Brian Van Gorder

VanGorder using spring to rebuild defensive philosophy


Brian VanGorder was made available to the local media after practice, his first public comments after his introductory press conference in January. While we’ll dig into some of his comments as we try and piece together what the Irish defense will look like next season, VanGorder’s statement of the obvious to Jack Nolan at basically encapsulates this unit’s spring objective:

“We’ll be different,” VanGorder said. “But the expectations will be the same.”

Different has been obvious. The four man fronts, the man coverage, the aggressive, give nothing approach.

But as VanGorder is tasked with getting a young but talented defense up to speed, any thought that a routine spring practice was on tap for a defense that needed to find answers after a disappointing 2013 season was left behind from the minute VanGorder took charge.

Wednesday, VanGorder gave his first progress report on the status of that work. While he was too smart to give away much of anything, he did talk about some of the progress he saw and some of his idealogical goals for the defense.

Most prominent is the philosophical change on point prevention. For Diaco, it was forcing a quarterback and offense to march down the field without giving up the big play. For VanGorder, it’s the opposite. Every snap will be contested.

“I think my mindset, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive,” VanGorder said. “It starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach. Can we hold up out there?”

If you’re looking for the first question of the spring, you’ve got to think that’s the one that most desperately needs answering. As VanGorder heads through these 15 practices, evaluating his personnel and deciding if he can play that type of aggressive, attacking defense is the million dollar question… and the one that’ll determine whether the Irish are mediocre or very good in 2014.

Until the past four seasons, the aggression works from the back of the defense to the front. Diaco’s defense was defined by its ability to have defensive linemen defend two-gaps with a three man front. VanGorder’s defense is built to create pressure and collisions with the quarterback. But to do that, you need to be able to handle a variety of offenses and spread personnel. To do that, you need a secondary that can hold up.

“The more skill and wide receiver types, the more your ability to match up becomes critical,” VanGorder said. “Any time (opponents) can create a wide receiver matchup on a linebacker, they probably like that. That makes sense to all of us.”

Those struggles last year likely explain why James Onwualu and John Turner are now practicing with the defense, jumbo sized skill players that can move down a level and play both in the box and in coverage. VanGorder talked about the sub-packages that have been so often discussed thus far this spring and why they’re important.

“If you have a linebacker that has special traits out there on cover downs, you figure out the coverages you want to use with him. If you have enough corners, you get them out there to match up.”

That’s certainly the intent of the spring. While we’ll need to see if Jarron Jones can anchor the interior of the defensive line and Romeo Okwara can grow into a defensive end, right now the priority is getting the defense up to speed on a system that will be noticeably different when the Irish take the field against Rice.

“That first year is difficult. New techniques. New language. It takes time,” VanGorder told Jack Nolan of “It’s fairly dramatic for the players and it will look different to the fans.”




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.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame

Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.