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How we got here: The Defense

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The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 

 

Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.

 

HIRING VANGORDER

When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.

 

HINTS OF CHAOS

The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]

 

WHERE IT WENT WRONG

Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.

 

THE END

Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”

 

THE AFTERMATH

While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina

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It illustrates the nature of the NFL Draft that No. 2 overall pick quarterback Mitch Trubisky and eventual second-rounder and former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer were hardly ever in the same conversation about the 2017 first overall pick. Trubisky rose up draft boards after, and possibly partly due to, Kizer had already fallen down them.

No matter where the two passers went in April’s draft, both their former teams are now adjusting to life without them. Notre Dame’s response to that is clear: Plug junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush into an offense that did not lose much else. North Carolina, meanwhile, has a lot more questions to answer in addition to the quarterback quandary.

2016 REVIEW
In the span of the first week of October, North Carolina went from a possibly program-defining victory to a harsh reminder it is not yet joined the ACC’s elite. From there, the season stumbled forward, culminating in a three-game FBS-level losing streak.

The Tar Heels upended Florida State on Oct. 1 in Tallahassee thanks to a 54-yard game-winning field goal from senior Nick Weiler. Suddenly at 4-1 — with the only loss being a respectable 33-24 defeat to then-No. 18 Georgia in a season kickoff special — North Carolina could think big picture.

Virginia Tech had other ideas. Only a week later, the same team that had just scored a road upset of the No. 12 team in the country fell at home to the No. 25 Hokies by a not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 34-3.

In the first paragraph of this section, it notes the Tar Heels “stumbled forward” after that loss. That phrasing was chosen to indicate North Carolina did not outright collapse. It, in fact, followed up the clunker with a 20-13 win at No. 16 Miami (FL), raising the Tar Heels’ record in one-possession games to 3-0. Somewhere in the next few weeks, though, that clutch ability disappeared.

North Carolina lost its final three games against FBS foes — the distinction is needed since the Tar Heels slipped in a 41-7 victory over Football Championship Subdivision power The Citadel before their regular season finale — all by one score. Included in that streak: Losses to each of North Carolina’s biggest rivals, 28-27 at Duke and 28-21 vs. North Carolina State.

A 25-23 defeat to No. 16 Stanford in the Sun Bowl dropped the Tar Heels’ record to 8-5, quite a disappointment if looking back on the excitement of the Oct. 1 triumph.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA LOST
Including Trubisky, six North Carolina contributors were drafted by the NFL this spring. Essentially, all of the Tar Heels’ offensive skill position players departed, including four of their top-five receivers and their top-four rushers (with Trubisky third).

Ryan Switzer (Getty Images)

Ryan Switzer stands out as the most notable receiver, pulling in 96 catches last season for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. He was also the long-established punt returner, someone who Notre Dame game-planned around controlling back in 2014, and game-planned around successfully, it should be remembered. Elijah Hood, a former Notre Dame commit, and TJ Logan combined to rush for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns last year before both hearing their names called at the draft.

On the other side of the ball, North Carolina lost far less, most notably third-round draft pick defensive tackle Nazir Jones, who had 2.5 sacks and 7 more tackles for loss.

The aforementioned Florida State hero, kicker Weiler, also departed.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA GAINED
The Tar Heels incoming graduate transfers warrant as much, if not more, recognition as the recruiting class. Head coach Larry Fedora seemingly raided the SEC’s cupboards for any suitable spare ingredients, coming away with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, Florida center Cameron Dillard and Auburn running back Stanton Truitt.

Brandon Harris (Getty Images)

Truitt will need to compete with freshman Michael Carter, who turned down offers from Florida, Tennessee and Louisville to join a 20-member North Carolina recruiting class, rated No. 30 in the country by rivals.com. Receiver J.T. Cauthen joined Carter in the class rather than head to Michigan, Oklahoma or Virginia Tech andc considering the exodus of receivers this offseason, could become an immediate contributor.

HEAD COACH
In Fedora’s five seasons at Chapel Hill, he has amassed a 40-25 overall record, making last year’s 8-5 tally exactly average for his tenure. He has led North Carolina to four bowl games in those five years, but making it five out of six will be a difficult task this season.

It should be noted Fedora has shown to prefer a mobile quarterback, even getting 308 yards and five rushing touchdowns out of the prototypical-passer Trubisky. Harris may fit that mold perfectly.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Losing four of its top-five receivers, top-four rushers and quarterback would be hard for any offense to recover from. In order to do so, starting with the offensive line makes sense, and the Tar Heels return three starters plus a promising sophomore right tackle, in addition to the Florida transfer Dillard.

What will remain unclear at least until North Carolina’s opener against Cal, and will probably remain muddled well into the season, is who exactly that line will block for. Truitt and Carter are competing with sophomore Jordan Brown for top running back honors. Shoulder injuries hampered Truitt throughout his time at Auburn. Once finally healthy last season, he took 31 carries for 187 yards and two touchdowns while catching seven passes for another 100 yards and a score. Those numbers may be modest, but they easily trump Brown’s totals of 20 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown.

Of the three, Carter has received the most hype. He may not be the lead back to begin the season, but six weeks in it is distinctly possible the freshman will have absorbed enough to take that role.

Presumably, Harris will start at quarterback. It is not a sure thing, and junior Nathan Elliott has reportedly been given an equal share of repetitions in preseason practice, but the dual-threat Harris makes the most sense. Either way, the quarterback will be looking to an inexperienced receiver corps led by senior Austin Proehl, the son of former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl. The younger Proehl totaled 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns last year, finishing third on the team in both of the first two categories.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
On the complete opposite end of the returning players spectrum when compared to the offense, North Carolina’s defense returns its top three tacklers and all of its linebackers, led by senior Cole Holcomb (115 tackles) and junior Andrew Smith (113). Century tacklers are somewhat rare in college football, making it even more notable the Tar Heels return a third in senior safety Donnie Miles and his 102 takedowns.

Cole Holcomb (Getty Images)

Losing Jones in the middle is no small thing, but then again, this defense allowed 227.3 rushing yards per game in 2016. Plugging in junior Aaron Crawford (6-foot-1, 310 pounds) could bolster that aspect of containment, even if he is not necessarily as much of a presence in the backfield as Jones was.

Senior cornerback MJ Stewart could have probably declared for the draft, instead opting to return to build on a season in which he broke up 11 passes, leading a secondary that rated No. 12 in the country against the pass.

The Tar Heels defense did lose one more additional piece: Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik retired. Linebackers coach John Papuchis takes over, meaning continuity should lead to little drop-off.

SEASON OUTLOOK
North Carolina scored 32.3 points per game in 2016, a low in Fedora’s time there. It is hard to believe an entirely new offense will top that number this season, putting even more pressure on the defense. That defense, however, performed at a level consistent with Fedora’s tenure, allowing 24.9 points per game. Aside from 2014’s 39.0 points allowed per game, which led to Chizik’s arrival, Fedora’s defenses have given up between 24.5 and 25.7 points.

All this is to say, matching last year’s 8-5 seems a tall order. It is more likely the Tar Heels fall short of their over/under win total of 7, finishing fifth or sixth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Yesterday: Miami (OH)
Tomorrow: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Friday at 4: 40 Predictions

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The Notre Dame class of 2021 moved onto campus today. Roommates were met. Lofts were modulated. Mothers cried. These things are as inevitable as summer equaling visits to brewery rooftops, Christmas bringing familial tension, and someone being upset about where the Irish land (or don’t land) in Monday’s Associated Press top-25 release.

Years ago, I managed to move in two days earlier than most freshmen. International students are afforded that luxury. No, I am not from abroad. As has been discussed, this scribe is a Wisconsin native. Rather, my roommate was from Canada, though I will always take great joy in reminding him my green-and-gold hometown is actually farther north by latitude than his Maple Leaf roots.

Two weeks after moving in, I wrote my first football article for The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper. It was actually purposed for a long-since defunct blog. It included references to “Rudy,” Sly Stallone and initial, but momentary, college friendships. Pretty standard fare, in all of reality, though the ignorance of the AP Stylebook and improper usage of only makes its author cringe in rereading.

