05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Notre Dame football: What’s wrong with the defense?

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The play has been dissected for nearly a week. Just 15 seconds and roughly 25 yards separated Notre Dame from an eleventh victory, a game that the playoff committee very well could have viewed as one of the most impressive road victory of the college football season.

But as Kevin Hogan dropped back from his own 43-yard line, it looks as easy as pitch and catch. He stood well-protected, a perfect pocket formed with just three Irish defenders rushing the passer, Notre Dame’s leading sacker didn’t chase after Hogan, but rather shadowed him—a 265-pound defensive end doing a linebackers job.

On time and on rhythm, the veteran quarterback hit his target in stride, a receiver breaking inside of a defensive back that was all but flat-footed to a vacancy of green grass so large that it would’ve cost millions in the Palo Alto neighborhood surrounding Stanford Stadium.

Few plays have the ability to crystalize a season. But Hogan to Devon Cajuste did just that—exploiting a defense that’s woeful inconsistency kept Notre Dame from having an opportunity to play for a national championship.

The natural reaction is to assign blame. Plenty of angry pitchforks surround defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, the architect of a creaky house. Finishing up his second season in South Bend, the former NFL defensive coordinator hasn’t been able to elevate the play of a group that may very well be decimated by injury, but is still among the most talented we’ve seen over the last decade in South Bend.

But multiple factors go into the struggles of a defense that suffers from a multiple personality disorder. So let’s check into a Holiday Inn Express, throw on our lab coat, and do our best to diagnose the problems that have plagued the 2015 Irish defense.

 

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

On paper, Notre Dame’s 2015 defense doesn’t look like the flaming mess some are calling it. The Irish are giving up 22 points a game, a respectable 36th in the nation. They’re a middle of the pack unit stopping the run, perhaps explainable when you consider the two option teams on the schedule. They’re a Top 30 unit against the pass, likely buoyed by the same two opponents. The top line reveals a defense that’s roughly Top 40—not great, not horrible.

But it doesn’t take much of a deep dive to identify some of the critical problems. The Irish gave up big plays by the bushel. They were the ultimate boom-or-bust unit, one of the better teams at forcing three-and-outs, but also susceptible to giving up long touchdown drives. Over the last two seasons, Notre Dame has given up 53 touchdown drives of 70-yards or more, a staggering statistic dug out by Tim Prister at Irish Illustrated. Or approximately 52 more than they did in 2012.

The red zone was a similar horror show. Under Diaco, Notre Dame rarely gave up long touchdown drives and always seemed to stiffen near the goal line. The opposite has been true the past two seasons. This year, Notre Dame forced just three field goals in 34 red zone opportunities. That helps explain why the Irish are No. 21 when it comes to scoring percentage, but a staggering 103rd when it comes to giving up touchdowns.

The Irish won 10 football games this season, an important piece of the equation to remember as many kick dirt on a team that has a chance to win 11 games for just the second time since 1993. They’ll be doing it against one of the toughest schedules in the country and with a team that’s started 37 different players and lost two games against Top 10 competition by a combined four points.

But as Brian Kelly moves this program forward, it’s clear that while the offense has found a way to evolve and continue to produce even as injuries mount, the defense hasn’t. And that needs to change.

 

THE COORDINATOR

The struggles of this unit likely rest at the feet of VanGorder. Brought in to help Notre Dame take the next evolutionary step as a defense after Bob Diaco took over the UConn football program, VanGorder was billed as a teacher and developer of talent when Brian Kelly introduced him in January of 2014.

“The first thing I wanted in this position is a great teacher. 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,” Kelly said.

“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 to develop them, and not just on the football field, but off the field as well. Brian understands that.”

Through that lens, it’s hard to call the last two seasons successes. While VanGorder brought with him schemes and personnel groupings honed in the NFL, he hasn’t been able to get his team to fully comprehend the advanced calculus his schematics require. Even if VanGorder is the teacher that Kelly described, time constraints at the college level—not to mention the academic workloads Notre Dame student-athletes carry—have likely made it impossible for a complete understanding of what’s being asked. Twenty hours a week doesn’t give you the time to teach a system that requires NFL professionals to commit their livelihood to owning a system.

Kelly also praised VanGorder’s ability to develop players. That’s been a mixed bag. If you’re going to harp on certain players failing to live up to expectations, you need to acknowledge the ascent we’ve seen from others.

Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara have both excelled under VanGorder. Jaylon Smith’s game has become more dynamic when not confined by Diaco’s difficult Dog linebacker requirements. Struggles with current safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have been consistent whether Diaco or VanGorder was coaching them and cornerbacks are more likely to be beat when you’re asking them to lock into man coverage as opposed to playing a Cover 2 zone.

VanGorder has shown himself capable of correcting issues. We saw that over the offseason when the Irish solved their issues against hurry-up attacks and implemented a system that allowed Notre Dame to successfully defend the triple-option run by Georgia Tech and Navy.

This offseason, the chalkboard has two very large objectives that need cleaning up: Big play prevention and red zone struggles. And those issues require a great deal more introspection than the challenges exposed by Larry Fedora or Ken Niumatalolo.

 

THE PERSONNEL

While there is plenty of talent on Notre Dame’s defense, personnel limitations can’t be discounted. That Devon Cajuste found his way between an undersized, in-the-box middle linebacker and defensive back who would’ve been the third choice for the role had the secondary been moderately healthy deserves mention. In a perfect world, neither Joe Schmidt nor Matthias Farley are on the field in end of game situations. A week earlier, Farley might not have been, and had Drue Tranquill not torn his ACL, Schmidt might not have been, either.

Notre Dame’s defensive personnel is still a work in progress. Trapped in that awkward phase between Bob Diaco’s physical 3-4 personnel and VanGorder’s scheme that sacrifices size for athleticism, the Irish were doomed by roster deficiencies that only became over-exposed once injuries hit.

Utilizing College Football Focus’s player evaluation tools, it’s simple to see that while Notre Dame’s offensive personnel can be viewed among the elite of college football, there’s still a long way to go for the defense. That’s clear when you look at the uniform grading system that CFF/PFF uses to breakdown every snap of ever game played in college football.

Only Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith were elite players. Both played like stars this season. Day ranks as the No. 1 4-3 defensive tackle in the country in terms of overall grading. Smith grades out as the No. 3 OLB in a 4-3 system in the country. But from there, the defensive struggles show clearly, especially when you look at defenders with negative grades that were forced to play significant snaps.

Of the top six teams in the current College Football Playoff rankings, Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State have a total of five players who have played 300 snaps with a negative CFF rating. Notre Dame has six.

You’d suspect some of the names on that list—Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate, true freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Others you would not—seniors Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell. Game-specific deficiencies CFF picked up make sense from 30,000 feet. Max Redfield’s struggles as a run defender have been often discussed, same with Schmidt and Shumate’s difficulties in coverage.

Many thought Jarron Jones’ preseason injury was the biggest loss of the season. But the Irish defense might have been undone by the injuries to Shaun Crawford and safety Drue Tranquill.

Notre Dame’s ability to be multiple was lost when those two defenders went down. So much of what VanGorder wanted to do against the pass was lost when Crawford couldn’t play nickelback. Same for Tranquill’s injury, robbing the Irish not just of a perfect hybrid player who could excel on third down, but also taking away the ability of the defense to play Smith in the middle of the field on passing downs—essentially limiting his impact as a coverman and interior blitzer. Schmidt came within steps of a half-dozen sacks as he blitzed up the A-gap. Smith’s explosiveness would’ve likely turned many of those into big plays.

VanGorder has changed the way Notre Dame has recruited the defensive side of the ball. Gone are some of the hard-and-firm prototypes that Diaco demanded when looking for players. Those changes have built the Irish roster for the future.

But in addition to the injuries, roster attrition hasn’t allowed reinforcements to hit the field, players like Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams and Bo Wallace gone before having a chance to impact the team in situational jobs. That’s forced some legacy personnel into jobs that were tailored for a different type of football player.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Notre Dame’s success this season has elevated expectations for the future. But to play up to them, VanGorder and Kelly will need to recalibrate how they approach defending opponents.

Moving forward without Schmidt as the nerve center is one thing. The reality that Jaylon Smith is likely joining Sheldon Day in the NFL Draft is another, with significant personnel hits likely to be taken. Yet the Irish are well-equipped with the athleticism needed to fill those holes, even if we might not see another linebacker like Smith wearing a Notre Dame jersey for many years to come.

But without a simplified scheme, personnel advancements will only do so much. Elite athletes become ordinary very quickly if they don’t fully grasp their jobs. And a scheme that forces 11 players to defend without a safety net is a flaw in the foundation of the system.

One man missing a tackle can’t result in a 30-yard gain, like we saw so many times this season. Exotic schemes that force a linebacker to sprint into coverage for the sake of surprise does little when an opponent’s counter-punch exposes your own vulnerabilities.

Kelly and VanGorder know these things, of course. And as the coaching staff spends the offseason analyzing their strengths and weaknesses, there’s a very high likelihood that Kelly still comes out with the same answer he gave a few weeks back when asked why his defense was giving up long touchdown drives and big plays.

“I still think it’s personnel-driven. You’re still looking at who you’re putting on the field,” Kelly said. “I think Brian has brought the kind of pressure and aggressive defensive play that we’re looking for in a transition. We’re still evolving defensively. We’re still working to build our defense. We’re not there yet, clearly… We’re going to get better as we continue to recruit and develop our defense.”

The future of the program depends on it.

Zaire says thank you to Notre Dame

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Big week for The Observer. Not just for its advertising revenues, but for the classy gesture that outgoing senior quarterback Malik Zaire made this week.

Thursday’s edition included a letter to the editor from Zaire, who took to the student newspaper not to make headlines around the internet, but rather to thank the university for his experience in South Bend.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close, he will leave as a proud alum. So while he’ll play football next season at another university, Zaire wrote the following in Thursday’s issue:

Dear Notre Dame students and staff,

My life changed for the better the moment I stepped onto the University of Notre Dame’s beautiful campus. The one goal I had set in my mind to achieve was to become a better man, a Notre Dame man. After growing through many trials and triumphs, the thing I’ve learned most from my experience was that if you don’t believe in yourself first, then no one else will. I believed in becoming a better man and succeeding through any circumstance, and I can say that I’ve truly accomplished that. I often refer to the famous quote from the movie “Catch Me If You Can” that was well put by Frank Abagnale:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.”

I’ve put my heart, soul and passion into the University, the football program, the South Bend community and the Irish community worldwide. I have the unbelievable honor to represent this University to the fullest as a student and soon-to-be alumni. Thank you to the amazing students and staff that I’ve met through the years for helping me grow into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I love the Irish and will always be an Irish alum no matter where I go! I look forward to keeping in touch. Let’s change the world!

Go Irish!

Malik Zaire

Senior
Dec. 7

Zaire is expected to compete for a starting quarterback job next year as a graduate transfer. He’s reportedly taken a visit to Wisconsin and plans to visit North Carolina as well, just two of several programs on the radar as Zaire looks to step in and win a starting Power 5 job.

 

 

 

ESPN’s Kiper & McShay: Kizer should return to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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It’s evaluation season. With college football’s regular season over, the focus now turns to the stay-or-go decision that faces many of college football’s best players. Return for another season? Or head to the NFL?

That’s the big question facing DeShone Kizer. Viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by some earlier in the season, Kizer now awaits feedback from the NFL’s advisory board, who’ll give him either a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or none — essentially serving as a message to return to school.

That feedback is something Kizer’s requested, with Brian Kelly revealing that Kizer is one of four underclassmen requesting a review, joined by Mike McGlinchey, Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson. 

And while most still think it’s merely a formality before Kizer heads to the NFL, two of the media’s most well-established pundits, ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are among those who actually think Kizer should stay in school.

In ESPN’s 25 questions about the 2017 NFL Draft, Kiper and McShay focus their attention on potential first-round quarterbacks:

There’s really only one guy right now, and he might not even enter the draft. That’s North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who is in his first season as the starter. Trubisky has thrown 28 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, but he’s still green — with another year of seasoning, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. He’s not ready to play right away in the NFL.

I don’t see any other first-rounders in the group. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, a third-year sophomore, has to go back to school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has taken a step back this season. Underclassmen Luke Falkand Patrick Mahomes could use another year in school, and they don’t project as first-rounders.

McShay echoed Kiper’s evaluation of Kizer, stating: “Kizer needs another year.” And if the Irish get that, it means they’ll have a 1-2 depth chart of a third-year starter in Kizer and junior Brandon Wimbush, who saved a year of eligibility in 2016 and has three remaining.

Kizer’s been clear that he hasn’t made up his mind, planning on talking with his family about the decision in the weeks following the season. And with the year-end banquet this weekend with Notre Dame hosting the “Echoes,” that decision might come sooner than later.

Last year, the NFL draft wasn’t kind to the Irish roster. Four key players gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley going in the Top 10 to the Baltimore Ravens and Will Fuller joining him as a first-round selection after going to the Houston Texans. Even injured, Jaylon Smith was taken near the top of the second round by Dallas and C.J. Prosise was a third-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks.

Underclassmen have until January 16th to declare.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.