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VanGorder using spring to rebuild defensive philosophy

Mar 26, 2014, 10:23 PM EDT

Brian Van Gorder Brian Van Gorder

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.”




  1. fnc111 - Mar 26, 2014 at 11:44 PM

    Are you down with BVG? Yea you know me.

    • dickasman - Mar 27, 2014 at 1:09 AM

      I like what I read so far but I dunno how many gettin burned by 98 yarders I can take but I guess I prefer the 4-3.
      To answer your question, yes I love notre dame but no, I wouldn’t go down on him but I’m sure there are many democrat inside the irishers that voted for gay marriage that would. Sick people, sick.

  2. onward2victory - Mar 27, 2014 at 1:34 AM

    Yes, scheme and personnel are very important for a defense, but I think just as important is the ability for the offense to put up points. If the opponent knows that our offense is going to score a lot of points, or is already up 2 to 3 scores, they’ll be forced to be more aggressive and in turn the defense benefits. If the Irish aren’t significantly better at scoring TDs instead of FGs this year, then I’m afraid this aggressive man coverage defense isn’t going to be very effective.

    Basically, here’s to hoping BK will be just as aggressive on offense as BVG appears to be on defense.

    • domerboyirish - Mar 27, 2014 at 8:43 AM

      well said

    • ndfenian - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:49 PM

      I agree but you also have to remember the Weis era of having high scoring offenses and defenses that couldn’t stop terrible Syracuse teams. You still have to stop the run.

  3. mtflsmitty - Mar 27, 2014 at 1:45 AM

    I love that when Jack gave him a golden opportunity to tout a few of the players BVG declined. “It’s about consistency. And none of these guys have had the opportunity to show the kind of consistency we need.” Dude is a hard ass. I love it.

    • dickasman - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:29 PM

      He’s a responsible and accountable republican whatta ya expect?

  4. Barry's Triceps - Mar 27, 2014 at 2:03 AM

    Can they recast Walker Texas Ranger with BVG? Dude looks like he could knock out John Wayne with two hands tied behind his back. Hopefully defense plays like that.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 27, 2014 at 9:17 AM

      and he’s tall.

      tall people are just more scary by nature.

    • ndoneill - Mar 27, 2014 at 12:09 PM

      Why John Wayne? Walker Texas Ranger was Chuck Norris. I wouldn’t be so quick to give BVG the edge of Chuck Norris.

    • dickasman - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:31 PM

      I just hope the players take after him and start thumping n trampling the opposition. I wanna see some hits that puts Riddell outta business.

    • ndfenian - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:52 PM

      I don’t care what point you are making, never mess with the Duke.

  5. yaketyyacc - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:06 AM

    very gratifng, Keith. Van Gorder is the answer to a prayer. love his philosophy, must hav been in my Philosoph of Nature class taught by professor “Tiger” Joe Evans. “Attack, always Attack.”

  6. NotreDan - Mar 27, 2014 at 7:05 AM

    I wonder if BVG thinks he has the personnel/talent to survive the 2014 schedule… not what he will say, but what he actually thinks.

    • 1historian - Mar 27, 2014 at 12:43 PM

      To me he acts as if he doesn’t know yet, which might be a hint to his players – show me what you got.

  7. Stethoscope Nunchucks - Mar 27, 2014 at 7:18 AM

    I heard BVG’s tears cure cancer and that he can divide by zero.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 27, 2014 at 9:20 AM

      BVG once fought Superman for a bet. the loser had to start wearing his underwear on the outside of his pants.

    • canadianirish - Mar 27, 2014 at 11:40 AM

      only a rumour……no one knows for sure, since BVG has never cried…..

    • 1historian - Mar 27, 2014 at 12:45 PM

      Given your handle (good one) and your statement I have no idea what you’re talking about, but that’s ok.

      I’ve got to get back on the road for my 3 state crime spree – I forgot Vermont.

  8. bernhtp - Mar 27, 2014 at 9:01 AM

    The great 2012 D was predicated upon having a huge and talented DL – Tuitt, Nix, KLM – that would plug up the middle, seal the edge, and funnel the remnants to the mighty Manti for clean up. They’re all gone now without comparable size and talent taking their places.

    When I look at the 2014 team in comparison, I can’t help but be a Clara Peller and ask “where’s the beef?”

    Will BVG’s aggressive style, different packages, greater reliance on the secondary in man-on-man, etc. make up for the diminished DL size and talent? That’s the million dollar question.

    • irishdog80 - Mar 27, 2014 at 12:08 PM

      Tuitt and Nix were still unproven at the beginning of 2012 though both had shown promise. KLM started as a 6’5, 230 lb LB and grew into a Defensive End. Day has shown promise and might be a better pure pass rusher than Tuitt. Ishaq might be growing into a KLM sort of DE. Nix will be the toughest one to replace, but going to a 4 man front will shift some of the load on the DTs. And do not underestimate the value of a potentially lock down secondary…it will allow the D-line to play more solid rush defense and more time to get to the QB.

