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:

TACKLING

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.

RECOGNITION

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.

EXECUTION

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.  

Irish A-to-Z: Sam Mustipher

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Sam Mustipher established himself as the team’s starting center entering spring practice, the lack of competition probably more striking than the junior winning the job. But Mustipher’s work as Nick Martin’s understudy in 2015 likely allowed him to earn Harry Hiestand’s trust, erasing a position battle many expected to be an open audition.

Another top-line recruit and development project, Mustipher’s a third-year player who’ll help form a nucleus for an offensive line that’s expected to be one of the finest in the nation. But that won’t be possible without a big season from the Maryland native.

 

SAM MUSTIPHER
6’2.5″, 305 lbs.
Junior, No. 53, C

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Mustipher was an Under Armour All-American who picked Notre Dame over a field of elite offers. Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Stanford all wanted him. Hiestand had him locked up by April.

Notre Dame projected him as an interior player from the start, though his transition to center didn’t begin immediately.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Made appearances in nine games, earning mop-up snaps against Texas and UMass at center.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

He never had to play any high-leverage snaps, but he certainly proved himself Monday through Friday.

Mustipher might be the most unproven part of Notre Dame’s two-deep, a good sign for the work the Irish have done stocking the depth chart. But if something happens to Martin, we’ll see how ready he is to play, a first-year contributor in the middle of an offensive line that’ll already be starting a first-year player at left guard.

Martin has already battled health issues, a major difference between him and his ironman brother. But Mustipher is likely ready to contribute if he’s the guy tapped to serve as a backup. If not? Expect to see some other bodies shuffle through this fall camp, with candidates including Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Mustipher’s physical attributes won’t bowl you over, but he very quickly earned respect from Brian Kelly last spring, being treated like an established veteran, not a first-year player being asked to replace a high NFL draft pick. Again, that confidence must come from what the staff sees, not what we’ve seen on the playing field.

What they likely see is a student-athlete making it work at Notre Dame as an engineering major, a testament to his smarts. They also see a center cut from the traditional mold, capable of utilizing leverage, moving his feet and aggressively attacking opponents across from him.

Former Bears Pro Bowler Olin Kreutz has spent some time around the Irish, thanks to his relationship with Hiestand. It’s hard not to note the physical similarities, something that I’m sure has helped ease the transition into the starting lineup.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I don’t think Mustipher will be as solid as Martin was last season (a deep-dig into game tape had Martin surging up draft boards before the Texans took him), but expect a strong season. Perhaps the best version of Mustipher is the one you don’t notice. First-year centers who spend a lot of time in the shotgun need to make sure that every play gets started correctly, and from there he can make sure the Irish win the battle at the point of attack. (It sounds remedial, but let’s not take the snap for granted.)

Mustipher’s strength let him win more than his fair share of battles last spring with Daniel Cage, a physical force on the interior. If Mustipher can anchor, play with solid technique and get to the second level, Notre Dame’s running game should continue to surge.

When Tristen Hoge signed with Notre Dame, most thought the high school center had the inside track to multiple seasons starting. That still could happen, but Mustipher might end up the one with three seasons at center, while Hoge battles to be one of the two linemen playing next to him.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan

 

Mailbag Open: Questions before camp

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Football is almost here. Before the Irish arrive at Culver Academies next week, drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.

Irish A-to-Z: Nyles Morgan

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Joe Schmidt is gone. This is Nyles Morgan‘s defense now.

Some have argued it should’ve been Morgan’s defense last year—especially with nagging injuries robbing Schmidt of his productivity. But this isn’t an article aimed at indicting a former team captain or the braintrust atop the defense, but rather a look at the most important assumed starter on Notre Dame’s 2016 defense.

Praised this spring for his ascent into a leadership role, Morgan will need to show that his  free-styling freshman ways are over. If he can, he’ll immediately insert a difference maker into the center of the Irish defense, a tackling machine who has the potential to make big plays and wreak havoc from day one.

 

NYLES MORGAN
6’1″, 245 lbs.
Junior, No. 5, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Morgan was an Army All-American and Top 100 recruit who picked Notre Dame after a long battle with many national programs, including Ole Miss. (Now that we know a little bit more about Hugh Freeze and the Rebels staff, that’s certainly saying something.)

