depth:

Defensive Tackles

1. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones
2. Daniel Cage and Jonathan Bonner
3. Pete Mokwuah and Jacob Matuska

Defensive Ends

1. Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara
2. Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship
3. Jay Hayes and Jhonny Williams

7 of the 3 deep will be sophs, but as they say, if they’ll bite, they’ll bite when they are pups.

In year 6 of the Kelly regime we have a strong three deep, putting the lie to the preexisting myth that you cant recruit DL to Notere Dame. Hogwash!


1. Jaylon Smith
2. Greer Martini
3. Doug Randolph

1. Joe Schmidt
2. Nyles Morgan
3. Michael Deeb
4. Jarrett Grace? ( a medical hardship seems most plausible)

1. James Onwualu
2. John Turner
3. Ben Councell

Wild Card: Kolin Hill – the terminator, coming from any where on the field. Terror has no position.

NOTE – the above three deep on the front seven requires NO 2015 freshmen. All the DL and LBS can redshirt. It took six years to arrive at this lofty staus, but its’ nice to be here.

We’ll know more about the quality of our linebackers after we play SC. The six high-powered offenses we play will be the rite of passage.

Realistic evaluation of where we are in 2014 will be the leading indicator of the 2015 projection.

Cornerbacks: Cole Luke, Devin Butler, Nick Watkins, Shaun Crawford

Wild card: Matthias Farley

Safeties: Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield, Nicky Baratti?, Drue Tranquill, Eilar Hardy? Prentice McKinney would probably play.

In 2015 our safeties will be more daunting than the cornerbacks. Shumate, Redfield and Tranquill are a load. You have to, in this defense, have nickel and dime backs that are good enough to be starters. We’re not quite there yet and may not yet be in 2015. And that suboptimization can be costly against great opponents, or Southern Cal.

This should be a top ten defense in 2015. The limiting constraint is the cornerbacks. Put Russell at cornerback and we are a top 5 defense.

The future is bright. The blueprint and the coaching staff are installed. With the depth chart now solid, the key is to recruit gamebreakers, difference makers, playmakers. We are okay at three levels, Day on the DL, Smith at LB and Redfield at safety. But you have to keep getting them. These are the guys who can make plays, even against super athletes in the second half of a playoff game.


The handwringing forelock tuggers dreamed vivid nightmares of Jon Tenuta when Brian Van Gorder was hired. But a blitz, even a sophisticated zone blitz, is a mere means to the end which is the font and origin of Van Gorder’s mission. The end goal is “Preventive Chaos.” The tactical war between the uptempo spread and defensive generals has just begun. The schemes and the countermeasures will change. Thrust, parry, counter-thrust. But in this fierce battle, we now have our Patton.

Thanks Brians! Kelly for the offer, Van Gorder for the acceptance.

Coaches, players, Longo and everyone involved deserves credit for making this difficult transition so swiftly and effectively. The best is yet to come for the Notre Dame Defense. It’s gonna be fun, lads. Notre Dame has never been great without a great defense. Its part of our DNA.

Buckle your chin straps, lads-and lasses!

Defense! Defense!

Go Irish!

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  1. Kenny M, I conditioned the top 5 ranking of next year on Russell returning, which is iffy on two counts. He makes a huge difference.

    But I stand by the prediction that the DL will be one of the best.
    5 starters returning, depth as we haven’t seen since the early 90’s.

  2. Jack, So far ND has played at a higher level than I expected especially on the defensive side of the ball. Although the three wins have been against inferior opponents ND has beaten these teams decisively which hasnt been the case in recent years. One key component that ND has improved upon greatly from recent years is turnovers. The offense has only turned the ball over once thru three games. What worries me the most are the injuries. ND cant afford to start losing players to injuries particularly on defense. And if Golson is forced to run the ball 14 times a game we might be in trouble.

    As far as the five suspended players go we need them back badly. I hope we get them all back sooner than later but who knows. When you lose 5 players in which 3 of those five are your top talented players its going to cost you eventually. Lets says we get all these guys back after the Syracuse game. How long will it take for them to be ready to contribute being they havent been practising with the team?

    1. Jeff,

      I agree that the team has played better than in the past, but I am comparing this team to a playoff team and it is far away from a playoff team.

      Second, Kelly said in a press conference the players are still working out with Longo and he would insert them into practice right away and play them right away. I don’t think it will take more than a game or two to get them back in playing shape. I think that once the NCAA reviews the findings of the report they will render a decision and the players will either be denied the ability to play this season or time served.

