Proof in numbers: Defense greatly improved

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(You’re expecting another Michael Floyd update? We’ll get there, I promise.)

A few of the best statistical minds in the ND hive have crunched some year end numbers and there are official numbers to prove what we all know — the Irish defense improved.

Under the direction of Bob Diaco, Notre Dame improved in just about every category across the board. They did it by simplifying their scheme, reinforcing fundamentals, and better understanding what members of the defense do best. When you consider the injuries that decimated just about every level of the defense, Diaco, and position coaches Mike Elston, Kerry Cooks, and Chuck Martin turned in excellent performances in year one.

The legendary FunkDoctorSpock took a look at the broad brush strokes, which all point in an incredibly positive direction. In four major defensive categories — rushing defense, passing efficiency, total defense and scoring defense — the Irish jumped at least 36 spots in the national rankings.

RUSHING DEFENSE: 50th (up 39 spots from 89th last year)
PASS EFFICIENCY: 25th (up 57 spots from 82nd last year)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 50th (up 36 spots from 86th last year)
SCORING DEFENSE: 23rd (up 40 spots from 63rd last year)

In 2009, the Irish faced six teams in the top 40 rushing offenses, with Nevada and Navy in the Top Five. This season, facing seven teams ranked in the top 40 rushing offenses, and the Irish jumped 39 spots.

The same song can be sung for the other categories. Passing efficiency? The Irish faced seven Top 40 teams in 2010. In ’09, they only faced five. Checking the numbers in the other categories, the Irish had a far tougher slate of opponents this season and took a giant step forward in just one year in Diaco’s scheme.

Taking things to the next level, Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders and BCF Toys did some more number crunching and found some areas where the Irish were truly elite, ranking in the Top 15 nationally.

They include:

No. 11 in forcing three-and-outs (40% of opponent possessions), TCU ranked first (49.2%)
No. 11 in surrendering available points (37.1%); TCU ranked first (26.4%)
No. 12 in fewest points allowed per drive (1.46); Boise State ranked first (0.96)
No. 14 in defensive efficiency (offensive drive value over expectation based on field position)

While these four stats won’t find their way onto a telestrator or network broadcast, these are four critical places where the Irish defense truly played exceptional football.

If you’re looking for reasons to believe the Irish defense will take another big leap in 2011, look no further than the exceptional play down the stretch by Notre Dame. Even without Ian Williams, a defensive line returning with just about every significant minute played returns, joined by a linebacking corp that’ll need to replace only Brian Smith and Kerry Neal from the rotation and a secondary that’ll be short starting cornerback Darrin Walls.

Looking for an even better indicator for the defense? Try season two of Brian Kelly’s offensive evolution. Both Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees took the first significant snaps of their careers in 2010, limiting the Irish offense even before key injuries to Armando Allen, Theo Riddick and Kyle Rudolph. If the Irish can play the type of high-tempo, quick-strike offense Kelly wants to, it’ll help put the pressure on opposing offenses to get one-dimensional, something an improving Notre Dame pass rush will surely take advantage of (the Irish jumped from 84th to 55th in sacks, impressive considering Diaco didn’t send blitzers nearly every play like his predecessor).

The numbers prove what just about anyone who watched the Irish play this season saw very clearly: Notre Dame’s defense took a huge step forward.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”