Establishing expectations for Brian VanGorder’s defense

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Spring practice is a time for optimism. Young players seize opportunities. Coaching tweaks fix last season’s flaws. And 15 practices — not to mention a slew of incoming freshman ready for action — have your favorite team poised for greatness.

Of course, that’s not always how it works out. But even the most even-keeled fans can’t help get caught up in spring fever.

As the Irish begin their preparations for 2014, changes made to the coaching staff, offensive and defensive scheme tweaks and roster additions have many fans feeling like 2014 is the year. But that’s hardly unique. You could basically write a column like this every year.

But with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder making significant changes to the Irish’s defensive scheme after four seasons under Bob Diaco’s watch, optimism is brewing. Perhaps it’s VanGorder’s SEC built and NFL tested scheme. It will have the young Irish unit playing an aggressive brand that hasn’t been seen in South Bend since the Holtz era.

But as Irish fans start their deep dig into next season, it’s worth setting some expectations for VanGorder’s defense. After following up Diaco’s four year run, what can we expect from VanGorder and his rebuilt unit?

Let’s dig in.

 

RESPECTING DIACO’S ELITE RUN AT NOTRE DAME

First things first. Bob Diaco’s four seasons in South Bend were more than impressive. They were elite.

Sure, there are detractors who grew tired of Diaco’s point prevention schemes and vanilla packages. Diaco operated conservatively, willing to give up a little to make sure he wasn’t beaten for a lot. The Irish defense gave up plenty of underneath opportunities to prevent the home run.

While 2013’s performance certain was a regression after 2012’s historic defense (loose underneath coverage doesn’t look so attractive when you’re also giving up the occasional long ball), it’s worth looking at this four-year breakdown of the best scoring defenses in the country to put into context the work Diaco did for Notre Dame:

Top Scoring Defenses, 2010-13*

1. Alabama, 11.0
2. Florida State, 15.1
3. Michigan State, 17.2
4. LSU, 17.4
5. Boise State, 17.8
6. Wisconsin, 18.3
7. Stanford, 18.9
8. Louisville, 19.0
9. Notre Dame, 19.1
10. Florida, 19.3

A top ten defense over the past four seasons is the definition of elite. Even if scoring defense isn’t your preferred measurement, advanced statistics are even more favorable for Diaco’s defense.

Take into consideration the slate the Irish play compared to the cupcakes Boise State, Wisconsin and Louisville routinely schedule, and it’s astounding to think that Diaco took Jon Tenuta’s damaged personnel and turned it into one of the most stingy groups in the country.

 

VANGORDER’S SCHEME

Entering his fifth season at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly’s defense is at a very different place than it was when he first came to South Bend. Because of that, VanGorder’s mission is different than the one Diaco was given.

Kelly gave us some insight into this before kicking off spring practice:

“When I hired Bob to come here, we needed to build consistency and stability with our defense, and he’s certainly answered the charge that I had given him,” Kelly said. “We needed fundamentally sound defense and we got that from Coach.

“We have a great base, and we have now developed what we consider a demeanor on our defense and on expectation, and now we’re going to take it to the next level defensively and Brian is going to be able to take our defense to that next level, and I think that that’s what you’ll see in what Coach VanGorder will bring to our defense.”

Where we’ll see that from the start is scheme. Already, the Irish have basically turned into a 4-3 defense, likely looking more like Michigan State as it morphs into a 4-2-5 man coverage and pressure heavy scheme on passing downs than Diaco’s traditional two deep zone defense.

Diaco kept his base defense on the field quite a bit, at most swapping in an additional defensive back or downsizing the dog linebacker against option teams. That’s likely changing with VanGorder from the opening snap if we are to believe what we’ve seen in the Irish’s first practices.

Speedy linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt will likely improving the Irish’s underneath coverage while skill players like John Turner and converted receiver James Onwualu infuse athleticism that Carlo Calabrese and Prince Shembo didn’t have in space.

While Kelly has held true to the line that the defense will still base out of a 3-4 set, the secret that the Irish will be playing a 4-3 primarily is largely out. And if our early viewing windows into the Irish defensive strategy have been any indication, sub-packages will be the new norm, likely with hopes of improving the Irish’s performance on third down and creating sacks and turnovers while defending the pass.

Again, Kelly’s remarks from his spring practice presser give you an idea that while the objectives are still the same, how they achieve those goals will change.

“Third down packages, we’ll be able to use personnel uniquely different in certain areas,” Kelly said. “But at the end of the day, this is still about keeping the points down and taking the football away and eliminating the big plays.”

 

PERSONNEL QUESTIONS

Of course, one reason the Irish might have a heavier reliance on scheme is because they have to rebuild their defense. Gone are Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two defensive linemen that Stanford’s David Shaw considered among the top five in the country.

Fellow building blocks Prince Shembo, Bennett Jackson, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese have also departed, as well as key sub Kona Schwenke. How much will that effect the Irish’s play? It’s still tough to tell.

Spring certainly will mask any deficiencies. Yet trying to figure out how good VanGorder is for this defense will depend an awful lot on how good the players taking snaps end up being.

Notre Dame already saw what a scheme heavy coordinator hire will do when there are deficiencies at the core. Jon Tenuta only returned to the coordinator ranks last season at Virginia after three seasons coaching linebackers at NC State after his flame out with the Irish. Utilizing a pressure and scheme heavy formula (sound familiar?), the Irish defense became one of the ultimate boom or bust units in the country, with bust happening far more often than boom.

It’s hard to look at the inexperience on the roster and think it’s as raw and underwhelming as the units that Tenuta put on the field. But the peanut butter and mayo pairing that Brown and Tenuta created in 2008 is worth remembering. After all, it was the transition from Brown’s 3-4 base system to Tenuta’s attacking 4-3 that imploded the Irish, producing a defense befitting a roller derby team.

Credit Kelly for understanding that any change needed to be done whole sale. That’s why Kerry Cooks title demotion from co-defensive coordinator to secondary coach made sense. There can only be one leadership voice, and this unit is most certainly VanGorder’s.

(Have a look at Eric Hansen’s most recent work in the South Bend Tribune, and it’s clear that one voice stands alone at the top.)

But Kelly also understands clearly that any amount of scheme and strategy only works if you can implement it. So while a faction clings to success in the SEC or being one of the NFL’s better coordinators with the Falcons, Kelly put an emphasis on the ABCs of coaching when he introduced VanGorder.

This is as close to a manifesto on coach hiring as Kelly’s ever delivered.

“The first thing I wanted in this position is a great teacher,” Kelly said. “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. So first and foremost he’s a great teacher.

“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 develop them, and not just on the football field, but off the field as well.  Brian understands that.  His background coming with me, starting at Grand Valley State, but before that, being a high school coach makes him uniquely qualified to understand player development, being at the high school ranks, being in division II at Georgia Southern as a head football coach, being in the SEC, obviously being in the NFL, understanding player development was huge in the selection of the defensive coordinator here.

“His experience, let’s understand that.  We’re at the University of Notre Dame.  We’re playing for championships, and so the defensive coordinator needed to have that experience.  Brian has that national experience.  He’s a two‑time Broyles Award winner for the finest assistant coach in the country.  So he has that resume, has that experience as a defensive coordinator in the SEC.  And he’s also sharpened the iron in the NFL as well in building that experience.”

Teach. Develop. Experience. That’s a hire that makes sense.

CONCLUSIONS COME IN AUTUMN

For as good as the hire of VanGorder looks on paper, ultimately the results on the field will tell the story. While we can dissect any Xs and Os or philosophical tweaks, the defense doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and VanGorder will be taking cues from Kelly on how the defense fits into the Irish’s overall game plan.

But the challenges are steep. Rice and Michigan provide immediate challenges. Stanford, North Carolina and Florida State could be a meat grinder three weeks. A November filled with Navy, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC sounds no easier. So even if VanGorder’s defense statistically takes a step backwards, it could be miracle work with this unproven group.

There’s a lot to decipher between now and Rice’s journey to South Bend on Labor Day weekend. But one thing is clear:

There’s work to be done and VanGorder has already gotten started.

 

*Stats provided by the website formerly known as BlueGraySky. 

 

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5 ½, 255 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Kmet will be the second option among Notre Dame’s vertical threats at tight end, behind senior Alizé Mack, provided Mack proves more reliable than he has in the past.
Recruiting: Not only was Kmet a consensus four-star prospect, he was a consensus top-five tight end in the country. Rivals.com, for example, rated Kmet as the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017.

CAREER TO DATE
Kmet appeared in all 13 games last season, catching two passes for 14 yards against Wake Forest, both completions from back-up quarterback Ian Book, on back-to-back passes in fact. Kmet also dropped a red-zone pass on a third down that November afternoon, that one attempted by starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

QUOTE(S)
Much of the praise around Kmet this spring revolved around his ability to excel both in football practices and baseball games. In his first collegiate season on the mound, Kmet appeared in 25 games, notching eight saves with a 4.76 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 45 1/3 innings, striking out 37 batters.

