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Establishing expectations for Brian VanGorder’s defense

Mar 24, 2014, 9:47 PM EDT

Atlanta Falcons Minicamp Atlanta Falcons Minicamp

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.



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.



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.”



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.


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. 


  1. mtflsmitty - Mar 24, 2014 at 10:36 PM

    GREAT ARTICLE, KEITH! Particularly appreciate that you began by crediting Coach Diaco for the excellence he brought to the defensive unit.

    One of the things I have come to appreciate more in recent years is how the defensive scheme is often driven by the firepower (or lack thereof) of the offense. While Diaco’s defensive scheme was pretty vanilla – It was exactly what our offense needed last season. Diaco earned his title of Asst Head Coach!

    • dickasman - Mar 24, 2014 at 11:15 PM


      • irishyossarian - Mar 25, 2014 at 10:15 AM

        Not sure what that even means but Van Gorder is wearing a Falcons hat in that picture, meaning it’s a few years old. The stache is safe.

      • alsatiannd - Mar 25, 2014 at 1:25 PM

        It means the more likely he is to benefit from a pornstache the less likely he is to understand how a pornstache works or to sign up for one.

  2. viktory2013 - Mar 24, 2014 at 11:03 PM

    Definitely agree. 2012’s defense fed off the offense’s fire, while 2013’s defense snoozed in unison with the offensive yawnfest. Diaco played vanilla schemes, but he himself brought a lot of contagious energy and enthusiasm to his players. Hopefully VanGorder brings the same.

    • ndoneill - Mar 25, 2014 at 12:21 AM

      I agree, except I don’t recall there being much offensive fire in 2012. The defense was the energy of that team. I got a sense of confidence, competence, and control watching them stonewall MSU in 2012 that I had never before felt while watching an ND defense.

    • mtflsmitty - Mar 25, 2014 at 12:33 AM

      Respectfully, Vic, I think you have it backwards.

      The defense was not bewitched by the offense, nor overcome with the great offensive malaise of 2013. Rather, Diaco and BK understood what they had on the offensive side of the ball. They knew the offense lacked firepower. Therefore, and this has been the great learning for me, the defensive game plan was all about keeping scoring to a minimum. Bend, Don’t Break as it were. Not going to create much defensive scoring that way. But not going to get burned over the top too often either. As long as TR didn’t have to be heroic we had a good chance.

      It’s no mistake BK has chosen to “De-Diaco” the defense now. With the offense finally expected to spread out and let it fly, ND can afford a less risk adverse defensive approach. I don’t know if it will win games. But it’s going to be fun to watch.

      Go Irish!

      • viktory2013 - Mar 25, 2014 at 1:47 AM

        Maybe so, but it seemed the defense last season was infected by the offense’s lethargy, while in 2012 the confidence was mutually contagious. It wasn’t anything statistically measurable or schemed in playbooks, but with a few exceptions, there seemed a level of apathy in last years’ team in stark contrast to the ferocity of 2012.

      • Rbmat - Mar 25, 2014 at 6:44 PM


        Well said

  3. onward2victory - Mar 25, 2014 at 2:52 AM

    All this focus on 3rd down man-coverage schemes assumes we will be able to stop the run on 1st and 2nd down. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m afraid that’s going to be a major weakness in this unit against some of the tougher opponents.

  4. mediocrebob - Mar 25, 2014 at 7:16 AM

    It all sounds nice but if the Irish can’t stop the run, the pressure won’t mean much. Looking forward to see how this change works out. The talent is there.

