Prior to the 2015 season, I wrote about this being a make or break year for Brian VanGorder as the Notre Dame defensive coordinator. He returned a litany of starters and coaches a unit that features three captains: linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, and safety Matthias Farley. His unit last year finished 73rd in total defense and I thought the 2015 defense needed to finish at least in the top 30 to keep Notre Dame competitive in the national picture. As it currently stands Notre Dame is ranked 46th in total defense at 360 yards allowed per game–69th in rushing and 33rd in passing. The rushing numbers would seem to make sense; the Notre Dame defensive line was seen as something of a weak link and the Irish have played two option teams. But, the unit that appears to need the biggest uptick in production is a VanGorder specialty: the linebackers.
Before we get to the linebacker numbers let’s first focus on the defensive line. With the loss of Jarron Jones, one could surmise that poor defensive line play could lead to poor linebacker play; the linebackers are constantly having to deal with offensive linemen in their face and therefore are not free to flow to the ball. Looking at the numbers this does not appear to be the case. I’m going to list Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochelle’s projected stats versus two unnamed players that will be revealed in a second:
Day: 47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 15 QB hurries
Rochelle: 61 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 9 QB hurries
Player A: 45 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 9 QB hurries
Player B: 40 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 9 QB hurries
Player A is Stephon Tuitt and Player B is Kapron-Lewis Moore, both in the 2012 season. In addition, the duo of Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage are projected to finish with one less tackle per game than Louis Nix in 2012, the same number of sacks, and slightly more tackles for loss. To take it even further, Romeo Okwara is on pace to slightly eclipse the Prince Shembo tackles for loss total at 10.5. The point is, the Notre Dame defensive line is producing high quality numbers compared to 2012’s elite unit in every category except for sacks, and even in that case, the quarterback hurry numbers are also favorable to the 2015 unit.
So the question is, why is Notre Dame, a team that is receiving high quality production from its defensive line, only 69th in rushing defense? Yes, we could again point out that Notre Dame faced two option teams, whose sole purpose is to run the ball, but even if we removed those two teams that leaves Notre Dame 31st in rushing defense, which is good, but not great.
To even imply that Jaylon Smith needs to step his game up seems a little bit silly. His tackle numbers are on par with Manti Te’o during his magical 2012 season, and he has been Notre Dame’s best linebacker by far this year. To put it simply, he has not played anything that resembles a poor game. But, his season more resembles Te’o’s 2011 season, lots of tackles yes, but where are the impact plays?
Smith currently has 6 tackles for loss, on pace for about 9, which would likely leave him outside the top 100 players in the nation in that category. This is just mind-boggling for a player of his skillset. He’s an athletic marvel, he runs in the 4.5’s, weighs around 250, and is chiseled out of granite. Is it a scheme thing? Or is it an ability thing? I have a hard time believing it is ability, and it should be noted that he is playing in his less natural position, WILL linebacker, for the second year in a row.
If you watched the Showtime series “A Season With” on Tuesday, you saw VanGorder imploring Smith to lead in ways beyond by example. You get the sense that Smith has trouble imploring his teammates to do more when he has trouble doing more himself.
Which brings us to Joe Schmidt, who more than any other player is suffering from a lack of production in an extremely key position. He registered only two tackles against Temple, the third time in the last four games he has tallied four or less tackles in a contest. Those also happened to be four of Notre Dame’s best opponents. The team MVP last year is for lack of a better way to say it, really hurting this defensive unit.
The unsung players on the 2012 defense were the linebacking tandem of Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, who split time at the same position and combined for 112 tackles, or one less than Heisman runner up Te’o. Schmidt, who takes every snap at middle linebacker for Notre Dame, is on pace to finish with 64 tackles, which would not reach Smith, who is currently at 66, and in 113 opportunities against Clemson and Temple, he registered three stops. This isn’t about calling for anyone’s position–who is to say another player would come in and play better–but the fact is Schmidt is not producing and it is keeping Notre Dame from reaching it’s potential on defense.
The linebackers will have plenty of chances to right the ship in the November part of the schedule, starting with the Pitt Panthers on Saturday. They are a physical team that loves to run between the tackles, Schmidt will again be challenged inside like he was against Clemson, hopefully he will be more up to the task this time around. Notre Dame could use a lot more creativity with Smith and Day; we have yet to see those two players rush on the same side, and incredibly we’ve seen both Day and Smith drop into coverage, which is at best mystifying for a team that has trouble rushing the passer.
For Notre Dame to realize its defensive potential, Smith needs to be turned loose and Schmidt needs to summon the play that earned him team MVP honors last season. The season may literally be riding on the shoulders of their two defensive captains in the middle. Hopefully they are up to the task.