When Brian VanGorder‘s name surfaced as Notre Dame looked for a new defensive coordinator, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of buzz behind the hire. While VanGorder fit many of the criteria that went along with a Brian Kelly hire, the big-picture reaction wasn’t one of universal support.
“Seemed to disappear after being a hot name a decade ago,” one expert on the national beat told me.
Well VanGorder’s back and made his presence felt quickly at Notre Dame. And in addition to melting social media, he’s transformed the Irish defense into one of the most unlikely dominant units in college football.
The veteran assistant’s journey the past few years has been just as unlikely, part of a coaching career that’s followed a unique path. But his reunion with Brian Kelly after starting their careers together at Grand Valley has paid immediate dividends, producing a defense that’s become sneaky good, even as the majority of the group sees the starting lineup (and for some, the football field) for the first time.
VanGorder met with the local media on Tuesday, where he was candid about how well his defense has played so far this season.
“We’re ahead of schedule. Ahead of schedule,” VanGorder said. “Having said that, there’s a lot of work still ahead, both in our scheme and in development of some good young players.”
Those good young players have been nothing short of amazing this year. True freshmen cover the defensive line, with Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship, Kolin Hill and Daniel Cage playing significant snaps, usually a kiss of death for a defensive front. But Mike Elston and VanGorder have reshaped a depth chart without Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, teaching new techniques, new schemes, and getting new players ready to contribute.
The ability to get productive snaps out of young and old (after-thoughts Justin Utupo and Anthony Rabasa have played key snaps) has helped created a front four that’s even tougher than the one anchored by Tuitt and Nix in 2013.
After watching Notre Dame play a disciplined and structured defense under Bob Diaco for four seasons, watching this group turn into a heavily schemed, incredibly attacking unit this season has been a testament to the buy-in by both players and coaches. Forced to scheme to help prop up a pass rush still looking for a dominant edge rusher, every week presents a new game plan that needs installation and preparation, not to mention a collectively high IQ for the players executing it.
VanGorder talked about the fine work his players have done, capable of learning quickly and putting together a variety of game plans that confuse and befuddle opponents.
“Credit to our guys. They take in a very large inventory to every game. There are reasons for some of the things that we do beyond just our players and their physical traits,” VanGorder explained. “Part of what we do is we try to cause confusion for an offensive line and quarterback, not only with the pressure, but with pressure in behind it. That’s a big part of our strategy. It’s not just based on pass rush abilities. We’ll always do that.
“That’s just kind of who we are and how we want to be. We’ve got intelligent players that can take on a large inventory and do a lot of things. And it’s been amazing. It’s been amazing what they’ve taken on. It’s a real credit to them.”
Coming to Notre Dame after a season with Rex Ryan as the New York Jets linebackers coach, his hire wasn’t necessarily a sure thing. (After all, Charlie Weis brought Corwin Brown in from the Jets assistant staff to coordinate his defense and things didn’t work out.) But after last coaching in college in a single, chaos-filled season at Auburn under Gene Chizik, VanGorder has a different feel for this opportunity at Notre Dame, one he seems to cherish.
“I’ve learned it’s the people you work with that make it great. It’s been fantastic. Brian is a high standard and expectation guy. He hires you and expects you to do your job. He trusts that you’re good enough to do so. My working relationship with Brian has been fantastic. Couldn’t be better. Then the kids. I knew they’d be good kids but I didn’t anticipate how much I really respect who they are and what they represent so the people that I’m working with and these kids every day, it just couldn’t be better.
“I still want to learn everything about Notre Dame because I certainly appreciate its history and how it really represented football for a long, long time. Notre Dame was everything, long before the NFL was what people know it has today, they carried football. I’m looking forward to really diving into all that. It’s been awesome. I can’t imaging missing this experience and hopefully I can be a part of it a long, long time.”