  5. keelio19 - Mar 25, 2014 at 9:07 AM

    I’m not sure why this hasn’t been emphasized more in these articles but everyone keeps stating we’re going away from the 3-4 to a 4-3, that Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmitt will be running the inside linebacker position. Now maybe there’s not a whole lot to write about out there and that’s why it’s not being mentioned, but if you watch Kelly’s presser and or read up on some of the articles you’ll know that most of the 4-3 defenses that were seeing in the videos and that everyone is claiming will be the new defense is all based off of our 3rd down packages. Kelly has been asked numerous times and he’s said the same thing over and over again; You see a lot of the 4-3 defense because we’re running our 3rd down packages, where were going to be in a 4-3 press man coverage, and that’s the reason behind Joe and Jaylon running in the ILB position, because the plan is they will be in coverage and or blitzing on 3rd downs. Every practice they’ve had and or that medias has been able to cover them they’ve been in their 3rd down packages. I wouldn’t be surprised we still roll out the 3-4 defenses on 1st 2nd downs. We have the LB’s to do it, the dline not so much, but that’s always been a known concerns since Tuitt/Nix left. We know the dline is going to be our weak point, so do we put out 3 average dlinemen and have 4 great LB’s, or do we put 4 average linemen and 3 great lb’s. I would rather have 4 great players out on the field then 3, wouldn’t you? I know there’s a lot of unproven ground in the LB core but I’m a little more confident in our LB play right now then our defensive line, at least in terms of experience and athleticism. Either way our defense has gotten to the point where we need to make a turn down a different memory lane with some more aggression.

    In my opinion, I think having the schedule we have (Brutal) is going to mature our players a lot quicker then say playing the Boise State /Wisc/UofL type of schedule. I want our players to be forced to learn on the fly quickly or get put to the bench. If we played the cupcake schedule our players would be a little more candid against the lesser competition and I don’t feel it would make our players better at the end of the day. We need competition at ever position on defense, and playing against elite competition is going to bring that. If Jaylon was on Boise State and made a mistake against the University of the Blind (Probably one of the teams on BSU schedule this year) he could probably make up for it with his athleticism. But if Jaylon were to make a mistake against Florida State, he’s going to learn pretty quickly that his athleticism isn’t going to save him against the type of talent on a FSU team, that then drives him to get better and would almost instinctively make him concerned about his starting position being lost if he continues to rely on his athleticism then the scheme. Now I may be running off topic a little but either way, GO IRISH!

    • ndgoldandblue - Mar 25, 2014 at 10:52 AM

      I have no idea as to what to expect this season. My initial feeling is that, with this schedule, 8-4 will be a tremendous success. On the other side of the coin, I also feel that, if you are an elite team, you beat the teams on your schedule no matter how good they are. I’m not sure where to set my expectations. The goal of every fanbase is to see their team win a national championship, and that’s what I’ll hope for as well. But with the uncertainty on both sides of the ball as well as a daunting schedule, my expectations will probably be considerably lower.

      • irish4006 - Mar 26, 2014 at 12:42 PM

        As always, any 8-4 season is a disappointment in my book; regardless of opponents. Outside of FSU, I don’t see a team where we don’t match up well. There is a possibility that 9-10 of the 12 games will be extremely competitive, but we do have a shot in each of them. Every team loses players, that’s why you have to have the recruiting pipelines and player development running 24/7. UM game, to me, is the most important game this season. If we blow them out of the water, we will be set for a great run. If we lose that one, 10-2 or 9-3 will be the ceiling we are looking at with 8-4 being a distinct possibility (and a disappointment).

        With the offensive personnel we have, if we can’t put up 30 points a game; it will be a lot to ask a young defense to bail us out. BK has not had a quarterback ready to rock and roll once in his last 4 years; this year, they are as ready as you can expect to be in the college game. If the offense falters, it will likely not be because of the players we have.

  6. irishwilliamsport - Mar 25, 2014 at 9:07 AM

    I enjoy reading Keith’s articles but part of this one is ridiculous, Diaco’s elite run ? Really ? One great year and 3 marginal years that were very much the same, give up big play after big play on third down. The beat down by Navy where he didn’t have a clue. Look at the Navy game last year and Michigan, I don’t get how you can consider him an elite coordinator at all and I would say that we had a schematic disadvantage with him as coordinator.