    • irish4006 - Mar 27, 2014 at 12:10 PM

      Good question, bern. I think offense has to be the beef for this defense. All the pieces for a great O are there – big line, stud running backs, mobile quarterback who can throw 60 yards and hit a receiver, very athletic (although young and unproven) wide receivers; if we keep stuttering on offense, it will be a lot for the D to handle. If we can put up points on the board with some consistency, this D has the potential to look like Bama D. For one thing, we are not short on bodies; it’s just that we don’t know how it will shape up.

      I can’t think of an ND team that was more complete in terms of the quality of personnel (proven and unproven) that are going to take the field this fall. You mentioned some big names from 2012 D, but do you remember what the secondary looked like at this time in 2012? That D was not more talented than this one, just played their hearts out (Manti, I have to believe, had a lot to do with it). When I look at this team, I don’t see any glaring weakness. This team should be a coaches dream, quite possibly the best ND team I have seen in 15 years.

    • 1historian - Mar 27, 2014 at 12:47 PM

      I think it will – I get the impression that his guys will play really hard, if for no other reason that they’ll be scared of what BVG will have to say to them if they don’t.

  9. irishwilliamsport - Mar 27, 2014 at 9:25 AM

    We’ve got plenty of size for the season but not for the spring game, a few guys are hurt and a few freshman are coming in with size that may be able to play. This guy was DC at Auburn when they won the National Championship. Definitely a schematic advantage over Diaco. We had 3 mediocre years and one great year with a player in Toe who comes along once every 20 years and a bunch of other leaders that formed a great defense when Diaco was here. Far from “Elite” as Keith would lead you to believe.

    • c4evr - Mar 27, 2014 at 1:27 PM

      Anyone else get nervous when the words ‘schematic advantage’ get uttered around here??

  10. idratherbeinsouthbend - Mar 27, 2014 at 9:31 AM

    I’m guessing Notre Dame’s defense this year will be more exciting AND more disappointing than we are used to.

    I’m also predicting that BVG delivers a sharp right cross to Jack Nolan’s chin before the end of the year because he doesn’t like the velvety “tone” of his voice. Velvet is for pussies

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Mar 27, 2014 at 11:12 AM

      I wish he’d point into the distance and say “hey jack, how much you wanna make a bet I can throw a football over them mountains?”

    • mtflsmitty - Mar 27, 2014 at 11:12 PM

      Great post. And you too

  11. knuterocknesghost - Mar 27, 2014 at 11:34 AM

    BVG noted to our pal Jack of his expectation that the defensive players will be able to learn an entirely new defensive scheme. That is probably the most important task this Spring for ND. I expect that aggressiveness will not be a problem under BVG given the players that ND has recruited that has led to far more competition for position time on the field than ND has had in earlier years. And if there is not enough of it, aggression can be turned up instantly. But learning the defensive scheme takes time.

    I would expect that BVG is not laying down his entire scheme the first season. A defense is called upon to be reactive far more so than the offense. And as Manti Teo used to say, once the defensive scheme becomes second nature to you from constant repetition, your reaction time is so much shorter. In Manti’s words, it becomes instinctive rather than your standing there deciding what you are supposed to be doing. I think that Manti’s knowledge of Diaco’s defense and his dedicated film study of the opponent’s offensive tendencies enabled him to have the kind of season he had his senior year more than because of his physical skill level or aggressiveness.

    The learning curve is the big task in front of BVG’s players right now and he has to judge well how much may be too much.

  12. glowplugv - Mar 27, 2014 at 11:35 AM

    You got to believe that what BVG has been saying about an aggressive defense is the right step forward. Offensively you try get the defense attempt to react to your schemes; seems reasonable that you take the same approach on defensive and become a disruptive factor. Hearing BVG speak now in the Spring (very early) about challenges in switching to the philosophy, leads me to believe the risk factor in the early games will be higher. I’d be surprised if the defense will totally have it together, so I wouldn’t be surprised if those games might need the offense to outscore the opposition more than the defense holding them back. What I’m getting to, is let’s not start a flame war over the defense not working early. BVG’s approach is a much higher payoff but with a higher risk factor until everyone is on the same page.
    BTW, is just me or does there appears to be a lot of holding going on offensively and defensively in the clips we see? Some of the plays on the receivers seemed well out side the bounds allowed contact.

    • knuterocknesghost - Mar 27, 2014 at 12:06 PM

      Glow… sorry, I hit the wrong button and wanted to hit the reply button instead of report button.

      I agree that the probability is high that the offense will have to carry the defense in the earlier part of the season for the reason that the defensive scheme is undergoing a complete overhaul.

      As for aggressiveness on defense, just to be clear, there are two aspects for that. One, how hard does an individual player play, and the other is a defensive scheme that does not sit back and is geared to taking more chances. Either aspect of aggressiveness can be turned on like a switch.

      That said, having a more aggressive defensive philosophy and taking more risks on the defensive side of the football means that it’s all the more important that every player on the field know his responsibilities or else unplanned or unintended gaps open up. An aggressive defensive scheme will tend to magnify the consequences of assignment mistakes made by a player’s being out of position for his given responsibility on the field.

