Part two. For more, see part one for a write-up on the offense.
After one of the most difficult stretches of defensive football in Notre Dame history, season two of the Brian VanGorder era felt like a reboot. Forgotten were the impressive, early-season successes the Irish had, with VanGorder’s swarming, multiple defense confusing and befuddling opponents. Burned into the brains of all were the injury-ravaged, everything-is-broken units that gave up points by the bushel and struggled to do anything but make opposing offenses look like world-beaters.
At full strength, VanGorder’s defense looked every bit as talented as Bob Diaco’s best. But at it’s worst? It brought us back to the end of the Weis era. In the offseason, two major areas of concern were addressed: Defending the option and slowing down up-tempo attacked. Early returns and that work have been promising.
Against Texas, we saw very quickly what happened when the Longhorns tried to move quickly. Against Georgia Tech, VanGorder all but conquered Paul Johnson’s attack, likely giving a template to Yellow Jacket opponents everywhere and leading to optimism for the upcoming tilt against Navy.
One quarter into the season, it hasn’t been all good (the trip to Charlottesville was disappointing), but the stats look more than respectable. The defense is giving up 17.3 points a game, a number that surely would love much better had Georgia Tech not scored 14 points in the game’s final 90 seconds. And even with some shoddy play against Virginia, the Irish are on the brink of a Top 30 unit, especially impressive considering there hasn’t been a cupcake on the schedule to get fat against.
Let’s take a look at each position group and evaluate where this defense currently sits.
Led by the dynamic presence of Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell, the Irish front four has relied on the strength and disruptive nature of this duo to lead the way. At nose guard, Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery have been very good, with Tillery more than holding his own against Georgia Tech’s triple-option, an insane result considering he’s a true freshmen in the trenches.
Defensive end play is still sorting itself out. Romeo Okwara has started three times opposite Rochell, notching a sack among his six tackles. Andrew Trumbetti is still waiting to get started. Add to that Day’s fast start really hasn’t fully shown up on the stat sheet, with three TFLs far more indicative than his six total tackles. Six quarterback hurries show that Day’s been a step or two away from another handful of big plays.
Depth is a concern, especially if Brian Kelly and VanGorder are trying to redshirt Jay Hayes and Grant Blankenship. But if this group can stay healthy—and continue to hold its own at the point of attack—this team will get what it needs from the front.
Overall: When the Irish are only giving up 3.8 yards per carry, and have already played Georgia Tech, that says all you need about the run defense. Next step? Generating more disruption in the passing game. On the whole, this group is doing great things. But the margin for error without Jarron Jones is still slim.
ProFootballFocus says Jaylon Smith is college football’s best linebacker. Next to him, Joe Schmidt is playing great football. Swap in and out pieces like James Onwualu and Greer Martini, and there’s a reason why Nyles Morgan and Jarrett Grace haven’t been able to find the field.
Holding their own in a physical matchup with Georgia Tech was an impressive feat. And with top-flight athleticism and the ability to chase things down east and west, this position group really has dispelled any myths that the Irish are short elite athletes.
Nothing but positives so far.
Overall: Versatile (big with Martini, quick with Onwualu). Disruptive. Aggressive. It’s hard to find a better start by a linebacking corps than the early season this group has put together.
There’s little room for anything to go wrong, especially with either Smith or Schmidt. But as long as that duo is on the field, the Irish defense will be in the game.
If there’s been a disappointment this season, it’s been the early performance of Notre Dame’s secondary. And really, this is confined to one Saturday at the office (the dangers of evaluating a team after three games) in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The Cavaliers’ passing attack found a way to pick apart the Irish secondary. That wasn’t a result many people saw coming, though you could also put some of that on the pass rush.
Still, there are some areas for concern. Max Redfield started strong against Texas, but wasn’t able to deal with a broken thumb against Virginia. He tackled terribly and lost the aggression he showed against the Longhorns. Communication at the safety position might also have been a problem, as the Irish back-four got caught on a trick play that just about everybody in the stadium likely saw coming. But this group rallied and played great football against Georgia Tech, all but unnoticed in the passing game while safeties Elijah Shumate, Drue Tranquill and Matthias Farley tackled extremely well.
Without Tranquill, this group loses some versatility. And if Redfield isn’t able to rebound, this position gets thin in a hurry. So Todd Lyght has more work to do, especially as the Irish reconfigure their nickel and dime packages.
Overall: The slow start is understandable, considering Russell’s absence last season and one poor game. But safety play is still a worry, and asking the Irish to cover while the pass rush finds its way to the quarterback is something to monitor.
Funny enough, if the UMass game is a litmus test for any position group, it’ll be the secondary. The Irish will face one of the MAC’s best QB-WR tandems in Blake Frohnapfel and Tajae Sharpe. A quick passing game should be expected.
Stern tests are ahead before the Irish reach bye week. Heading to Clemson and then taking on USC should let us know if the Virginia game was a blip in the radar or a sign of things to come.