Bob Diaco Raised the Bar for Brian VanGorder

Brian VanGorder - Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator
New York Jets linebackers coach Brian Vangorder during training camp at SUNY Cortland. Mandatory Credit: William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports

Brian VanGorder might not be sure exactly what kind of defense he will install at Notre Dame until he completes his assessment of the current talent assembled in South Bend, but one thing is certain for Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator – the bar has been raised for defensive performance at Notre Dame.

Six or seven years ago Notre Dame fans would have jumped for joy if the Fighting Irish defense ranked 27th in the country in scoring defense.  This year that wasn’t the case, however, with the Irish defense serving as a source of frustration for fans many times throughout the season.  See the Navy, Michigan, Pitt, and Oklahoma games for instance.

Notre Dame played pretty good defense this year considering all of the injuries it sustained, but Notre Dame’s 27th place finish in scoring defense was actually the lowest Notre Dame has finished in the Brian Kelly era.  All of those teams played on a defense coordinated by the new head football coach at UConn, Bob Diaco.

While Diaco’s bend, don’t break philosophy may have frustrated fans at time, no one can argue that Diaco was anything less than the best defensive coordinator at Notre Dame in the last decade.  The numbers alone back that up.  Just take a look at the last 15 years of Notre Dame defensive scoring rankings.

Notre Dame Yearly Scoring Defense Ranks 1999-2013
Year Def. Coordinator Rank Points/Game
1999 Greg Mattison 78 27.6
2000 Greg Mattison 35 20.55
2001 Greg Mattison 22 19.55
2002 Kent Baer 9 16.69
2003 Kent Baer 65 26.25
2004 Kent Baer 46 24.08
2005 Rick Minter 53 24.5
2006 Rick Minter 67 23.85
2007 Corwin Brown 72 27.85
2008 Corwin Brown 42 22.15
2009 Jon Tenuta 63 25.92
2010 Bob Diaco 23 20.23
2011 Bob Diaco 24 20.69
2012 Bob Diaco 2 12.77
2013 Bob Diaco 27 22.4

Other than Kent Baer’s one season ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense in 2002 which proved to be an aberration, Notre Dame had played pretty shoddy defense in the 11 years before Diaco assumed control of the Irish defense.  Greg Mattison had one season in the top 25 in scoring defense – ironically his last as defensive coordinator before taking a reduced role on Tyrone Willingham’s staff – but Kent Baer, Rick Minter, Corwin Brown, and Jon Tenuta never sniffed the sort of consistency Diaco was able to achieve at Notre Dame.

Even with the bar raised for what defensive success is for the Fighting Irish though, Diaco did leave VanGorder room for improvement.  For all of the success Diaco had at Notre Dame, he still struggled to solve Navy’s triple option, one of the oldest offenses in football, in two of the four meetings between the Fighting Irish and Midshipmen.

Diaco was also only able to shut down the Michigan offense one time in four meetings despite Michigan having anything but a juggernaut of an offense in that time.   This year Devin Gardner looked like a Heisman candidate against Notre Dame earlier this season, but found his Heisman campaign very short lived when he couldn’t replicate that success against any one else.

Perhaps the biggest areas to improve on for VanGorder though is in turnover production and quarterback pressure.   Notre Dame was tied for 103rd in turnovers gained and 96th in sacks per game this past season generating just 17 turnovers and collecting only 20 sacks in 2013.  Louisville led the NCAA with 3.31 sacks per game (43 overall) and Houston in turnovers with an impressive 43.

Even last year when Notre Dame’s defense was ranked 2nd in the NCAA in scoring defense, the Irish didn’t produce many turnovers.  Notre Dame ranked just 46th in turnovers gained in 2012 with 23 and that was with Manti Te’o intercepting an impressive 7 passes on his own.  Sack production, however, last year was much stronger with the Irish ranking 22nd with 2.62 sacks a game.

Argue with Diaco’s style of defense all you want – and I am guilty of doing so often – but the bottom line is that Diaco was able to put a defense on the field for Notre Dame that ranked in the top 30 in scoring defense four straight years – something Notre Dame had done just two times total in the previous 10 years.

Notre Dame Has Depth to Handle Equanimeous St. Brown's NFL Departure

VanGorder is said to believe in a much more aggressive style of defense based on his previous coaching stops so it will be interesting to see just what he has in mind for the Notre Dame defense.  While the Irish haven’t produced many turnovers and have struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks at times, the Irish defense has largely kept opponents off of the scoreboard enough to have Notre Dame in position to win games.

And that is all despite an offense that has had a propensity for producing momentum crippling, game changing turnovers of its own over the last few years, but that is another debate for another day.