  13. knuterocknesghost - Mar 27, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    At the risk of posting yesterday’s news —-

    “The 2014 Notre Dame football schedule is projected to be the fourth most difficult in college football according to guru Phil Steele. Here is his rankings of the TOP TEN most difficult schedules — all of the schools are ranked behind the link below:

    Texas A&M
    Iowa State
    Wake Forest”

    • NotreDan - Mar 27, 2014 at 1:03 PM

      Um. Knute. Did you actually click through and read the article? I’m guessing no, since you wrote: The 2014 Notre Dame football schedule is projected to be the fourth most difficult in college football according to guru Phil Steele. These specifically are NOT Phil Steele’s rankings.

      Not that Phil Steele is like, “the man” because it seems nobody loves Phil Steele like Phil Steele does… anyway…

      If you made it all the way to Phil Steele’s actual article (that Jim Small linked to) at:

      He pretty clearly states (in bold): “Again this is the NCAA’s method and not MINE!”

      I think you just blindly regurgitated Jim Small’s writing, but just because he’s too lazy to read, doesn’t mean you have to be too.

      • knuterocknesghost - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:54 PM

        Notre Dan: Your right. Posted this during my lunch hour and was too hasty to finish up and to the right thing.

      • mtflsmitty - Mar 27, 2014 at 11:16 PM

        As I recall Nude had a bit of a love affair with Steele. Birds of a feather…

  14. danirish - Mar 27, 2014 at 11:53 AM

    Not trying to be the fun sponge but I’m not going to get to excited until I see the results. I remember how excited I was when Jon “Blitz with no Purpose” Tenuta was here (with a dose of C. Brown) Ugh

    I am excited because I remember going to my home twon of Athens Geogia and seeing VG’s defense in action – he had good players and the Dawg fans loved him (Dawg fans hate the D-Cor they have now)

    Will he get Redfield ready or is the kid just not getting it done? Turnovers? Sacks?

    God, I can’t wait!


    • irishdog80 - Mar 27, 2014 at 2:23 PM

      I was also excited about Tenuta. The difference is that ND had a serious talent deficit that we were dealing with due to Ty’s poor recruiting and Charlie’s emphasis on Offensive skill players.

      Our talent is clearly better now and it is good to have a new set of eyes evaluating the talent. Talent evaluation and talent development are skill sets that not every coach has…and that also applies to every walk of life. A few words of encouragment and a coach that sees something in a player that others do not can make a world of difference to the player and the unit as a whole.

      Now we just need to bring that same talent assessment and development to the Special Teams side of the ball. I have to believe the talent is there, but they just aren’t being put in the right place with the right scheme that suits their abilities.

  15. domer77blowsgoats - Mar 27, 2014 at 1:11 PM

    I’m just hoping he can teach what no d-coordinator at ND has been able to teach in the last 15+ years – corners turning their head

    Brock Williams
    Clifford Jefferson
    Preston Jackson
    Ambrose Wooden
    Gary Gray

    just gonna stop now…

    Oh and create a true elite defense that doesn’t get blown out by Navy, lose to Tulsa, can adjust on the fly, doesn’t adjust when something is working ala FSU and doesnt get stomped by truly elite teams

  16. goirishgo - Mar 27, 2014 at 1:48 PM

    I’m with danirish on this one…waiting and seeing. A more aggressive defense is one likely to give up more big plays. The laws of risk/reward will likely giveth but also taketh away.

    The offense looks like it could have quick strike capability but I’d prefer using the RBs and o-line to pound out first downs as often as possible. The defensive scheme will be new, the d-line and LBs are largely new, and the secondary has yet to prove they are capable of the man-to-man press coverage necessary for a high risk/reward defense to succeed.

    Until the defense proves it can play aggressively without giving up a ton of points the offensive focus should continue to be on controlling the line of scrimmage and, by extension, time of possession.

  17. domerboyirish - Mar 27, 2014 at 2:17 PM

    A few thoughts to share:

    – I would love to see our defense stop taking s— from Navy. We have bigger and better athletes. Go out there and abuse them instead of trying to out-scheme them. Make them worry about us and not the other way around.

    – I hope we don’t find ourselves with a weak or decimated D-Line to where we ‘have to blitz’ to stop the run. If we do, this aggressive defense will kill us.

    – I think we should all be prepared for the emotional high’s and low’s that come with this kind of defense. Diaco’s defense was efficient but boring. Bend but don’t break. This D is high risk / reward. We may be celebrating awesome sticks, fumble recoveries, interceptions, etc on one play, then 80 yard touchdowns against us on the very next defensive snap. Let the emotional roller coaster begin.

    – I agree with the comments above that this defense has to be tied to the offense’s production. If we can’t score in bunches, we risk a tired defense that is gonna get burned. If the offense comes out and puts points on the board in a hurry, then it will be easier for our defense to dictate terms. I really think they will go hand in hand.

  18. rocket1988 - Mar 27, 2014 at 8:02 PM

    It will be interesting to see how BVG does calling the game from the sideline? I like that he can be with the defense the entire game. Pulling guys out and getting in the right situations.

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