Establishing expectations for Brian VanGorder’s defense

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Spring practice is a time for optimism. Young players seize opportunities. Coaching tweaks fix last season’s flaws. And 15 practices — not to mention a slew of incoming freshman ready for action — have your favorite team poised for greatness.

Of course, that’s not always how it works out. But even the most even-keeled fans can’t help get caught up in spring fever.

As the Irish begin their preparations for 2014, changes made to the coaching staff, offensive and defensive scheme tweaks and roster additions have many fans feeling like 2014 is the year. But that’s hardly unique. You could basically write a column like this every year.

But with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder making significant changes to the Irish’s defensive scheme after four seasons under Bob Diaco’s watch, optimism is brewing. Perhaps it’s VanGorder’s SEC built and NFL tested scheme. It will have the young Irish unit playing an aggressive brand that hasn’t been seen in South Bend since the Holtz era.

But as Irish fans start their deep dig into next season, it’s worth setting some expectations for VanGorder’s defense. After following up Diaco’s four year run, what can we expect from VanGorder and his rebuilt unit?

Let’s dig in.

 

RESPECTING DIACO’S ELITE RUN AT NOTRE DAME

First things first. Bob Diaco’s four seasons in South Bend were more than impressive. They were elite.

Sure, there are detractors who grew tired of Diaco’s point prevention schemes and vanilla packages. Diaco operated conservatively, willing to give up a little to make sure he wasn’t beaten for a lot. The Irish defense gave up plenty of underneath opportunities to prevent the home run.

While 2013’s performance certain was a regression after 2012’s historic defense (loose underneath coverage doesn’t look so attractive when you’re also giving up the occasional long ball), it’s worth looking at this four-year breakdown of the best scoring defenses in the country to put into context the work Diaco did for Notre Dame:

Top Scoring Defenses, 2010-13*

1. Alabama, 11.0
2. Florida State, 15.1
3. Michigan State, 17.2
4. LSU, 17.4
5. Boise State, 17.8
6. Wisconsin, 18.3
7. Stanford, 18.9
8. Louisville, 19.0
9. Notre Dame, 19.1
10. Florida, 19.3

A top ten defense over the past four seasons is the definition of elite. Even if scoring defense isn’t your preferred measurement, advanced statistics are even more favorable for Diaco’s defense.

Take into consideration the slate the Irish play compared to the cupcakes Boise State, Wisconsin and Louisville routinely schedule, and it’s astounding to think that Diaco took Jon Tenuta’s damaged personnel and turned it into one of the most stingy groups in the country.

 

VANGORDER’S SCHEME

Entering his fifth season at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly’s defense is at a very different place than it was when he first came to South Bend. Because of that, VanGorder’s mission is different than the one Diaco was given.

Kelly gave us some insight into this before kicking off spring practice:

“When I hired Bob to come here, we needed to build consistency and stability with our defense, and he’s certainly answered the charge that I had given him,” Kelly said. “We needed fundamentally sound defense and we got that from Coach.

“We have a great base, and we have now developed what we consider a demeanor on our defense and on expectation, and now we’re going to take it to the next level defensively and Brian is going to be able to take our defense to that next level, and I think that that’s what you’ll see in what Coach VanGorder will bring to our defense.”

Where we’ll see that from the start is scheme. Already, the Irish have basically turned into a 4-3 defense, likely looking more like Michigan State as it morphs into a 4-2-5 man coverage and pressure heavy scheme on passing downs than Diaco’s traditional two deep zone defense.

Diaco kept his base defense on the field quite a bit, at most swapping in an additional defensive back or downsizing the dog linebacker against option teams. That’s likely changing with VanGorder from the opening snap if we are to believe what we’ve seen in the Irish’s first practices.

Speedy linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt will likely improving the Irish’s underneath coverage while skill players like John Turner and converted receiver James Onwualu infuse athleticism that Carlo Calabrese and Prince Shembo didn’t have in space.

While Kelly has held true to the line that the defense will still base out of a 3-4 set, the secret that the Irish will be playing a 4-3 primarily is largely out. And if our early viewing windows into the Irish defensive strategy have been any indication, sub-packages will be the new norm, likely with hopes of improving the Irish’s performance on third down and creating sacks and turnovers while defending the pass.

Again, Kelly’s remarks from his spring practice presser give you an idea that while the objectives are still the same, how they achieve those goals will change.

“Third down packages, we’ll be able to use personnel uniquely different in certain areas,” Kelly said. “But at the end of the day, this is still about keeping the points down and taking the football away and eliminating the big plays.”

 

PERSONNEL QUESTIONS

Of course, one reason the Irish might have a heavier reliance on scheme is because they have to rebuild their defense. Gone are Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two defensive linemen that Stanford’s David Shaw considered among the top five in the country.

Fellow building blocks Prince Shembo, Bennett Jackson, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese have also departed, as well as key sub Kona Schwenke. How much will that effect the Irish’s play? It’s still tough to tell.

Spring certainly will mask any deficiencies. Yet trying to figure out how good VanGorder is for this defense will depend an awful lot on how good the players taking snaps end up being.

Notre Dame already saw what a scheme heavy coordinator hire will do when there are deficiencies at the core. Jon Tenuta only returned to the coordinator ranks last season at Virginia after three seasons coaching linebackers at NC State after his flame out with the Irish. Utilizing a pressure and scheme heavy formula (sound familiar?), the Irish defense became one of the ultimate boom or bust units in the country, with bust happening far more often than boom.

It’s hard to look at the inexperience on the roster and think it’s as raw and underwhelming as the units that Tenuta put on the field. But the peanut butter and mayo pairing that Brown and Tenuta created in 2008 is worth remembering. After all, it was the transition from Brown’s 3-4 base system to Tenuta’s attacking 4-3 that imploded the Irish, producing a defense befitting a roller derby team.

Credit Kelly for understanding that any change needed to be done whole sale. That’s why Kerry Cooks title demotion from co-defensive coordinator to secondary coach made sense. There can only be one leadership voice, and this unit is most certainly VanGorder’s.

(Have a look at Eric Hansen’s most recent work in the South Bend Tribune, and it’s clear that one voice stands alone at the top.)

But Kelly also understands clearly that any amount of scheme and strategy only works if you can implement it. So while a faction clings to success in the SEC or being one of the NFL’s better coordinators with the Falcons, Kelly put an emphasis on the ABCs of coaching when he introduced VanGorder.

This is as close to a manifesto on coach hiring as Kelly’s ever delivered.

“The first thing I wanted in this position is a great teacher,” Kelly said. “I think first and foremost when you’re talking about the ability to bring together our defensive players, you need the ability to communicate and to teach, and Brian is one of the very best teachers, if not the best teacher, that I’ve ever been around, and I go way back with Brian. So first and foremost he’s a great teacher.

“I think the second thing that stands out is he understands player development, and so anyone that I want to be around on a day‑to‑day basis has to understand the important principles of player development in bringing them along and really understanding how important it is to get those traits out of our players.  They’re not ready made.  The players that we bring here to Notre Dame, we have develop them, and not just on the football field, but off the field as well.  Brian understands that.  His background coming with me, starting at Grand Valley State, but before that, being a high school coach makes him uniquely qualified to understand player development, being at the high school ranks, being in division II at Georgia Southern as a head football coach, being in the SEC, obviously being in the NFL, understanding player development was huge in the selection of the defensive coordinator here.

“His experience, let’s understand that.  We’re at the University of Notre Dame.  We’re playing for championships, and so the defensive coordinator needed to have that experience.  Brian has that national experience.  He’s a two‑time Broyles Award winner for the finest assistant coach in the country.  So he has that resume, has that experience as a defensive coordinator in the SEC.  And he’s also sharpened the iron in the NFL as well in building that experience.”

Teach. Develop. Experience. That’s a hire that makes sense.

CONCLUSIONS COME IN AUTUMN

For as good as the hire of VanGorder looks on paper, ultimately the results on the field will tell the story. While we can dissect any Xs and Os or philosophical tweaks, the defense doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and VanGorder will be taking cues from Kelly on how the defense fits into the Irish’s overall game plan.

But the challenges are steep. Rice and Michigan provide immediate challenges. Stanford, North Carolina and Florida State could be a meat grinder three weeks. A November filled with Navy, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC sounds no easier. So even if VanGorder’s defense statistically takes a step backwards, it could be miracle work with this unproven group.

There’s a lot to decipher between now and Rice’s journey to South Bend on Labor Day weekend. But one thing is clear:

There’s work to be done and VanGorder has already gotten started.

 

*Stats provided by the website formerly known as BlueGraySky. 

 

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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