The force of Diaco’s defense


There were plenty of interesting tidbits to come out of Media Day, but one article I found particularly interesting was written by Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune.

In a question that was presumably asked to get defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to talk about the strength of the Irish defense — defensive tackles Sean Cwynar and Louis Nix, middle linebacker Manti Te’o, and safety Harrison Smith — Diaco revealed one of the fundamental beliefs in his defensive system: Force.

Before you think this is an homage to Star Wars, Diaco — a man prone to giving complex thoughts and answers to seemingly straight forward questions (just check out his fake Twitter account), really gave us a great look inside the defense he runs, all thanks to a question Lesar posed during media sessions.

Here’s the exact exchange (which you can watch here, thanks to Blue&Gold’s video feed.)

Lesar: In baseball they talk about defense up the middle. Catcher, second base, shortstop, centerfield, How about football? How important is that, and how are you guys? You’ve got some experience there.

Diaco: You know Al, that’s a great question. I really enjoy talking about things like that. I have an older, retired defensive coordinator who I’m very close with who is a world champion that was talking to me and it started out as force.

Whatever you do, whatever you put together, whatever ideas you’re entertaining, start with ‘force’ – that is, the edge of each defense.

“I don’t want to minimize up the middle, because that’s next, but it begins with ‘force.’ Who has ‘force?’ What’s the position like physically? Where are his eyes? Where is he aligned? Are we giving him an opportunity to win that individual matchup to create ‘force?’”

If you have force on each side, and up the middle defense related to nose, mike and in the middle of the field safety, you’re probably going to have a good defense.

Lesar: And where is your force coming from?

Diaco: It changes every call. We’ll rotate the players that are responsible for force. they understand they’re responsible for force. That’s where all the installation and lecture happens at the beginning of the meeting. It begins with force and changes with each call.

One of the first things I noticed when spending time with the Irish coaching staff last summer was the philosophic importance of force in the Irish defense. Everything starts with setting the edge of the defense. This is the bedrock for their unit.

Because of that, you can understand why it’s been so important for Brian Kelly and company to reload players on the edge of the defense, and do it with physically stout guys. The Irish are looking for people that fit a specific mold, and we’ve seen the fruits of this staff’s recruiting labor with mammoth prospects like Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas, Ben Councell and Tony Springmann. Guys that profiled as defensive ends by recruiting analysts like Justin Utupo or Anthony Rabasa have been shifted to inside linebacker, a position where these guys fit in the schematic build of the Irish defense.

As I’ve noted before and Pete Thamel of the New York Times mentioned today, Kelly and his defensive staff have brought in seven players over 6-foot-5, an obvious reflection of the need to bring in big bodies and remedy a squad that was recruiting undersized players from the start.

While Irish fans have gotten themselves bent out of shape with a lack of recruiting at positions like defensive tackle, Diaco and Kelly’s strategy toward building the edges of the defense shows just how important force is in a defense like Notre Dame’s.


Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.