When Bob Diaco talks, I always try to listen. Whether he’s quoting Gandhi or talking werewolves, the Irish’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach is one of the more thoughtful and eclectic guys you’d ever ask to be around, and you’re always going to get an interesting interview session.
Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated had a chance to get a few minutes with Diaco at Notre Dame’s Media Day and the exchange was really interesting. As you’d expect with Diaco, there were candid moments where he gave a great deal of insight into how this coaching staff puts together its defense, and others where he tried to protect some of what he believes to be proprietary. Either way, I thought it’d be worth sharing, as it gives you a great look into how Notre Dame has so quickly turned its defense around.
After being perennially undersized in the front seven, the first thing the Irish have done is simply get bigger. Targeting and finding physically impressive players isn’t necessarily a game-changing thought, but it certainly is something that’s been taken seriously by this coaching staff, as we’ve routinely seeing bigger and stronger players being recruiting since Brian Kelly took over the program.
When asked about the physical characteristics Diaco is looking for — in both linebackers, and defenders in general — he was remarkably candid.
“We really don’t like small players, in general,” Diaco told Irish Illustrated. “We believe that if we have a big defense, we’re going to have a chance to have a good defense. How good? We don’t know. But when we come off the bus, if we’re as big or bigger than our opponent, we believe we’ll have a good chance to have a good defense.”
For those worried that Notre Dame is merely looking for bulk, Diaco did a nice job of acknowledging the subtleties, while making it clear that the Irish stay within their program while looking for positional fits in their defense. When asked if there’s a line to draw between size and speed, Diaco again gave a great look inside the system.
“It depends on the position and the position needs,” Diaco told Irish Illustrated. “When you go out to recruit, you have to look at your position to then, inside of that, make some small choices to keep the position moving forward. You look at your position and you say, ‘Hey, will this player make the position better?’ Some years it’s size, some years maybe it’s intangible traits like toughness, aggressiveness. Some years it might be speed.
“So as you look at your position, you hope it’s all within a small little change. You’re still not going to come off the profile from a size standpoint to get a little guy who is really fast, which a lot of teams do. A lot of teams chase the production, chase players for players’ sake, chase the ratings, chase flashes of things. But then you plug them into your defense and it’s like, ‘He really can’t function. They can’t do the jobs we ask them to do.’ So it’s important that we stay disciplined in our approach that way.”
Just how big Notre Dame’s defense has gotten is pretty incredible. It’s not hard to think back on recent memories and recall undersized defensive linemen getting beaten off the ball, and little linebackers like Maurice Crum or Travis Thomas struggle to stand up to opposing offenses.
This year, that’s not going to be the case. With Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt surrounding Louis Nix (and Kona Schwenke) on the defensive line, and Manti Te’o and Dan Fox anchoring the inside linebacker positions with Prince Shembo (or Ishaq Williams) and Ben Councell likely holding down the outside linebacker spots, that’s a massive front seven by any measurement.
How big? Well, here’s a quick breakdown of the Irish’s starting front seven’s collective weight against some pretty elite company:
Notre Dame: 1920 pounds
Alabama: 1907 pounds
Michigan State: 1869 pounds
USC: 1800 pounds
Oklahoma: 1792 pounds
Looking good getting off the bus isn’t the same thing as playing like an elite defense. But as Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick even acknowledged, getting your team into the same stratosphere as the elite programs in college football was a big first step in the right direction.
* Weight data compiled by FunkDoctorSpock