Atlanta Falcons Minicamp

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. 

 

Path to the Draft: Will Fuller

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won 28-7. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Part two of a seven-part series looking back at Notre Dame’s impressive 2016 draft class. 

 

Will Fuller
No. 21 overall to the Houston Texans

For as much flack as Will Fuller took from the moment he declared for the NFL Draft until his named was called after Houston traded up to land him with the 21st pick, most of it missed the biggest story of them all. We were talking about Will Fuller.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s least likely All-American since Shane Walton ditched his soccer cleats for the gridiron, Fuller was an unlikely superstar, all but a recruiting afterthought who had a mostly anonymous freshman season before two years of productivity never seen in South Bend.

While Fuller ended up a four-star prospect, he was a regional recruit if there ever was one. Pulled away from a Penn State program that was amidst chaos, Fuller picked Notre Dame over other offers from schools like Boston College, UMass, Rutgers, Temple and Delaware. Like Ronnie Stanley, he was another invite to the Semper Fidelis All-American game—a second-tier All-Star game— but on Signing Day, Kelly sounded like he knew that his staff had landed a big-time talent.

“He’s also a young man that we believe that if there’s a guy that flew under the radar a little bit, it was William Fuller,” Kelly said. “The thing that really clearly stands out is his ball skills. He can run and catch the football. Any time that we got a chance to observe him, he was running and catching, just terrific ball skills. We think as he develops physically, he also has that speed, that top‑end speed that can obviously impact football games.”

Kelly’s crystal ball couldn’t have looked more prescient than it did in that moment. While he only managed to make six catches as a freshman, the 46-yard deep ball Fuller reeled in from Tommy Rees after play-action was a sign of things to come.

Fuller’s development was hardly just an arrow up proposition. The drops that had so many draft analysts talking about his hands plagued him throughout both his prolific sophomore and junior seasons. But even amidst that self-inflicted inconsistency, the game-to-game productivity is astonishing when you look at the two-season run Fuller put together.

You can learn a lot about how little analysts have seen Fuller by the criticisms they lay on him. Ted Ginn? Former top-ten bust Troy Williamson? Fuller’s hardly a one-trick pony—playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins won’t just make life easier for the Texans’ Pro Bowler, it’ll allow Fuller to see man coverage and get back to terrorizing defenses in the screen game as well.

Selected at No. 21 as just the second receiver off the board, Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after just his third season looks to be a great one. With a blazing forty time and his lack of size not changing with another season in college football, Fuller struck while the iron was hot after two of the best receiving seasons we’ve ever seen.

Not bad for a skinny kid out of the Philadelphia Catholic League.

***

Looking for more discussion on Notre Dame’s 2016 NFL Draft (as well as a bunch of other stuff), here’s John Walters and I chopping it up on our latest episode of Blown Coverage. 

 

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.