In the hours after Notre Dame’s 31-0 thrashing of rival Michigan under the lights of Notre Dame Stadium, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s stock had never been higher. His defense had just held Michigan to 289 total yards, forced four turnovers, registered three sacks, and produced perhaps the greatest gif in college football history. He’d replaced Bob Diaco’s “bend but don’t break”, totally unfun philosophy, with an attacking defense where he routinely sent multiple safeties, linebackers, cheerleaders, mascots, or as Don Criqui described it, the whole world. It was beautiful to watch; players flying around, making plays, taking the fight to the opponent.
Those were the salad days of the 2014 season; Notre Dame started 7-1, with the lone loss a controversial one at defending national champion Florida State. The defense had gone through September ranked 38th in total defense, and improved in October to 28th in total defense giving up 348 yards a game that month. Not astronomical numbers, but with an offense like Notre Dame’s, completely acceptable, especially with a young unit. Then came November and four straight losses that saw the Irish give up 178 points over those four games. Notre Dame’s defense was a miserable 116th nationally that month, giving up 480 yards a game and the aforementioned 43 points per contest. For the uninitiated, that’s really, really bad. Yes, there were injuries that were debilitating, I’ll be the first to admit that. Freshmen that had no business on the field were playing key roles and they were outmatched. But, it was quite possibly the worst defense Irish fans had ever seen, and even given the youth, were they really that bad? Were they so bad that they couldn’t slow down lowly Northwestern? In short, what on earth happened?
When VanGorder was hired, there was talk of him bringing in his NFL style defense that he had learned from his previous coaching stint under Rex Ryan with the Jets, among others. Ryan is a buzzword in football circles, known as one of the best defensive minds in football. When you hear “Rex Ryan” and “defense” the reaction is usually “yes, sign me up, whatever it is.” The thing is, Ryan’s defenses are graduate level of the football world. It would be akin to teaching finite math to to first semester freshmen. Maybe some can get it, but some very good kids will fail because it’s too much too soon. Is this what VanGorder is tasking his players with?
The popular question people ask when an NFL guy comes down to the college game is “can he relate to college players?” VanGorder had spent the majority of his career in college and had experience coordinating defenses in the SEC, and while his stint in Auburn was a failure– Auburn was 65th in total defense in 2012, his lone season–his Georgia teams had great success. In 2003 Georgia was 4th in total defense nationally, and 8th nationally in 2004. In short, VanGorder has shown the ability to coach college players to high levels of success. The better question with VanGorder appears to be “after so many years in the NFL, can VanGorder build a defense that college kids can effectively execute?”
The answer to the previous question is still up for debate. Since the 2004 season, aside from his one year stint at Georgia Southern as head coach and his 2012 season at Auburn, VanGorder has spent his time in the NFL. It would be expected that his philosophies and style have evolved in the 11 years since he excelled at Georgia, and one has to wonder if his defense is too complicated for the college game. Notre Dame players mentioned several times how difficult it was to pick up the defense last season, and starting safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate were benched prior to Northwestern because they couldn’t get the calls right. Northwestern was game 10. They still hadn’t figured it out. Redfield, who is enrolled in Chinese-Mandarin courses at Notre Dame, later said “I would say consistently being successful in that scheme is more difficult than learning Chinese.” Team MVP Joe Schmidt also spoke of being “paralyzed in thought” on the field trying to figure out his assignments.
Alarming. Very alarming.
If the players don’t understand the scheme, it doesn’t really matter how good it is. Ask any coach the key to playing offense, they’ll answer execution. We just need to execute, do our jobs and we’ll be fine. Ask a defensive coach the key to playing defense and you’ll hear phrases like “hit and hustle”, “play with your hair on fire”, “reckless abandon”, “wherever you go, go 100 MPH.” I’d have to assume it’s hard to play 100 MPH when you are “paralyzed in thought.” We know the defense works when the guys know where they are going, we’ve seen it work. We’ve also seen what happens when they have no idea what to do.
The good news is the players have professed to being more comfortable in the defense and there is evidence that VanGorder’s scheme is effective when time is afforded to learn it. In 2008, his first season with the Falcons, his defense came in at 24th in the league after being 29th the year before under a different coach. In the subsequent three season’s their total defense rank rose every year from 21st to 16th to finally 12th in 2011. But, those were NFL players who didn’t have practice restrictions and had to study for courses like Chinese-Mandarin. Is the learning curve too steep for the college athlete to truly “get it?” This is especially an issue when Notre Dame has to sit two starters because they can’t get the calls and is forced to play lesser players just so the defense can get lined up. Blue-chip linebacker Nyles Morgan is still struggling to get the calls correct and is likely to play a reserve role this season because of it. Is the scheme so great that it comes at the expense of the more talented players watching on the sideline?
Fans have called this a make or break season for Brian Kelly, and while the merits of that can be debated in another forum, that sentiment would have to be true for VanGorder. Last season was Notre Dame’s best scoring season under Kelly, at 33 points a game, and they figure to field an offense this year that can at least match that output. If Notre Dame were to finish with three losses or more, that would most likely fall on the defense–a defense that returns an unprecedented 10 starters and several key reserves. It has a potential top 15 pick in Jaylon Smith, the reigning team MVP in Joe Schmidt, a first round corner in KeiVarae Russell and pre-season first team All-American Max Redfield. There is talent everywhere. If VanGorder can’t turn this into a top 30 defense, and perhaps most importantly, fails to adjust his scheme to cater to the talent on the field should injuries again occur, then it would be time to seriously question whether or not his defensive philosophy is fit for the college game.
2015 is a defining moment in Brian VanGorder’s career. A successful season can set him up at Notre Dame for years to come, and he’d possibly receive an extension. And if not Notre Dame, he is sure to be on a lot of short lists for coordinator positions around the country. Should he fail, he’ll likely be relegated to being a position coach for the remainder of his career, as it would have been five years since he coached a successful defense. He has all the tools he needs, and the type of talent and depth any coordinator would kill for. He has arrived a the proverbial fork in the road, will he take the path to glory or the road to shame? Brian Kelly is hoping for the former.