The rebuilding of Notre Dame Stadium is nearing completion with the brand new jumbotron getting closer to lighting up with beautifully stunning replays every day. It’s been a nearly three year construction project that we will finally see in all it’s glory this fall. The reconstruction of the Notre Dame defense officially began a few weeks ago under the guidance of Mike Elko and while it might not be a three year project like the the Campus Crossroads, this spring is telling us it won’t happen over night or even over this spring either.
Spring football practice is always about teaching fundamentals, getting young players who were deep on the depth charts ready for prominent roles, and finding replacements for the players that are hoping to hear their names called in the NFL Draft – or in Notre Dame’s case sometimes headed to Capitol Hill. This year at Notre Dame, however, it’s been back to the basics for the Notre Dame defense under first year defensive coordinator Mike Elko.
Elko, the former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, has not been stressing scheme or exotic blitz packages or introducing any crazy new terminology for the Notre Dame defense. Instead, he’s started rebuilding this thing from the ground up primarily for one simple reason – he has to.
Under the guidance of Notre Dame’s last so called defensive coordinator, Brian Vangorder, we heard a lot about exotic looks, NFL schemes, and subpackages. Vangorder tried to hit the ground running in the spring of 2014 with installing a NFL style defense that was supposed to be the missing link for Notre Dame football. Instead, that defense sent Notre Dame back into the stone ages.
Vangorder, long removed from the college game and fresh off a tour of duty in the NFL, forgot that he was coaching college kids again. And college kids, especially at this time of year, need to have the basics drilled into them. Basics like tackling. Something Notre Dame has been atrocious at times over the last few years.
Is it any wonder that the first practice video of the spring that surfaced from the media viewing portions featured some very basic tackling drills? And is it any wonder that that video showed some alarmingly poor fundamentals? Now at the same time, it was the first time the defense was tackling live ball carriers in months and a lot of these defenders are still young, but it was still hard to watch that and not cringe just a bit.
Reshaping the Defensive Line
Listen to any podcast from some of the prominent Notre Dame pay sites this spring and you will not get a rosy picture of the Notre Dame defensive line. It’s probably not quite as bad as it may seem right now, but you won’t come away from any of those podcasts feeling too great about the prospects of the defense this fall. Knowing that scheme was emphasized over fundamentals the last few years, however, is that any surprise?
Notre Dame has recruited a lot of “projects” on the defensive line over the last few years out of necessity when they’ve swung and missed at their primary targets. Players like Micah Dew-Treadway, Pete Mokwuah, Brandon Tiassum, Jonathan Bonner, and Adetokunbo Ogundeji were all raw prospects with high ceilings who needed to be developed. Under the previous defensive coordinator, they were not. The good news, however, is Dew-Treadway and Tiassum have three years of eligibility left, Ogundeji four, and Bonner and Mokwuah two.
Even defensive linemen that came in with better pedigrees have not been developed. Guys like Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, and Daniel Cage were all 4-star players who simply haven’t developed over the last few years. Even a player like Jerry Tillery who has started since his freshman year has gotten that much better since day one. So while the defensive line may not be showing much now, I’m taking these reports with a grain of salt and waiting until some of them have a full spring under Elko’s guidance under their belts.
Hopefully that will all start to change, but it is not going to be an overnight process.
Getting Players in the Right Positions & Adapting the Scheme
Last week when Mike Elko was asked about how often he still thinks about moving players around, his answer was refreshing. He said that it’s a constant evaluation process and while he feels pretty good about where he has most players right now after viewing game and practice film, he is constantly looking to move guys around and constantly thinking about adapting his scheme to the players he has to work with.
Whoa now, adapting the scheme to the players skills? That’s just crazy talk. You mean there’s a chance that we might not hear about a highly recruited or highly skilled player not getting on the field simply because they aren’t grasping the scheme or just aren’t a “fit”? You know, kinda like how Nyles Morgan toiled on the depth chart with nary a snap in 2015?
Elko is practicing what he’s preaching too. We’ve already seen Nick Coleman – a cast off at cornerback – moved to free safety running with the first team defense this spring. Given Notre Dame’s dire need for help at safety, if Coleman can find a home there it will be a huge boost for the defense.
Coleman is still a young player with half of his collegiate career in front of him. He had a very rough sophomore season and never fully recovered from a really rough night in Austin last year to start the season. There was a reason he was on the field in the first place last year though. He’s got talent. Maybe, just maybe, that talent is better served at free safety. We won’t know for sure, but it is nice to see a junior who has shown promise get a second chance instead of just falling down the depth chart and into obscurity.
Also note, this does not give Brian Kelly a pass on why the defense is in the state that is in. The fact that Vangorder was allowed full control over the defense apparently without much oversight squarely on his shoulders. Vangorder was his guy and he in some ways was an absentee landlord when it came to the defense the last few years. Everything Kelly has done since November, however, suggests he has realized how deep of a problem it’s been and has worked to fix the situation.
New Drills Are Reinforcing Fundamentals
Mike Elko isn’t just doing a bit of depth chart engineering this year spring. He has installed a number of new drills that Notre Dame hasn’t done in the past that are reinforcing the concepts that will lead to the kind of negative plays BVG talked about a lot but we hardly saw in games. Listen to the players talk this spring and you’ll hear them talk about different types of drills aimed at causing turnovers.
A lot of these drills have nothing to do with the scheme that Mike Elko will ultimately run this fall for the Irish. Instead of forcing a scheme that is harder to learn than Mandarin Chinese down a bunch of young developing players throats, he is rebuilding the foundation for a Notre Dame defense. That foundation is cracked and crumbling after relying too heavily on the star power of the likes of Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day for years before finally collapsing on itself last fall.
Because of this basic, foundational work, there is a good chance we are all going to hear some more “horror” stories about the defense trailing the offense and the defense getting beat up in practice and that’s OK for now. Elko’s past results at both Wake Forest and Bowling Green speak for themselves. So if the offense makes some big plays in practice videos or even looks unstoppable in the spring game, don’t get too worked up. Instead focus on how the defense is tackling, on how the defensive line is using their hands,=, and on how fast the defense is playing.
This spring is about getting back to the basics for the Notre Dame defense. Scheme will be secondary and that is a beautiful thing right now. The work being done by Elko and his defensive staff now will pay off in the fall. It might not be evident in April and you may hear some more “the sky is falling” reports about the defensive line between now and then, but when Temple comes to town in September the work being done right now will pay off big time.