“He handles two sports here and is never on a list,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in late March. “He never is a guy we have to worry about in terms of going to class and representing Notre Dame in the fashion that he needs to. A pretty extraordinary young man in terms of the whole picture.

“… He catches the ball, soft hands, he’s physical at the point of attack, and when he catches the ball, he runs through tacklers, which is in itself pretty impressive.”

At some points this spring, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long gave Kmet the option of taking a football practice off if following a late baseball game. The tight end dismissed that notion.

“You can see some days where it wears on him,” Long said in mid-April. “… But he’s been extremely consistent. Staying with us all last fall, you can see where the carryover has been big for him to blossom this spring.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“A situation in which Kmet plays in 2017 is nearly beyond fathoming. An injury crisis would have to tear through the Irish tight ends in order to make playing the sixth and most-inexperienced option a necessity.

“Kmet’s odds of seeing action this season were further diminished when [classmate Brock] Wright not only enrolled early but also held his own in spring practice. It is not that Wright is far-and-away better than Kmet, it is the head start will be most noticeable in their freshman campaign. If Notre Dame opts to play a freshman tight end, it will be Wright, not Kmet.”

2018 OUTLOOK
This projection cannot be more inaccurate than last year’s, so that’s a start.

Kmet complements Mack as a viable receiving option among the Irish tight ends, but he could become more than that. That speaks as much to Mack’s habitual inconsistency as it does to Kmet’s soft hands and aptness at the point of attack. His rise, though, could be the push Mack needs to focus. For the team, that may be the best-case scenario: Kmet plays well, leading to Mack playing better. Both would get their fair share of opportunities in Long’s multiple tight end schemes. That is the version of the Irish offense which would be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.

If Kmet were to statistically surpass Mack for a week or two in September, that could just as equally result in Mack checking out mntally. To be blunt, such a disappointment could happen with or without Kmet’s success this fall, but having another dangerous pass-catcher at tight end for Long to tinker with would diminish the possible debilitating effects.

The gap between those two scenarios is vast. Last year, Notre Dame’s top-three tight ends (Mack, Durham Smythe and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar) combined for 43 catches for 462 yards and four touchdowns. If Kmet and Mack could combine for about those totals, maybe 500 yards and four touchdowns on 45 catches, then that would be a solid baseline, no matter how those stats are distributed.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mack could return in 2019, but Kmet will continue to rise to prominence in Long’s system. His combination of height and hands makes him an intriguing piece for a tight end-heavy offense. However, some caution needs to be exercised. Kmet looked solid in his freshman season and certainly impressed across the board this spring, but that is all a far cry from excelling in the fall.

Kmet should contribute this season and take the lead in 2019, with or without Mack on the Irish roster, but he may not yet become an offensive staple even then. If his progression follows an understated rate, that day may come in 2019 or 2020. Part of that inevitable outlook traces to Notre Dame’s tight end reputation. They keep becoming NFL contributors, Smythe after Koyack after Niklas after Eifert …

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½ , 210 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year with only the 2018 season remaining.
Depth chart: Newsome will handle all the Notre Dame punting duties while also serving as one of four Irish captains.
Recruiting: Though only a punter, rivals.com marked Newsome as a three-star recruit and the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
Newsome preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman while former Irish leg extraordinaire Kyle Brindza both kicked and punted. Since then, Newsome has rarely faltered, averaging 43.8 yards on 172 career punts.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts (in only 12 games) at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.
2017: 63 punts at an average of 43.6 yards per punt with a long of 59 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 37.9 yards per punt.

QUOTE(S)
Newsome’s rise to captainship this offseason was chronicled when Irish head coach Brian Kelly named him a captain along with fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher to begin spring practices. (Fifth-year left guard Alex Bars joined their ranks the morning of the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.)

The week before the spring finale, Kelly revisited what led his team to elevate Newsome as a leader.

“He’s a guy that holds all players to a level, a standard of excellence that we have here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you’re not meeting that standard, he’s going to take the load from you to make sure that it gets done. He’s a remarkable teammate.

“Our losing SWAT team weekly, they have to come in to run. [Newsome] didn’t lose once, his team, but he came in every Wednesday to be there for that losing team, to support them. Just that kind of wanting to hold everybody to the same standards. He was there to help them. He wasn’t there to yell at them. He was there to encourage them. That was recognized by his teammates.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

“Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.”

2018 OUTLOOK
First and foremost, the peace of mind provided by a lack of punting concerns should not be overlooked. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to worry Newsome may develop the yips in his final season.

His off-kilter leadership, meanwhile, intrigues. Two-year captain Tranquill can and will lead the defense as Mustipher and Bars combine to lead the offense. That does not simply leave the special teams for Newsome’s guidance, however.

He should serve as an offbeat catch-all for any unusual circumstances. That role would be behind the scenes, beneath the radar, etc., but Newsome’s effect could be a unique dynamic helping to easy any locker room tension.

Even with that capacity, it will almost certainly still be Tranquill and now Bars, stepping into former Notre Dame captain Mike McGlinchey’s stead, answering the media’s questions in a distant arena after a fourth quarter goes awry.

DOWN THE ROAD
Newsome’s leg does not offer the booming power necessary to break into the NFL. His Irish career alone may warrant an invite to an offseason camp, but Newsome does not look to be the next rendition of Craig Hentrich.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting surge continues with Texas four-star’s commitment

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Defensive line coach Mike Elston predicted Notre Dame would enjoy great recruiting success along its defensive line this cycle. With Saturday’s commitment of consensus four-star defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic High School; Fort Worth, Texas), Elston can consider his boasts backed up.

“I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7, the most-recent National Signing Day.

“This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Osafo-Mensah is the third consensus four-star defensive end to join the Irish class of 2019 and the highest-rated of the trio, joining Howard Cross (St. Joseph H.S.; Montvale, N.J.) and Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas). Per rivals.com, Osafo-Mensah is the No. 160 prospect in the country and the No. 17 in Texas. The recruiting service lists Osafo-Mensah as an outside linebacker, and the No. 6 outside linebacker in the country, but his 6-foot-4 frame holding about 220 pounds projects as a pass-rushing defensive end in the future.

Osafo-Mensah is not only explosive, but he has the length of a top-flight quarterback hound. Obviously, he remains a bit light as he finishes his junior year in high school.

Osafo-Mensah chose Notre Dame over his homestate Texas, with Oklahoma and Texas A&M also pursuing him strongly. Just about every college football power offered him a scholarship, notably including Alabama, Michigan and USC.

With the Irish, he becomes the 10th commit in the class, including consensus-four star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren; Bowling Green, Ky.). Clearly the defensive line is an emphasis for Elston, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

If not for the changes to NCAA recruiting rules in the last cycle, Osafo-Mensah and the rest may still be in the early parts of the recruitment process. First of all, December’s early signing period gave the coaching staff a head start on chasing the next set of recruits.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put [the class of 2018] to bed and get moving on the ‘19s and go visit in their schools all throughout January,” Elston said.

Those impressions led to Osafo-Mensah’s official visit last month. Before the new rules, he would not have been able to take a paid-for trip to campus until the fall.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6, 245 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: One could argue Takacs is the second option as an H-back blocker behind sophomore Brock Wright, but the arrival of Auburn transfer fullback Keenan Sweeney could diminish the immediate need for Takacs in that regard.
Recruiting: A rivals.com four-star recruit and No. 15 tight end in the class, the U.S. Army All-American chose Notre Dame over Georgia, Wisconsin and homestate Florida, also holding offers from much of the southeast, including Florida State, Tennessee and Auburn.

QUOTE(S)
A meniscus tear before spring practice started cut short Takacs’ early impressions. Thus, the only available insights into Takacs trace back to National Signing Day proceedings.

“George is already here doing a great job,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said on Feb. 7. “… The good thing I got to see this year with George, though, is he was split out wide and did a lot of good things in the passing game.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN TAKACS’ NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“The target Takacs presents to his quarterback makes him an intriguing possibility all on its own. With reach to match his 6-foot-6 frame, Takacs can get to nearly any ball in his vicinity, making up for a lack of top-end speed.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Takacs will likely be healthy before the fall, if not already. He underwent surgery for the bucket tear in his cartilage, which typically reduces recovery time from the injury. Nonetheless, the step back limited the positive effects of Takacs’ early enrollment.

The most logical result of that is Takacs spends the season on the sidelines, getting healthy and getting up to college fitness levels.

DOWN THE ROAD
Long’s praise of Takacs’ ability in the passing game indicates the tight end may be more of a complete player than he was originally recruited to be. On the surface, Takacs looks to be the successor to Wright as an attached tight end, strengthening the Notre Dame running game.

If he can do both that and catch passes, even if only short routes in the flat or on bootlegs, Takacs will fit right into Long’s multiple tight end schemes. Those formations make it so every tight end on the Irish roster matters. Three rotate in frequently, making the fourth tight end actually within the two-deep depth chart. When fifth-year Nic Weishar runs out of eligibility and senior Alizé Mack ponders the NFL, Takacs will be that fourth tight end, at the absolute least, with classmate Tommy Tremble the third tight end, especially if he sees action this year while Takacs reaches full health.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior