Brian VanGorder Year 2: Go Big or Go Home?

Photo: Matt Cashore / USA Today Sports
Photo: Matt Cashore / USA Today Sports

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?

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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.

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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.

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  1. Sebastian, I am thankful for posters like you, as they remind us that the angry detritus of the world turns to the anonymity of the iternet to vent nonsense. Sebastian, which are you, the Ibiis or the great Sebastian “”Subby” Nowicki, the dual sport coach at South Bend Washington in a galaxy far, far away.

    As far as Nyles Morgan being the third string linebacker, just think about that. I want a hell of a lot more future NFLers mired on our third string.

  2. Seems we don’t trust or understand completely their schemes and or play calling. I’ve questioned if they were “over coached” or to “cerebral” on both sides of the ball. How would we begin to know? We’re just fans enjoying the team and season. I believe this much. They have not accumulated as much depth, and quality student athletes as a whole team, in many years. Thanks.

  3. u get that record playing nobody teams from the MAC. according to phil steele he is 2-7 vs FBS top 10 teams..but hey if you think a great coach doesn’t attempt a field goal at the end of the tulsa game, goes for 2 when it wasn’t needed against northwestern, and can’t get a decent special teams coach..then i guess u and i are reading the wrong dictionary

  4. BVG was hot til other teams figured out his scheme at mid-season. Hopefully, he will simplify his D.
    thsi year.
    Ultimately, the burden falls on BK to get it done. Last time I checked he’s paid alot of $ to be Head
    coach, not OC.

  5. Ummm…hey sebastian- while agree that I am less than impressed by Kelly in Notre Dame, I think we need to temper our disappointment a bit. His career record is 208-72-2…you dont get that by being a bad coach with a bad staff and support system. He has 131 victories since 2001, more than anyone who isnt named Bob Stoops. He’s a good coach at a school that is difficult to win at in this day and age…its as simple as that. We should come to expect 8 and 9 win seasons, and when we hit 10 or 11 we should celebrate. But the Irish fan must accept being in the playoff conversation in November as a win from now on. Let’s stop talking about titles until we at least make the playoffs.

    References found here:

  6. wow do you guys drink the cool-aid!!! brian kelly and his staff SUCK OUT LOUD! the good ones have left! kelly keeps the bad ones (hello scott booker!) brian kelly blames everyone else and is nothing more than an average coach..get ready for 7-5 or 8-4….yawn

  7. @ Greg . . .It does concern me Nyles Morgan is running the third team.
    Is it more than happening to be behind Schmidt and Grace ?
    What concerns me more is having to bring in another DC next season to begin to teach his new schemes and being told to be patient while the players adjust to yet another D’ scheme. If Redfield, Shumate, Jaylon Smith, K. Russell, Day, and numerous talented young players like Morgan can’t execute a successful D’ scheme, that lack of player development and execution will fall on the coaching staff. Was it the key injuries and lack of quality depth that led to the pitiful D last November? I suspect so.
    We’ll know more by Oct. 18th (after Georgia Tech, @ Clemson and USC).
    This is much more than a make or break season for Van Gorder; assistant coach hires and how they produce results is on the head coach.Van Gorder won’t be the only staff member who could be facing a put-up or pack-up season, and will likely result in Van Gorder not being the only ND coach looking for employment elsewhere sooner than later. The natives grow restless.

  8. I think the verdict is still out on BVG, but I will say I was at the Michigan game last year and we were all over them. it had been a long time since we shut them out so I am optimistic that he will be successful here. His recruiting seems to need a little work, but when you are winning the recruiting takes care of itself.
    Go Irish! Almost here!

  9. Does it concern you that Nyles Morgan is still running third team? And Redfield and Shumate were benched last year for inferior players because they couldn’t figure out the calls?

  10. VanGorder is exactly the Coordinator that the Irish need. Now BK needs to find the “RKG’s” to fit the system. When healthy, and with players recruited for a 3-4 scheme, the D was DOMINANT early on. A few tweaks here or there and they can be that again. Make him Assistant Head Coach.

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