What's wrong with the defense?

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The Irish enter their bye week with four wins in their first five games. But after a convincing shutout victory in the season opener against Nevada, the Irish defense — a unit many believed to be ready to take a major step forward — has gone backwards.

What’s wrong with this Irish defense?

I won’t admit that I’m up to snuff on the schemes and packages of today’s college defensive coordinators. Yet part of what ails the Irish isn’t complex, it’s simply breakdowns of fundamental principles: tackling, late recognition, and poor execution.

Having reviewed the game tape of the Irish’s three most deficient outings, here are a few things that stand out to me:


Anytime you watch football, bad tackling leaps off the screen. Poor tackling is a large reason why Notre Dame isn’t sitting at 5-0 right now. There are a variety of reasons why people miss tackles, and while I won’t break down every missed opportunity, here is what jumps out after reviewing these games.

In a pressure scheme like the Irish were committed to earlier in the season, open-field tackling becomes even more important. If the Irish are committed to adding a linebacker to the pass rush, that takes away one more of the defense’s surest tacklers from making a play on a ball carrier or receiver. If you’re committed to opening up the middle of the field or isolating your secondary, you need to make sure that the players who aren’t going after the quarterback are able to make fundamentally sound tackles. What jumps off the tape in the Washington game is that from the very first offensive series, UW exploited Notre Dame’s tendencies to bring a linebacker after the quarterback, and threw quick passes to wide receivers. The Irish secondary had a hard time shedding blocks and making plays on the receiver, resulting in big, risk-averse plays for the Huskies. Catch and run plays have plagued the Irish for much of the season, often times a product of having committed too many people to getting after the quarterback.

Missing tackles happens. Yet the way many of these tackles are being missed is a problem. Confidence and control are big parts of tackling. Coming into a play under control and having the confidence to make the play are imperative when you’re going one-on-one in the open field. Too many times Irish defenders are coming onto the scene out of control, giving the ball carrier the advantage he needs to exploit the defender and slip by him. Defenses force turnovers when they come into a play under control and make a technically sound tackle. While defenders are programmed to go for the kill shot, sometimes a sound tackle helps slow a runner down, and the pursuit of teammates help jar the ball loose. On Washington’s opening drive, Kyle McCarthy’s sound tackle on Chris Polk allowed Manti Te’o to come flying into the play, jarring the ball loose from Polk’s arm for a fumble and recovery. In this case, the call was overturned by the replay booth because Polk’s knee was down, but when defenders fly to the ball, good things happen.


Recognizing what an offense is trying to do is one of the keys to playing good defense. Too often against Washington, the Irish defense was late to recognize a situation and read a play. In the first quarter alone, the Irish defense had opportunities to stop the Huskies, but a lack of recognition kept the drive alive for Washington, allowing them to convert key third downs and score a touchdown. If Jake Locker is lined up in the shotgun from the 5-yard line, everybody in the stadium should be expecting a quarterback draw. Likewise, too often did the Irish defense get sucked up into the play before realizing a screen pass was called, like the huge 3rd and 9 conversion by the Huskies on their second drive of the first quarter. Simple wide receiver screens gave the Irish defense fits all day Saturday. Steve Sarkisian noted in his post-game comments that they saw some things on tape that the Irish were doing in their nickel defense that they thought they could exploit and take advantage of. If Sark noticed it, you can bet other teams going forward will, too. With freshman Manti Te’o getting more and more playing time, it’s going to be up to veteran leaders like Brian Smith, Kyle McCarthy, and Harrison Smith to do a better job diagnosing plays.


Charlie Weis mentioned a few weeks ago that the defense needed something to “hang its hat on.” If that’s playing pressure defense, fine. If it’s playing Cover 2, fine. But the Irish can’t be a “jack of all trades, master of none” defense. They just aren’t good enough. Jon Tenuta’s prickly attitude with the media all but acknowledges the fact that he’s frustrated with the defense and its execution. Weis reorganized the defensive coaching staff to put Tenuta in charge of calling the game because he thought it would give the team a better chance to win. Yet Tenuta has been unable to orchestrate an effective gameplan on defense save the Nevada game, and the inability to get to the quarterback, stop the short passing game, or be robust in running defense signals that there are systemic problems with the new scheme.

If the Irish decide that being more vanilla will help the defense, Tenuta and the staff need to make sure that the 11 players on the field understand what vanilla is. There have been far too many broken plays on defense, miscommunications that have cost the Irish points and nearly a football game against Michigan State. If the team is going to be a Cover 2 team, the corners, linebackers, and safeties need to understand the tenants of the scheme, and stop giving up 10 yard uncontested completions in front of corners while safeties roam over the top.

This isn’t an indictment of Coach Tenuta and his schemes. He’s been an elite defensive coordinator everywhere he’s gone and he didn’t forget how to coach overnight. Yet the transition from Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system to Tenuta’s pressure based 4-3 hasn’t been smooth, and for a defense to execute soundly, they’ve got to take thinking out of the equation.  

Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told Irish247.com why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.