Following my latest installment, which ranked the top 11 players on the Notre Dame defense, the response was near unanimous: the defense is in big trouble. Writing it, I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, it was more about the process of selecting who Notre Dame’s best players were on that side of the ball; the overall implications for the defense weren’t really considered. But, when person after person responded the same way, I went back and looked at the list a whole and thought, “yikes, this does look a little scary.”
The top ranked player is Isaac Rochelle, who has a chance to be a nice NFL player but, last season Notre Dame entered with a top 5 player, a top line defensive lineman, and a 3rd round corner and we all know how that went. The top end talent is gone from a defense that will now seemingly have to rely on its scheme–a scheme that the Notre Dame team has yet to fully grasp.
But, it isn’t all doom and gloom and there is reason (five, in fact) to at least feel optimistic about the prospects for the 2016 version of Brian VanGorder’s troops, if not slightly giddy.
1.) Numerous Options in the Sub-Package
VanGorder loves his sub-packages and the Fighting Irish have played some of their best defense when his sub-packages were highly featured (see: Michigan 2014, Texas 2015). Unfortunately, injuries (Drue Tranquill and Shaun Crawford specifically) and lack of players who fit the mold have severely hindered their options for his desired sub-packages as a season long option.
This season, however, they would seem to have multiple players with the positional versatility to make these packages very useful. The emergence of freshman safety Devin Studstill allows Tranquill to move down into the box on passing downs, where he has excelled in his first two seasons pressuring the quarterback and providing coverage in the middle. This is a role where incoming freshman Spencer Perry could also excel, given his skill set and size, or even Will linebacker Asmar Bilal, who spent a lot of time at safety in high school.
Corner Shaun Crawford moves into the nickel spot, finally solidifying that position, which is used heavy in blitzing, and incoming freshmen Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr. also having the build and games to serve well in that position.
Most importantly, the addition of Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara as possible outside edge rushers to take on a role similar to that of the departed Kolin Hill give the Irish a couple of wild cards in the pass rushing department, something they severely lacked last season.
2.) Run Defense
As a good friend of mine frequently likes to point out, the good thing about the lack of a pass rush is the ends aren’t flying up field creating lanes for backs in the running game. Hooray for silver linings. Joking aside, the defensive line should be much tougher against the run in 2016 than the 2014 and 2015 units. It’s likely they won’t bring the explosiveness of the departed Sheldon Day, who had a strong knack for darting through linemen and disrupting play behind the line of scrimmage. But, a defensive line that features 320 pound Jarron Jones, 290 pound Isaac Rochell, 285 pound Jay Hayes, and 310 pound Jerry Tillery, isn’t likely to be moved much on the line.
Another factor is the addition of Nyles Morgan in the middle, replacing Joe Schmidt. Morgan is bigger, stronger, more explosive and simply a better option defending the run just from a physical standpoint. With two 300 pounders in front of him, plus the 300+ pound Daniel Cage to back either of those guys up, Morgan should have plenty of space to shoot gaps and make plays in the running game. To go along with point number one, if Notre Dame can force opponents into second or third and long on a regular basis, it puts the aforementioned sub-packages into advantageous positions to be effective for the defense.
3.) Nyles Morgan
I’ve written about this a few times this off-season and frankly can’t write about it enough, just how important Morgan is to this defense next year. The middle linebacker position is so important that the absence of quality play at that position essentially off-set the talent that Jaylon Smith was playing right next to that spot. It’s akin to having an offense with a great receiver and a marginal quarterback (see: Rees, Tommy to Floyd, Michael); yes Floyd made plays, but, he never really realized his potential at Notre Dame, and that’s how it was for Smith on the Notre Dame defense.
Make no mistake, the middle linebacker is the quarterback of the Notre Dame defense, not just in terms of calling out the defense, but also in the playmaking opportunities that are bestowed upon them. Consider that Joe Schmidt had the same number of quarterback pressures as Jaylon Smith last season, and you can imagine how many more quarterback rushes on his part were required to accomplish that feat.
Brian Kelly has not been shy about his high hopes for Morgan in the upcoming season, and for his part Morgan has been cool and confident regarding his new role as the head of the defense. He has certainly paid his dues on the bench and with the second team in practice; it’s been intimated more than once that he had gotten his fair share of attention from the Notre Dame coaches for mistakes in the past (read: they yelled at him all the time). Now it’s his time and if he can live up to the challenge he can make all the difference for this team.
4.) Third Times a Charm
This one admittedly falls into the small sample size, very wishful thinking category, but it is a data point in the positive nevertheless. Brian VanGorder has brought up, more than once, this is year three of his system being put into place at Notre Dame, but without any sort of significance assigned to that number, except I suppose that things tend to happen in threes. However, there is some evidence which would support the notion his unit takes a turn in it’s third year.
When he was defensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons from 2008 -2011, his defenses rose from 24th in 2008, to 21st in 2009, to 16th in 2010. Not an incredible jump by any means, but an improvement nonetheless. Further, in his 4th season the Falcons finished 12th in the NFL in total defense. So, there is evidence that over time, his message sinks in more and more.
The Irish defense could be following the same trajectory. They finished 73rd in total defense in 2014 and made a bump up to 45th last season. What would a jump into the 20’s do for a team that is likely to field a more than adequate offense? And if there is any credence to this three year thing, Nyles Morgan, who in my opinion is the single most important player to the defense, is in his third year in the system, the only system he’s known at the college level.
5.) Inexperience At Quarterback For The Opposition
Let’s just list them: Texas, Michigan State, Duke, North Carolina State, Stanford, Navy, Virginia Tech, and USC all will be breaking in new quarterbacks during the 2016 season. And to be clear, this in and of itself doesn’t spell doom for Notre Dame’s opponents; Notre Dame essentially had two new quarterbacks last year–Kizer being completely new–and their quarterback play was something close to stellar. But, it doesn’t hurt that so many of the Irish foes–and frankly, their best foes–are lacking in experience at the most important position in the game.
At its best, VanGorder’s defense can be extremely confusing for an offense–heck, it’s confusing for the defense–and he likes to send stunts and different rushers from different areas, which can exacerbate any problems or uneasiness a new quarterback may possess.