Past and present Notre Dame football will unite on Saturday, with the Irish traveling to Charlottesville to take on Virginia. And while the juicy storylines aren’t exactly jumping off the page in one of Notre Dame’s six ACC matchups this season, the chance for the Irish offense to go against former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is one that has Notre Dame fans more than a little interested.
Brought to Notre Dame by Charlie Weis, Tenuta served as the Irish defensive coordinator for two seasons. The move was interesting for many reasons. And if we’re being honest, it was a disaster for just as many.
Tenuta was Notre Dame’s first big-money, free agent coaching acquisition. After giving Weis all he could handle as Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator, the former Irish head coach decided to bring Tenuta to South Bend, with hopes that the veteran coordinator would infuse some of his aggressiveness into his football program.
Tenuta did that, blitzing on more than half of the defense’s snaps. But too often those blitzes never got home, and the Irish finished 2009 giving up an insane amount of big plays, finishing 103rd in the country by giving up 6.2 yards per play. Throw in Tenuta’s gruff disposition and some well-documented chemistry issues on the coaching staff, and Weis’ third shot at finding the right defensive coordinator ended up being one of many reasons he was fired.
All this background is given to you because one rather obvious statement makes Notre Dame fans feel a little bit less than comfortable: Tenuta and current Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have a lot in common. And Brian Kelly acknowledged that on Tuesday.
“I think they both probably drink from the same well,” Kelly said. “I think Brian and Jon would definitely both tell you they’d much rather be exotic and bring pressures if they could. Sometimes you’re limited by certain situations, but I would say they’re very similar from that respect.”
When it’s going well, an attacking defensive coordinator helps a team dictate terms. They demand perfection, unwilling to give up a five-yard out route, let alone a 50-yard bomb. Weis saw that from Tenuta, and understandably wanted that in his program. And Kelly knew that’s how VanGorder coached defense, and after Bob Diaco left to take over the UConn program, Kelly decided he wanted to crank up the pressure schemes.
The big difference between Weis and Kelly’s decisions? Kelly had recruited the personnel that made that scheme possible? Weis? Not so much, yo-yo’ing between Rick Minter, Corwin Brown and Tenuta, all while struggling to recruit on the defensive side of the ball.
Kelly talked about how important personnel is when determining defensive schemes.
“It’s so much about personnel that allows you to do the things you want to do defensively,” Kelly explained. “Sometimes you’re limited by certain situations.”
We saw those limitations firsthand last year. After looking like world-beaters throughout September and parts of October, Notre Dame’s personnel just didn’t have the ability to deploy VanGorder’s aggressive schemes, with a disastrous stretch yielding nearly 40 points a game to opponents to close the season.
Get one look at the game tape from last weekend in the Rose Bowl, it appeared that Tenuta’s defense struggled getting to UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen as well, a talented defense feeling the effects of multiple losses to the NFL. And even sending blitzers early and often, the Cavaliers were unable to disrupt the Bruins’ quick-throwing scheme. That’s something that Irish fans saw all too often when Tenuta was calling the Notre Dame defense, and likely adds some fire to a matchup that already looks awfully uneven on paper.
Of course, Malik Zaire is starting just his third game at Notre Dame. And while the Irish offensive line did a nice job protecting him against Texas, the Longhorns managed nine tackles-for-loss. So you can forgive Kelly and his offensive staff if they aren’t out to right the wrongs of the Weis era.
As is always the case, deposed coaches are whipping boys and scapegoats, and Tenuta’s scowling face is too often associated with the defensive ineptitude of the Weis era. But Virginia’s defensive coordinator has been around college football for the better part of 35 years, coaching at his alma mater after a career that’s seen him do lofty things at stops like Marshal Ohio State and Georgia Tech.
So while Irish fans are hoping Notre Dame scores points by the bushel and makes big plays against the risk-taking schemes of their former defensive coordinator, Kelly and the Irish staff know they’ve got a big week of preparation, with Virginia’s defense more than capable of getting after the quarterback and turning over the football.
“They’ve got an answer for everything that you’re doing offensively. They like to mix things up, play some man, some zone, single pressures,” Kelly said. [They’re] a defense that can cause you some problems with some very, very good coaching, very sound fundamentally and can really get after you with a lot of different schemes and a lot of different looks.”