      I do think BK has done a great job with losing 5 players and maintaining the teams focus. I am a little worried about Malik Ziare transferring. You never see him during the game talking to Golson or with the other QB’s.

  3. Gentleman I think this is a little premature. ND has not played a solid offense yet. The last time VanGorder was a D-coordinator in college his head coach was fired and his defense was a mess. Did he learn something from Sexy Rexy? Only time will tell. I do like how he makes adjustments and how this defense has adjusted.

    October is the measuring stick and we will see if this move was correct in October. The first four games the Irish should win, the next four will predict the future of the 2014 season. If they can navigate this slate of games unscathed, it could be a good year. If they stumble ND will be on their way to a 8-4 season.

    Oh, one more thing, what happens if they get all 5 players back?

  4. I agree this defense has a tremendous upside but top 5 next year is going a little far. The position that will be the best in my opinion is LB and not D LINE. Like you mentioned above Jaylon will be a stud and by this time next year Nyles Morgan will be ready to contribute at a high level. Morgan isn’t as fast as Jaylon but he is very athletic as well. He just needs more time to digest this complex NFL style defensive scheme. Morgan will likely move into the middle kicking Jaylon outside to his natural position at the SAM or WILL.

    What this defense needs more than anything is a elite pass rusher at DE. A player that you have to gameplan to try and stop on every snap. We don’t have that type of a player on our roster and out of the 17 verbals we have he is not currently there either. Sheldon Day is close to that type of player but is not there yet. I do believe that he is in the top five best DT in college.

    The scary thing about this defense so far is that we are missing 3 starters. Shutting Michigan out and only giving up 10 ppg so far is very exciting. I would have loved to see what this defense could do with all hands on deck. You add Russell back and we might have the best trio of CB in the country. I thought there would be a chance that we get Russell back but I have given up hope of getting any of the suspended players back. I think if the school was going to clear any players it would have happened by now. It would have happened during Michigan week.

  5. Great question. The Onwualu position is the hybrid position which is, in effect, half safety/half linebacker. A converted safety (Turner) and a converted receiver (Onwualu) are the first two in that position. Councell is third because they want him to play if Stanford or someone tries to bulldoze us.

    It’s probably Smith’s more perfect “slotting” position, but in order to keep him closer to the action, where he can first help stop the running game. He can cause more destruction where he is, and that’s why Randolph
    and Martini are there. Smith is positioned “out-of-position” because
    his athleticism and tackling skill cause the most “preventive chaos” at that position.

  6. I’m a little confused on a few points–how is Greer Martini, a frosh who is not known for his athleticism (reminds me more of Deeb than Smith) playing behind smith? Wouldn’t a player like Onwualu, who used to be a WR and has speed, play behind smith and have Martini on the other side?

  7. So nice to see depth piling in at Notre Dame! When I tell ppl about the stat of ND having to watch the 85 man limit for the first time since the Davie era, they are amazed!

  8. I think we may want to slow our roll a little, though. It’s been 3 games. Against less than stellar offenses. I’m not prepared to conclude that “one great coach was all it took.” Let’s see what better teams do to try to exploit this defense after they have some film. And let’s see how fans react the first time the D sells out on a blitz and gives up a 50+ yard TD. I like VanGorder and I like what the D has done SO FAR. But three games does not a season make.

    1. Agreed that the season is young. But there was that undefeated season and national championship game 2 years ago.

      Our fortunes rest on the offensive line’s ability to improve and stay with their blocks. Otherwise Kelly goes all “Madden on Xbox” and that has not always worked out too well.

      1. What does 2012 have to do with this years defense? That was two completely different schemes and players not to mention the leadership that Manti’ brought to the field.

        You are 100% right about this offensive line. They need to step up and get physical. I think that is why McGlinchey will get inserted at RT. He was the most physical out of all the lineman this summer.

      2. Kenny,
        I wasn’t comparing the 2012 defense to this defense. I was lightheartedly pointing to, what I thought were LucasCorso’s comments regarding Kelly. But after the fact I saw that I had misread/misinterpreted, as he was talking specifically about Van Gorder.

        That was my bad completely!

  9. “So far the results are remarkable, allowing 10.3 points per game, holding opponents to less than 100 yards per game rushing and 315 yards per game.”

    One great coaching hire is all it takes especially at ND.

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