That roommate did not notice those errors. Rather, his review was simple and has stuck with me nearly a decade later.

“You shouldn’t have started with ‘I think.’ It made your point weaker.”

He was, and is, right. With all due respect to that fact, arbitrary, varied and debatable predictions may necessitate a weaker stance. Thus, I think … (more…)

Notre Dame unveils Rockne Heritage uniforms

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Notre Dame will wear Rockne Heritage uniforms in the home schedule’s season finale against Navy on Nov. 18. Though they are alternate uniforms, the outfits are far more in-line with the typical Irish weekly attire than most years’ additional uniform designs are.

Clearly paralleling the $400 million in updates to Notre Dame Stadium, “The House That Rock Built,” the uniforms combine the fashion of Knute Rockne’s era with the progress afforded nearly a century later.

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“I think it is a unique opportunity with this uniform to celebrate the past while creating the future,” Under Armour Design Director Nick Billiris said in a University release. “That’s why we incorporated some of those elements that harken back to the 1920s and the 1930s when Knute Rockne was there, but we did it with cutting edge fabrics and technology. The whole idea is that this uniform is a time-capsule of Notre Dame football from when Rockne first grew the football program into the national power that it has become today.”

Perhaps most notably, the uniforms will feature a ND monogram unfamiliar to modern fans. It comes from a 1912 sweater, per Billiris.

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The helmets will lack some of their weekly shine, with subtle graphics intended to elicit the leather helmets of the 1930s.

Each uniform will read “ROCKNE” across the back nameplate, and will feature an excerpt of his famous “We’re going to get them on the run, and we’re going to keep them on the run” pep talk on the shoulders.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Miami (OH)

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When former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin left Notre Dame for Miami of Ohio, he was departing a team coming off a frustrating, but promising, season for one showed no great potential and any frustration around it would have started with misguided optimism.

Since then, the Irish have gone up and down while the RedHawks have trended in only an upward direction, albeit slowly. That growth will be tested quite bluntly in Martin’s return to Notre Dame at the end of September.

In an effort to desensitize any to the time and channel of that game, they will be mentioned in this space anytime the Notre Dame vs. Miami (OH) matchup is discussed.  Hopefully when that week comes around, no questions will remain about the Irish playing at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN on Sept. 30.

2016 REVIEW
Miami had one of the most-interesting storylines in the country last season, beginning the year 0-6 before finishing 6-7, becoming the first FBS team to ever follow a six-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak within one season. All six of those wins came in conference play.

That opening series of losses was not simply due to facing superior opponents. The RedHawks choked away a win over Eastern Illinois by getting outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter, losing 21-17. The tail end of the half dozen losses came against MAC division foes Ohio and Akron. Ohio’s head-to-head victory gave the Bobcats a tiebreaker over Miami, hence why Ohio headed to the MAC title game and not the RedHawks when they tied atop the Eastern Division at season’s end, with Akron three games behind them tied for third place.

The swing in the season came in part due to a quarterback switch. Then-sophomore Billy Bahl was putting together a statistically-satisfactory season through five games, completing 55.2 percent of his passes and throwing eight touchdowns, but then he went down with a season-ending injury. Martin first turned to a freshman — who has since transferred from the program — but he did not perform such in the loss to Akron to convince the coaching staff not to start then-sophomore Gus Ragland a week later.

Quarterback Gus Ragland‘s insertion into the Miami starting lineup played a key part in flipping the Redhawks‘ season. (Getty Images)

Ragland proceeded to lead the way in the six-game winning streak, throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in that stretch. With the 6-6 record, Miami headed to the St. Petersburg Bowl, falling 17-16 to Mississippi State. Ragland threw two touchdowns and one interception, going 22-of-30 for 263 yards.

Ragland certainly deserves some credit for the midseason swing, as does Martin simply for keeping Miami upbeat and confident enough to string together a few wins. Yet, it was somewhat a schedule fluke, too. In the six wins, the RedHawks beat only one team that finished better than 3-5 in the conference. The one team earning that exception was Eastern Michigan, not exactly excelling with its 4-4 conference mark.

WHAT MIAMI (OH) LOST
Perhaps even more encouraging than the six-game winning streak was the youth with which the RedHawks rattled off those wins. Offensively, Miami lost receiver Rakeem Williams and his 26 catches for 501 yards and three touchdowns. The yardage qualifies Williams as Miami’s No. 3 receiver last year, but it came despite missing two games due to injury. If healthy, he may not have leapt to No. 1, but he was, for all true intents and purposes, the most dangerous receiver on the team, averaging 19.3 yards per catch.

Defensively, the Redhawks will need to find a new source of a pass rush. While they returned six of their top eight tacklers, the two who left were also the leaders in sacks. Defensive ends JT Jones (No. 6 tackler with 47) and Austin Gearing (38 tackles) combined for 10.5 sacks, eight more tackles for loss and 10 additional quarterback hurries. Add in the departure of fellow defensive end Zach Smierciak and his three sacks, and suddenly Miami is without more than half its 24 sacks from a year ago.

WHAT MIAMI (OH) GAINED
Included in a recruiting class which rated about middle of the pack in the MAC, defensive end Joshua Maize could quickly find himself working to replace some of that lost pass rush. While he was never necessarily a recruit targeted by Notre Dame, Maize — from Deerfield, Ill., a Chicago suburb north of the city and only about two hours from South Bend, Ind. — did visit campus three times.

HEAD COACH
Martin enters his fourth season at the Cradle of Coaches. There are two particular items to note about his return to face the Irish. First of all, Notre Dame deserves some degree of credit for how often it reaches out to former assistants or administrators to offer a scheduling boon. Similar to this contest, the Irish men’s basketball team will visit Delaware this winter to face former assistant Martin Inglesby. Notre Dame does not need to schedule those games, but it is a small luxury afforded former staffers who left on good terms.

Secondly, and related, the Irish schedule would have allowed for Martin’s return in his second or third season with the RedHawks if he had wanted such. Instead, he intentionally put off the game until his fourth season there, hoping to bring a more-respectable team to Notre Dame.

Considering Martin has turned Miami from an 0-12 team the year before he arrived to a genuine MAC title contender this season, it seems appropriate to say he achieved his goal of respectability, if not more than that.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Heaping too much praise onto Ragland could come at a cost. Then again, his record as a starter is 6-1. That praise is earned.

Ragland not only aided the Redhawks offense with his nearly mistake-free passing, but also with his rushing abilities. (Getty Images)

This year, he will lead an offense returning nine starters, including four offensive linemen with a combined 80 career starts. They will be opening holes for a running back by committee attack that fared quite well last season. Including Ragland, Miami’s top-four rushers combined for 1,726 yards. Ragland accounted for 202 of those. Remember, that came in only seven games. All four of those rushers return.

The RedHawks also return four of their top-five receivers, losing only the aforementioned Williams.

Overall, the offensive unit should continue the prolific stretch with which it ended the season. In weeks six and seven last year (the turn from the losing streak to the winning streak), Miami totaled 260 yards in each game. In the following six contests, the RedHawks averaged 409 yards per game.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Aside from the already-discussed pass rush, Miami is returning nearly all of its defense, including eight starters. Most notably, junior linebackers Junior McMullen and De’Andre Montgomery each started 13 games last season, and will now be joined by classmate Brad Koenig, who started six.

On the outside, senior cornerback Heath Harding should warrant NFL notice by the end of the year, and his counterpart junior Deondre Daniels should not be scoffed at, either, having broken up six passes last year and intercepting one more.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Miami is favored to win the MAC’s Eastern Division, though only a touch ahead of Ohio in that evaluation. (The two face off on what should be an annual holiday: Halloween MACTion!)

If Martin can lead the RedHawks to a conference title game in only his fourth season at the helm of what was the laughingstock of the FBS, then he will be well on his way to continuing the tradition of the Cradle of Coaches.

On that note, the Notre Dame vs. Miami game could present a great opportunity for additional homages to the late Ara Parseghian. He got his start at Miami, and obviously reached a legendary status with the Irish.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Yesterday: Michigan State
Tomorrow: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)