Bob Diaco was able to stabilize the Notre Dame defense and greatly improve on the performance of his predecessors.  If Brian VanGorder is able to build on the foundation Diaco has laid for Notre Dame and continue to improve the Irish defense as much as Diaco did, Notre Dame is going to be in position to win a lot of football games – especially if that offense starts scoring.  We’ll talk about that plenty during the off-season though.

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  1. jack 4 years ago

    Diaco list 3 games this year with that silly soft zone.give em 5, 19, 20 which leads to a td . Defence is aggressive hard nosed. 4 full qtrs, not playing soft. Watch van you will see what I mean by what he did at Georgia.

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  2. ccb 4 years ago

    very nice well researched article!!

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  3. Jeff Merritt 4 years ago

    So the defense wasn’t terrible last season, but if we want to make the playoffs we will need to be considerably better in every defensive category. As I watched last season’s team what frustrated me the most was linebackers going to the wrong gap. On top of that there were so many opportunities to make plays on the defensive side and no one made them (Jaylon Smith did on occasion). Missed tackles, missed opportunities to make to intercept as pass or (who can forget) opportunities to pick up fumbles all led to frustration from Irish fans with respect to last year’s defense.

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    1. Ron Burgundy 4 years ago

      How would you have any clue what gap the LB’s would have responsibility for without knowing the defensive call? To listen to you guys drone on and on about fronts and schemes is laughable. Maybe they have A gap or B gap responsibility or they are on a Mike / Sam blitz with a DT twist. How could you possibly have any clue unless you are at practice or have a head set on.

      Just watch the game and root for the kids. Don’t pretend to be a pop warner coach or some Monday-morning quarterback. You guys have no clue and never will.

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  4. Jack 4 years ago

    If the defense was so easy and predictable how come it takes the players so long to learn it. Plus Sabah isn’t an offensive genius he is a defensive one. Alabama pound the ball down ND’s throat. The D-line got pushed around and the Linebackers were clueless. By the time they knew what hit them they were down by 4 TD’s. If they don’t start getting some fat bodies upfront they will be in trouble on Defense.

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  5. pete 4 years ago

    I believe you need to use the talent you have playing to the players strengths. Also, must be creative and unpredictable on defense. Look at Michigan State- they bring pressure and creative packages all the time and are constantly changing up and keeping offenses confused and off balance.

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    1. Storespook 4 years ago

      We could definitely improve on reducing our predictability on the D side.

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    2. Rob 4 years ago

      That was one knock on the ND defense from the Alabama offense last year. They said we were simple and predictable. We had good players and if a team didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for us then we were hard to beat but Saban had over a month and our D was not going to cause him any confusion.

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  6. Storespook 4 years ago

    Well I hope we don’t completely give up on employing any 3-4 sets. I have the belief run the scheme that best matches your existing personnel skill sets & abilities. A more attacking defense definitely more exciting to watch and maybe achieve better results.

    Go Blue & Gold

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  7. fxm 4 years ago

    Hopefully, we will finally have an O that permits risk on defense. You can’t get burned being aggressive if you have no confidence your O will get it back.

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  8. Woody O'Hardy 4 years ago

    I thank God that I don’t have to watch another Bob Diaco defense play Navy. The guy just couldn’t figure out how to stop them.

    I think BVG will know how beat them down. (I sure hope so!)

    BTW, Diaco’s style works, if you are stout enough to stop them in the red zone. We won’t be massive up front in 2014, better to go with aggressive, attacking D that can get some turnovers and sacks.

    Best of luck to BVG. I am rooting for him!


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    1. Ron Burgundy 4 years ago

      His D did just fine against them in 2011 and 2012.

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  9. Jack 4 years ago

    In order to play an aggressive defense you need to put your corners in man to man. They tried it against Rutgers and Bennett Jackson got beat twice in one drive. Better corner and safey play is needed in order to be aggressive.

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  10. HJ Prendergast 4 years ago

    The bend don’t break philosophy is a cliche for read and react plus Diaco recognized position weakness and kept the ball in front of them so as not to give up the big play. If you want to play this way don’t expect a lot of turn overs or dynamic defense.
    During the course of getting ready for the season BVG will recognize his strengths and weakness. I don’t think Diaco set a high or low bar, just a bar that was functional. I would love to see a more aggressive approach if we have the people, however your not going to know squat until the spring.

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    1. HURLS 4 years ago

      I am so totally with you, TJ. Your key concept: (in my thinking) AGGRESSION. Too too often the turnovers were there to be taken but the Irish were not eager-enough to step-up and capitalize. The word/adjective “dynamic” is used to a nauseating extent, referring to ND. But “it is what it is,” to sound Belicheckian. Dynamism iOS awesome when it’s effective. But I think it got in the way of some necessary, smash-mouth, hard-hitting, slobber-knocking DEFENSE.

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      1. HURLS 4 years ago

        Now Feb.4, I just noticed when re-reading this post of mine. It’s HJ – not – TJ. Sorry, man.

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