    • Keith Arnold - Mar 25, 2014 at 1:20 PM

      Hard to take your comments seriously when you just ignore the data.

      Yes, elite.

      A top 10 defense over the past four seasons after inheriting one of the worst defenses in ND’s history.

      • idratherbeinsouthbend - Mar 25, 2014 at 5:56 PM

        With all due respect Keith, you know as well as anyone that the data can be supportive of any opinion.

        I’m not saying I disagree with your article, rather, I mostly agree. But “elite” might be pushing it.

        Over your time span…
        -Alabama had 10 shutouts (6 versus the SEC), Notre Dame 1 (Wake Forest)
        -Alabama allowed >28 points 4 times, Notre Dame allowed >28 points 15 times
        -Alabama held 26 opponents under 10 points, Notre Dame 8 (Utah, Wake, Temple, BC, Navy, Miami, and both Mich Schools)

        OR Maybe you prefer to compare Notre Dame to more comparable competition….like Rutgers…who allowed an average of 22 pts per game (much more comparable than Alabama).

        Rutgers had 4 shutouts, held 9 opponents under 10 points, and allowed >28 points 15 times.

        The “DATA” supports the fact that Notre Dame’s Defense is far closer to 28-23 Rutgers than 46-7 Alabama….

        Just sayin’

      • irishwilliamsport - Mar 26, 2014 at 9:13 AM

        It’s not a top ten defense over the past 4 years. Assuming your numbers are correct, a top ten scoring defense over the last 4 years, one category elite, not overall. You’re going to tell me 2010, 11 and 13 were elite defenses ? 2012 was, yes, but no way in aggregate.

  7. 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 25, 2014 at 9:15 AM

    when brian vangorder does a pushup, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.

    • yogihilt - Mar 25, 2014 at 7:10 PM

      Most interesting man in the world!

  8. Barry's Triceps - Mar 25, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    Please STOP Pitt.

    &the Pitts of the World

    I’m sick of the horsemen rolling over in their graves.

    Time to go back to 10 win seasons every year and competing for BCS bowls.

    • notredameirish1980 - Mar 25, 2014 at 1:23 PM

      Preach it, brother!

      • notredameirish1980 - Mar 25, 2014 at 1:24 PM

        Although you do know the BCS be gone.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 25, 2014 at 1:39 PM

      probably the best screen name since al gore invented the interwebs.

  9. ndfenian - Mar 25, 2014 at 12:23 PM

    On a side note, we should offer up some prayers for Jarrett Grace, who has a big surgery upcoming. They are very worried about the pain he has been dealing with, and for the healing process. I’ve been told he is a very religious young man and has been taking this all in stride. Strong Catholic family.

  10. goirishgo - Mar 25, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    We haven’t heard from 1historian since his crime spree. I hope he’s not locked up.

    Less than six months til Rice. Got great seats for the Syracuse game today. GO IRISH!!

    • 1historian - Mar 26, 2014 at 9:21 AM

      Your concern is duly noted and appreciated.

      I just got back from the spree and after a restful night’s sleep under about 7 layers of covers with my faithful companion megadog at my side (he drove the getaway car) I am currently wrestling with the problem of the damn local squirrels who have decided that they are more deserving of the birdseed on which I have squandered my hard-earned pension (& SS) than the birds, who have been getting the short shrift. Perhaps a BB gun, perhaps a firearm of some sort. I would rather scare them off than have to dispatch one or two of them to squirrel heaven prematurely.
      I’m quite disappointed with the lack of effort by the local predator birds – owls, hawks and others – to avail themselves of the plethora (50 cent words day here) available for them – any given time I can step outside and see 4 or 5 of them. That, however is my burden to carry.

      Time for Williams to step up. We seem to have lots of potential talent on the D and hopefully Van Gorder – with your permission I will call him ‘Dutch’ – is the man to put it together.

      Other teams don’t fear us any more – they just barely respect us. That has to change.