Add to that the fact that the Irish won after losing both his area recruiter (Chuck Martin) and defensive coordinator and position coach (Bob Diaco), and it was a huge land for Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Freshman All-American. Finished T-8th for tackles by a freshman with 47. Made 11 stops against USC and chipped in a half-sack against LSU. Played in 12 games, starting four after Joe Schmidt was lost for the season.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams. Saw back-up snaps against Texas and UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

A swing and a miss.

I’m pegging Morgan for a Top Four tackler on the roster, taking into consideration that finding snaps is going to be the hardest part for him. But Morgan is too athletic to keep off the field, and VanGorder and Kelly are too smart to keep a 240-pound heat-seeking missile off the field, especially when Jaylon Smith could help the Irish off the edge as a pass rusher just as much as a middle of the field linebacker.

No, he won’t be perfect. And if Morgan decides to freelance this season, he’ll do so mostly from the sideline while Grace, Greer Martini or several other linebackers get a chance to play. But all reports have Morgan a student of the game, and after a tough year learning on the fly, expect Morgan to take a huge step forward.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s still nothing but bright days ahead for Morgan, who only has two seasons of eligibility remaining after spending most of last year playing special teams. It’s hard to get too wrapped up in the lost season considering the fact that frontline college players rarely give you four seasons of production—they’re off to the NFL by then.

That said, Morgan’s challenge in 2016 is to go from precocious newcomer to grizzled veteran, all without a transitional season in between. If he’s over last season’s bizarre usage, it doesn’t matter if a certain segment of the fanbase never will be. Morgan’s got more important things to do—like be the most impactful defensive player of the VanGorder era.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Notre Dame’s leading tackler. And it might not even be close. Yes, he’ll need to stay healthy. And yes, he’ll never to cut down on some of the mental mistakes that can turn a three-yard gain into a 30-yarder. But Morgan is the perfect prototype for middle linebacker in VanGorder’s scheme—and that’s what sold him on Notre Dame in the first place.

It won’t be all perfect for Morgan. I wonder if there’s a role for him on third downs, especially in passing situations. But his athleticism, toughness and nose for the football make this a relatively easy forecast.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan

 

Irish A-to-Z: D.J. Morgan

DJ Morgan
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Notre Dame looked to add size to the back end of its defense this recruiting cycle. A big piece of that is Southern California freshman D.J. Morgan. A big, tough, versatile defensive back, area recruiter Mike Denbrock said it best when he called Morgan, “the best football player off of the best team in California.”

Thrown into the mix at a safety position that still has some sorting to do, Morgan will be one to watch during fall camp as Todd Lyght and Brian VanGorder look for answers on the back end.

 

D.J. MORGAN
6’2″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, DB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Multi-season starter and team captain of the nationally-ranked St. John Bosco team in Southern California. All-league selection, three-star recruit. Offers from Arizona State, Cal, Colorado and Utah.

Missing some of the elite offers that go to players of this profile, Morgan was an early target and take by the Irish coaching staff after being briefly committed to Arizona State.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Denbrock’s praise for Morgan certainly does more for me than any modest recruiting ranking. But the lack of high-end Pac-12 offers likely hangs on questions about Morgan’s position, specifically if he has the speed to hang in the secondary.

That’s probably not as important for the Irish as it is for others. Morgan sure looks like a prep version of Drue Tranquill, a guy who might not be at home playing half-field safety but looks like a million bucks coming downhill or running the alleys.

Intangibles will also probably factor into his success at the college level. Leading a prep program like Bosco is no small feat, and that type of high-character, high-Football IQ player could find a quick home in the secondary.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If the Irish need special teamers, Morgan is an immediate plug-and-play option. If they want to spend a year developing him as an understudy, a redshirt makes sense. If Morgan catches on to the position like Devin Studstill did, he can compete for time behind Drue Tranquill. If he doesn’t, saving the year makes sense.

Expecting a major impact by Morgan is setting the bar too high. But if he can be a part of Scott Booker’s special teams core and help provide depth behind Tranquill and sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian, Morgan will join classmates Spencer Perry and Jalen Elliott as first-year lettermen right away.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus