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.

Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”