  11. irishdog80 - Mar 25, 2014 at 2:05 PM

    I have acknowledged that it is more fun to be an optimist. That said, the 2012 defense had a 5 Star Tuitt still trying to prove himself…2014 has a 5 Star Day still trying to prove himself, a 4 Star Nix seeking to nail down his position over Schwenke…2014 has 4 Stat Jarron Jones seeking to prove his mettle, a 5 Star T’eo establishing his legacy…2014 has a 5 Star Jaylon Smith establishing his legacy–flanked by talented newcomers with some experience. Add in a potentially elite secondary…2012 was a broken mess at the beginning of the season and you have the potential for a break out defense in 2014 and I have not even mentioned the talent infusion from the freshmen.

    Go Irish! Beat Rice!

    • mayo1010 - Mar 25, 2014 at 2:48 PM


    • onward2victory - Mar 25, 2014 at 3:22 PM

      I think it’s a decent comparison. I don’t think Day and Jones will ever have quite the physical abilities as Tuitt and Nix, but they can still be highly effective players.

      I think irishdog makes a good point in that we forget heading into the 2012 season, we knew Tuitt was good, but we didn’t know he was a freak until his TD return. We knew Nix was good, but we didn’t know he was the best nose guard in the country until the goal line stand against Stanford.

      Let’s hope that guys like Day and Jones can surprise us in 2014 with breakout years.

    • irishdog80 - Mar 25, 2014 at 3:23 PM

      Fair enough. My syntax on the above is a bit garbled. My overall message is that we tend to view the 2012 Defensive Unit through rose colored glasses. Going into the season, the 2012 defense had a lot of problems on paper…completely rebuilt secondary, relatively significant losses on the line and at linebacker. Next year’s 2014 defensive unit has similar issues to 2012, but has an unquestionably elite secondary at the back end with solid personnel taking over on the d-line and at linebacker for the departed veterans. The elite secondary is the big reason I believe next year’s defense will be better than expected.

  12. rocket1988 - Mar 25, 2014 at 4:00 PM

    Keith is right. Anybody who’s watched ND Football over the last 25 years will tell you that any defensive stat in the top 10 deserves credit. I think BVG is different than Tenuta in that he plays controlled chaos. Not MSU straight up blitz every play, cover your spots and make Jameis earn another Heisman type of defense. We need our D to make Pitt & Purdue look normal again. And props to Keith on the PB & Mayo analogy, I gaged thinking about a Michigan man doing anything for our defense.

  13. fnc111 - Mar 25, 2014 at 5:21 PM

    Thumbs down.

  14. fnc111 - Mar 25, 2014 at 5:21 PM

    Thumbs up.

  15. Rbmat - Mar 25, 2014 at 7:25 PM

    As outlined above, a change in defensive philosophy seems to match a much talked about opening up of the offense. There has also been some lip service paid to special teams by the coaching staff. Failure to address this segment will make changes in schemes on either side of the ball basically irrelevant. A “bend don’t break” defense not only supported an under achieving offensive, but also let many special teams shortcomings fade away. On a short field caused by poor kick coverage, making your opponent grind a bit turns potential touchdowns into field goals. If I am an ND opponent next year and I get short field opportunities, I am going down the field early and often til I get stopped.

    On the flip side, if ND can muster a return game ( a big if ) then I think they need to think big as well. IMO I think Kelly wants to not have to worry about the red zone conversion rate, but rather how many times he can score from 30-45 yards out. Let’s hope that we are a + in this category.

    • mtflsmitty - Mar 26, 2014 at 12:01 AM

      I think you’ve offered something new, interesting to the dialog. I hadn’t appreciated the value of the conservative D as a tonic for inept special teams. Thank you.

  16. yaketyyacc - Mar 28, 2014 at 7:26 AM

    all I can say is a great article followed by good posts. I think our weakest position is play calling. simply not diverse enough, too predictable. we certainly have the talent. turn them loose. speed them up, make them vicious, savage, to paraphrase Frank Leahy at a pep rally.

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