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Under Pressure: Where will the Irish find their pass rush?


Brian VanGorder’s media access has been limited to a small handful of interview opportunities. But that didn’t stop the Irish’s new defensive coordinator from uttering what amounts to a mission statement for his defense.

“My mindset, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being more aggressive,” VanGorder said. “It starts out (at cornerback). That’s where you start your decisions as a coach. Can we hold up out there? If you’ve got a corner that can press and take a guy out of a game, that’s a huge advantage. That makes sense to all of us. But you can’t just do it to do it.”

In what amounts to the most radical coaching change in the Kelly era, VanGorder’s defense is almost the inverse of Bob Diaco’s. And it also fits the personnel the Irish have, with KeiVarae Russell, Cody Riggs, Cole Luke, Matthias Farley and Devin Butler headlining one of the strongest positions on the roster.

But covering receivers is one thing. Getting after the quarterback is another. And if VanGorder’s defense is built around aggression and pressure, finding the players to provide that spark is as essential as the back end of the defense.

Heading into offseason conditioning, consider these five players crucial in providing the pass rush.

Career Sacks: 0.5

That Okwara was just thrown into a starting defensive end job tells you quite a bit about the depth chart after Stephon Tuitt decided to head to the NFL early. On paper, he looks the part of a 4-3 defensive end, and at 6-foot-4, 258-pounds he’s got the length and size to be dangerous.

But Okwara has spent more time backpedaling than rushing the passer in his career, and has been a utility replacement player for two seasons. There’s no more part time work for Okwara anymore. He’ll be counted on to beat offensive tackles and wreak havoc in the opponent’s backfield.

A productive spring ended with a nice performance in the Blue-Gold game. But the work has only just begun for Okwara.


Career Sacks: 1

It’s beginning to feel a little bit like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown with Williams, but Brian Kelly was cautiously optimistic about Williams heading into spring practice, where the now veteran defensive end desperately needs to lead this defense.

At 6-foot-5.5 and 271-pounds, Williams has an NFL body and athleticism. He just hasn’t shown any of the production after arriving in South Bend with a five-star ranking and immense expectations. Being stuck behind Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo didn’t help. But Williams’ job has been simplified this spring by VanGorder. Go get the quarterback and make plays.

We’ll see if he’s able to do that in his final fall playing for Notre Dame.

Career Sacks: 0

You’d be foolish to think that VanGorder wouldn’t utilize his best defensive weapon in the pass rush, especially after watching Smith’s brief cameo in the spring game. The team’s best athlete, Smith is already set to be the team’s best playmaker, and a shift to Will linebacker could make him even more productive.

The Irish haven’t been a very good blitzing football team the past few years. But VanGorder was incredibly successful with zone blitzes with the Atlanta Falcons and just spent a year with Rex Ryan, one of the NFL’s true mad scientists.

Expect him to utilized his most skilled pupil.

Career Sacks: 2.5

Let’s give Day a mulligan for 2013, when an early high ankle sprain ruined his efficiency early in the season. But Day will shift inside to defensive tackle in VanGorder’s new system, and should only come off the field when opponents call in the punt team.

Kelly has raved about Day’s ability and explosiveness since he early enrolled. Against Temple, Day was the team’s best defensive lineman. But after suffering the ankle injury against Purdue, it took almost until the season finale to get the Indianapolis native back to 100 percent.

The Irish’s best defensive lineman needs to get to the quarterback. Able to attack a gap and get up field, Day should be able to utilize a very elite skillset that makes him dangerous.

Career Sacks: 0

You can forgive Trumbetti if this spring was a bit of culture shock. Instead of running track, throwing a shot put, and going to prom, the New Jersey native was tasked with learning an NFL defensive system in 15 practices.

The transition won’t be much easier for the freshmen defenders coming to campus this summer. But thanks to some tweaks in NCAA rules, the Irish coaching staff will be able to study film and implement playbook changes with their new players, which could help get a young pass rusher up to speed.

Freshman Aaron Lynch made an impact as a pass rusher. So did Prince Shembo. Does Jonathan Bonner have the best chance of coming in and contributing off the edge? Is it more likely to be lanky and explosive Jhonny Williams? Or perhaps the added bulk that Grant Blankenship brings to campus will help him get on the field.

Either way, at a position with this little depth, expect a freshman to get a shot.


Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.