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.
NOTRE DAME DEFENSE: YESTERDAY
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
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 CHANGING OFFENSIVE ENVIRONMENT
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.
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
BRIAN VAN GORDER ATTENDS “FINISHING SCHOOL”
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.
NOTRE DAME DEFENSE: TODAY
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.
THE IRISH SHUT OUT MICHIGAN!
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.
NOTRE DAME DEFENSE: TOMORROW
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.
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:
1. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones
2. Daniel Cage and Jonathan Bonner
3. Pete Mokwuah and Jacob Matuska
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.
VAN GORDER IS NO ONE-ZONE-BLITZ-TRICK PONY
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!