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. 

 

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”