Mailbag: All about the defense

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If we spent a little bit too much time discussing the quarterback position last mailbag, let’s take aim at one of the other massively important questions heading into the summer.

As always, thanks for the questions. (And for the improvements in the comments section.)

Now, to perhaps the defining question of the offseason:

 

kiopta1: We all talk about the O and the QBs but what are your thoughts on the D? Where do you see them improving and what more is needed if health isn’t an issue this season?

While Zaire and Golson took over our brains, the performance of Brian VanGorder’s defense is likely the difference between Notre Dame going to the College Football Playoff and having an underwhelming season.

Year One of Brian VanGorder was perhaps the wildest variance we’ve seen in Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. When the going was good, it was melt-the-internet-with-a-meme good. When it was bad? It was a horror show of Tenutian proportions, with overwhelmed and underprepared kids running around like John Ryan and Paddy Mullen.

What do we make of the defense? What was a fair evaluation of last season’s meltdown? The same coach that had a young, inexperienced defense looking like world beaters against Stanford and Michigan was also the guy who let Northwestern turn from beyond mediocre to high powered.

Because this answer could take months to fully dig in, let’s focus on four keys:

1)  Be dominant stopping the run. 

This shouldn’t be all that hard. The Irish have an experienced, veteran and talented front seven. With Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones back at defensive tackle, that’s two seniors who are NFL caliber talents, who also showed the ability to dominate at times. That’s a great start.

The linebackers will only help the cause. Joe Schmidt may not be perfectly sized, but he was mighty productive. Add in Nyles Morgan ascension, Jarrett Grace’s steely resolve and some field-ready depth behind them, and we’re talking about the linebackers being good before  we get to perhaps the most talented athlete on the team in Jaylon Smith.

Smith should turn into an eraser this season. While it’s still being determined where on the field he’ll be doing said erasing, it’s with confidence that we can just about guarantee a statistically unique season for a linebacker who managed to crack 100 tackles last season even as he was learning on the go.

2) Find some consistency in the secondary. 

While there were some nice individual efforts last season, advanced statistics give you an idea of just how horrific the Irish were stopping the pass, especially on downs where everybody in the stadium knew the ball was going in the air.

The S&P+ Ratings are the creation of Bill Connelly, using opponent-adjusted components that take four key factors into play: efficiency, explosiveness, field position and finishing drives. While trying any harder to explain it would make my brain explode, in Connelly’s early preview of the 2015 Irish, this little bit stuck out to me like a sore thumb:

When you look at the individual stats of the players listed above — Cole Luke with his 15 passes defensed, Matthias Farley with his 6.5 tackles for loss, etc. — you get the impression of an aggressive Notre Dame secondary. It had potential, but it ranked an inexcusable 96th in Passing S&P+, 88th on passing downs. The complete lack of an effective blitz played a role, but … 96th!

For perspective, here are the defenses that ranked 91st through 95th: Kentucky, UL-Lafayette, UConn, Kent State, Ohio. Notre Dame, with its four- and five-stars and play-makers, ranked below them. The Irish allowed a 60.3 percent completion rate (86th in the country) and allowed 43 completions of at least 20 yards (85th). Awful.

Now, it bears mentioning that there was quite a bit of turnover. Russell was lost pretty close to the season, and safeties Austin Collinsworth and Eliar Hardy missed eight games each. With a nonexistent pass rush and understudies playing a larger role than expected, Notre Dame wasn’t going to post a top-20 or top-30 pass defense. But top-60 shouldn’t have been too much to ask.

Sometimes an outsider’s perspective can lay things out far clearer than anything done by someone covering and writing about the team on a daily basis. And in this case, Connelly’s 30,000-foot view of the secondary and pass defense lays things out pretty succinctly.

“Inexcusably bad.”

3) Rush the passer and get off the field. 

It’s not fair to blame the secondary for everything in the passing game, especially with the front-seven’s inability to get a pass rush. But somebody on the Irish roster needs to step forward and rush the passer, because reinforcements aren’t coming in 2015.

That’s not to say that Bo Wallace’s departure is going to ruin Notre Dame’s defense. Nor is it to completely lay blame on the Irish staff’s inability to find themselves a “pure pass rusher.” The staff isn’t unicorn hunting. Besides, they’ve already proven the ability to land some elite defensive linemen.

But getting pressure on the quarterback and getting off the field will go a long way towards turning this defense into an elite unit. And whether it’s coming from seniors like Day and Romeo Okwara, or young players like Andrew Trumbetti, Jerry Tillery, Jhonny Williams or Kolin Hill, finding the pieces to do the job is vital, especially when it doesn’t look like there’s one guy who is going to produce.

4) Slow down the up-tempo offenses. 

No team is going to look at Notre Dame’s second-half and not see that North Carolina’s use of tempo served as a partial blueprint for the rest of the season. So until VanGorder and company figure out how to make plays and slow down the pace by getting stops, opponents are going to move as quickly as possible to attack the Irish defense.

Last season, Notre Dame didn’t have a base defense to hang its hat. And after applauding the multiplicity of the defense and the plethora of sub-packages the Irish used to confuse and confound Michigan and Stanford, all those moving parts felt a lot like smoke and mirrors after it became clear that the group may have been fairly adept at doing a ton of little things well, but ultimately mastered none.

Kelly spent the offseason analyzing the problem. While you’d expect him to say nothing differently this spring, he believes they’ve found some answers. But until the Irish make it out of September and find a way to slow down an offense like Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech attack, it’ll be up to VanGorder to prove it with game film or be prepared to face an up tempo attack all season.

Ultimately, Kelly is betting his legacy on one of his oldest coaching allies in VanGorder. But while Mike Sanford’s addition to the staff feels a little like Kelly acknowledging he needed to infuse some new ideas into the room, it’s worth noting that he also brought in Todd Lyght and Keith Gilmore this offseason.

While it necessitated moving Bob Elliot into an off-field role (likely heavy on R&D), it’s a fresh start for a defense that only has Mike Elston remaining from the original defensive staff, and he’s now coaching linebackers.  Perhaps it’s Elston that’ll remind everybody how Kelly rebuilt the Irish defense under Bob Diaco: by taking the emphasis off of scheme and putting it on individual responsibility.

With a season of game tape now in the hands of opponents, VanGorder would be well-served to find a way to get his guys to simply do it better. Because daring the opposition to go toe-to-toe when you believe you’ll win even if you take scheme away is the best way for the Irish to win.