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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. 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nicco Fertitta

Nicco Fertitta CASHORE
Property of Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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As Notre Dame searches for answers at safety, one under-discussed option is sophomore Nicco Fertitta. The Las Vegas native, best known through his recruitment as the high school teammate of Alizé Jones (and outside the football world for his father Lorenzo, the Chairman & CEO of the UFC), has been overlooked before. That comes with the territory when you’re built like a walk-on.

But Fertitta’s college career is on schedule—and maybe ahead of plans. A freshman season saw Fertitta make 11 appearances. A sophomore season will see more special teams duties, and if Fertitta can find a way, a battle to get into a very uncertain two-deep at both safety positions.

An overachiever who became a key piece of the foundation at one of the best high school football programs in the country, Fertitta faces long odds to do more than play special teams. But that’s business as usual for the pint-sized heavy-hitter, who’ll look to take a step forward in his second season in South Bend.

 

NICCO FERTITTA
5’8.5″, 185 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 28, S

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

U.S. Army All-American, First-team All-State per the Las Vegas Review Journal. State champion, with Bishop Gorman also being named a national champion (no championship game was played).

A three-star prospect, Fertitta chose Notre Dame over offers from Arizona, Hawaii, Houston, UNLV (where his prep coach Tony Sanchez took over the program) and Utah.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in 11 games, all in special teams appearances. He made one tackle on the season and forced a fumble against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Got the special teams contributions right. Got a little bit ahead of myself thinking he’d have a chance to play in sub-packages.

I tend to think Fertitta is going to be one of the freshmen taking the field against Texas come September 5th. He’ll likely be covering kicks and chasing down punts, but Fertitta’s freshman season will hinge on his ability to make big plays in the game’s third phase, something Scott Booker is still looking to establish.

As a safety, Fertitta could also be very helpful in sub-packages. As Notre Dame takes on a heavy dose of run-heavy (and option) offenses in Georgia Tech, Navy, Pitt and Boston College, there’s a place for a run-stuffer with the ability to play in space, and just as Kelly and the Irish used Jamoris Slaughter, Fertitta could be an option at a position that doesn’t have a ton of flexibility.

But any road onto the field as a freshman should be considered a strong debut season for Fertitta.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Fertitta’s high school highlight reel showcased an undersized safety who hit like a freight train. That physicality likely helped get him on the field in 2015, but the aforementioned size feels like a larger barrier—especially when you see the disparity between Fertitta and a strong safety like Drue Tranquil.

Notre Dame knew the player they offered. They also knew he’d play large roles in the locker room as well as on special teams. Fertitta will likely take a step forward in special teams and then have a chance to compete for a backup role, especially before the reloaded secondary gives guys like Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry a chance to get comfortable.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect Fertitta to play in all 13 games, but only take snaps on defense in mop-up duty. Unless injuries hit, Tranquill should be in the starting lineup with Avery Sebastian supplementing him. At free safety, Redfield will be competing with Devin Studstill, with a very large hole behind those two players.

If Fertitta looked and played the game like a center-fielder, that’s where I’d have him penciled in. But he’s a mini-Tranquil, with physical limitations also hindering his ability to be a single-high safety, making him a better fit at strong safety.

As long as there’s a hole in the depth chart at safety, you’ve got to give Fertitta a chance to see the field. And as long as there are multiple sub-packages and schemes being deployed by Brian VanGorder, there’s always a chance that a sure tackler like Fertitta can find a role. But it just feels like there are other options available that’ll better suit what VanGorder and Todd Lyght want from their secondary, leaving coverage teams the likely home for Fertitta in 2016 and beyond.

 

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

2018 twins Jayson and Justin Ademilola commit to Irish

Ademilola twins 247
247 Sports
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Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class just doubled up, adding twin brothers Jayson and Justin Ademilola. The New Jersey natives—both potential impact players on the defensive line—pledged their commitment to the Irish on Sunday, adding two more building blocks to a distant recruiting class that’s all of a sudden got some serious juice.

Fresh off a visit to South Bend, the brothers committed to Notre Dame, picking the Irish over Michigan, Auburn, Georgia, Penn State and more than a dozen other offers. They hail from St. Peter’s Prep, the same high school that produced current Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Both Jayson and Justin took to Twitter to announce, simultaneously making the news official:

While rankings for the 2018 class (entering their junior season) aren’t formalized, 247 Sports views both brothers as 4-star prospects. Justin is more of an edge player—currently an outside linebacker or rush end—while Jayson profiles as a three-technique defensive tackle.

Steve Wiltfong, 247 Sports’ director of recruiting, caught up with Rich Hansen, the high school coach at St. Peter’s Prep. Hansen had this to say about the two brothers.

“They’re getting two guys, what they’re doing now is just the tip of the iceberg,” Hansen told 247 Sports said. “The potential, Justin is a really good athlete that can play a multiple of positions. It will be interesting how he develops and what role he fills for them and Jayson I think is going to be a monster inside for them.”

“They’re young, a lot of development is going to take place over the next two years and Notre Dame is going to get two potentially dominant football players at that level.”

The Ademilola brothers make four early commitments to the 2018 class, a sign that Notre Dame’s recruiting—and evaluation process—is humming under Mike Elston’s direction. They join blue-chip quarterback Phil Jurkovec and Indiana running back Markese Stepp.

***

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Jalen Elliott

Jalen Elliott Irish 247
Photo courtesy of Irish 247 / Tom Loy
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Don’t know Jalen Elliott yet? You will soon enough.

While the 3-star prospect didn’t land on any national lists of recruiting victories, Notre Dame’s coaching staff believes that they might have their next great strong safety on campus in the Virginia native.

While there are other prospects who are bigger, stronger and faster—and had better recruiting rankings and scholarship offers—Elliott stood out to the Irish staff when they got him on campus, turning Brian Kelly and company into major believers. Now it’s up to the young player to make his way up a depth chart that’s been restocked, finding a way into the mix with assumed starters Drue Tranquill and Max Redfield.

 

JALEN ELLIOTT
6′, 190 lbs.
Freshman, Safety

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A consensus 3-star prospect with offers from Auburn, Georgia, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Two-time captain and state champion. Two-way starter as quarterback, cornerback and safety.

A 2015 first-team All-State 5A player. On the 2015 Richmond Times-Dispatch All-Region first team, MVP of 2015 Virginia High School All-Star game.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Kelly may have tipped his hand when he glowed about Elliott in his Signing Day comments.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting, and that’s over 25 years. His competitive spirit was unmatched,” Kelly said. “It was unparalleled in terms of I can’t remember a guy — maybe there was one guy that competed on the offensive line for me at Cincinnati in a camp that was similar, but this kid competed at every position at such a level that he was a can’t-miss guy for us in the recruiting process.”

There could be concerns about Elliott’s size—he doesn’t have prototype strong safety size or heft. But great safeties come in all shapes and sizes (Eric Weddle certainly doesn’t look like an All-Pro). That’s not to say that Elliott will have an All-American college career like Weddle did at Utah, but if he’s able to match his intellect with his competitive spirit, he’s playing the right position for a guy to make an immediate impact in South Bend.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’m buying the hype on Elliott. I think he’s my leading snap-earner on the defensive side of the ball for the freshman class, out-pacing position-mate Devin Studstill, who had spring practice to work his way into first-team reps with Max Redfield.

Versatility is a big reason I’m so high on Elliott. He’s a guy who can stay at safety if the Irish need to move Tranquill around—a preference of Brian VanGorder’s. He’s a potential nickel or dime entry if the Irish want to put more defensive backs on the field. He’s also good enough to get a look as a cornerback. And he’ll certainly be someone who can be counted on as a special teamer.

Opportunity is the other obvious reason to target Elliott as true freshman contributor. Notre Dame’s safety play needs improvement, and new blood might be the best option.

I’m hesitant to match stats with snaps, especially knowing that sometimes productive safety play means you failed in the front seven. But I’ve got no hesitation grabbing the reins and kick-starting the Elliott bandwagon.

Giddy up.

 

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

 

Irish A-to-Z: Micah Dew-Treadway

M Dew Treadway 247
Photo courtesy of Irish 247
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When Micah Dew-Treadway arrived at Notre Dame, it was unclear what position he’d play on the defensive line. A redshirt fall and spring season under his belt, where Dew-Treadway will end up is still cloudy, but it does appear that he’s a contender to make an impact.

On a defensive line without Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara—and a line a year away from losing Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell—opportunity awaits. And as Keith Gilmore still sorts through his options at defensive end and tries his best to find his best four defensive linemen, Dew-Treadway’s sophomore season should be spent trying to make a pitch for some playing time in a rotation that’ll have to be deeper than last year’s.

An early-entry into college certainly helped Dew-Treadway. But with an eligibility clock that begins ticking come the fall, there’ll be an urgency to get on the field that maybe wasn’t felt before now for the Chicagoland prospect.

 

MICAH DEW-TREADWAY
6’4″, 300 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 97, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Semper-Fi All-American, Dew-Treadway picked Notre Dame the summer before his senior season. He was a three-star prospect, with eight sacks and 12 TFLs as a senior, earning All-State first-team by the Champaign News-Gazette and All-Area by the Chicago Sun Times.

Had offers from Mississippi State, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin and others.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Sometimes getting the obvious ones right is a good thing.

Barring a nightmare scenario, I don’t see Dew-Treadway on the field this season. And that’s not a bad thing. Watching highlights from his senior season of high school, you saw Dew-Treadway do some very good things, displaying the type of player who could very easily turn into a Jarron Jones type performer. But there are also the habits of a high schooler on display, things that will need to be drilled out of him.

Fifteen practices this spring won’t necessarily do that. Nor will a fall playing behind veterans Sheldon Day and Jones. But as the Irish rollover their interior depth, newcomers will need to step to the forefront. So throw Dew-Treadway into a promising group that’ll include Jay Hayes and Jon Bonner, developmental players who could be key to providing the next level of reinforcements.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s still hard to figure out what Dew-Treadway’s ceiling could be. He projected as a developmental prospect as a recruit and did nothing to change that during his redshirt season. We saw glimpses of athleticism and potential productivity during spring drills, though that’s hardly a data point worth chasing.

With good size and ability, Dew-Treadway could be an effective player in the trenches, showcasing the type of athleticism Kelly talked about on Signing Day. Until then, we’ll have to see how the 2016 season plays out—and if Keith Gilmore trusts him to be more than just a guy behind a guy.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Brian Kelly’s mid-June comments about Jarron Jones might actually help Dew-Treadway see the field. Because if the optimum amount of snaps for Jones is 35, that means there’s about 20 more for some lineman not named Daniel Cage or Jerry Tillery, and it’s anybody’s guess who will fill those snaps.

I tend to think those snaps could go to Jon Bonner first. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Dew-Treadway finds his way into those second-team developmental snaps this year, moving ahead of a veteran like Peter Mokwuah or converted offensive lineman John Montelus, with athleticism a key factor in all of this.

 

*First 5-yard penalty for falling out of order. 

 

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