Notre Dame football: What’s wrong with the defense?

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The play has been dissected for nearly a week. Just 15 seconds and roughly 25 yards separated Notre Dame from an eleventh victory, a game that the playoff committee very well could have viewed as one of the most impressive road victory of the college football season.

But as Kevin Hogan dropped back from his own 43-yard line, it looks as easy as pitch and catch. He stood well-protected, a perfect pocket formed with just three Irish defenders rushing the passer, Notre Dame’s leading sacker didn’t chase after Hogan, but rather shadowed him—a 265-pound defensive end doing a linebackers job.

On time and on rhythm, the veteran quarterback hit his target in stride, a receiver breaking inside of a defensive back that was all but flat-footed to a vacancy of green grass so large that it would’ve cost millions in the Palo Alto neighborhood surrounding Stanford Stadium.

Few plays have the ability to crystalize a season. But Hogan to Devon Cajuste did just that—exploiting a defense that’s woeful inconsistency kept Notre Dame from having an opportunity to play for a national championship.

The natural reaction is to assign blame. Plenty of angry pitchforks surround defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, the architect of a creaky house. Finishing up his second season in South Bend, the former NFL defensive coordinator hasn’t been able to elevate the play of a group that may very well be decimated by injury, but is still among the most talented we’ve seen over the last decade in South Bend.

But multiple factors go into the struggles of a defense that suffers from a multiple personality disorder. So let’s check into a Holiday Inn Express, throw on our lab coat, and do our best to diagnose the problems that have plagued the 2015 Irish defense.

 

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

On paper, Notre Dame’s 2015 defense doesn’t look like the flaming mess some are calling it. The Irish are giving up 22 points a game, a respectable 36th in the nation. They’re a middle of the pack unit stopping the run, perhaps explainable when you consider the two option teams on the schedule. They’re a Top 30 unit against the pass, likely buoyed by the same two opponents. The top line reveals a defense that’s roughly Top 40—not great, not horrible.

But it doesn’t take much of a deep dive to identify some of the critical problems. The Irish gave up big plays by the bushel. They were the ultimate boom-or-bust unit, one of the better teams at forcing three-and-outs, but also susceptible to giving up long touchdown drives. Over the last two seasons, Notre Dame has given up 53 touchdown drives of 70-yards or more, a staggering statistic dug out by Tim Prister at Irish Illustrated. Or approximately 52 more than they did in 2012.

The red zone was a similar horror show. Under Diaco, Notre Dame rarely gave up long touchdown drives and always seemed to stiffen near the goal line. The opposite has been true the past two seasons. This year, Notre Dame forced just three field goals in 34 red zone opportunities. That helps explain why the Irish are No. 21 when it comes to scoring percentage, but a staggering 103rd when it comes to giving up touchdowns.

The Irish won 10 football games this season, an important piece of the equation to remember as many kick dirt on a team that has a chance to win 11 games for just the second time since 1993. They’ll be doing it against one of the toughest schedules in the country and with a team that’s started 37 different players and lost two games against Top 10 competition by a combined four points.

But as Brian Kelly moves this program forward, it’s clear that while the offense has found a way to evolve and continue to produce even as injuries mount, the defense hasn’t. And that needs to change.

 

THE COORDINATOR

The struggles of this unit likely rest at the feet of VanGorder. Brought in to help Notre Dame take the next evolutionary step as a defense after Bob Diaco took over the UConn football program, VanGorder was billed as a teacher and developer of talent when Brian Kelly introduced him in January of 2014.

“The first thing I wanted in this position is a great teacher. 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,” Kelly said.

“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 to develop them, and not just on the football field, but off the field as well. Brian understands that.”

Through that lens, it’s hard to call the last two seasons successes. While VanGorder brought with him schemes and personnel groupings honed in the NFL, he hasn’t been able to get his team to fully comprehend the advanced calculus his schematics require. Even if VanGorder is the teacher that Kelly described, time constraints at the college level—not to mention the academic workloads Notre Dame student-athletes carry—have likely made it impossible for a complete understanding of what’s being asked. Twenty hours a week doesn’t give you the time to teach a system that requires NFL professionals to commit their livelihood to owning a system.

Kelly also praised VanGorder’s ability to develop players. That’s been a mixed bag. If you’re going to harp on certain players failing to live up to expectations, you need to acknowledge the ascent we’ve seen from others.

Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara have both excelled under VanGorder. Jaylon Smith’s game has become more dynamic when not confined by Diaco’s difficult Dog linebacker requirements. Struggles with current safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have been consistent whether Diaco or VanGorder was coaching them and cornerbacks are more likely to be beat when you’re asking them to lock into man coverage as opposed to playing a Cover 2 zone.

VanGorder has shown himself capable of correcting issues. We saw that over the offseason when the Irish solved their issues against hurry-up attacks and implemented a system that allowed Notre Dame to successfully defend the triple-option run by Georgia Tech and Navy.

This offseason, the chalkboard has two very large objectives that need cleaning up: Big play prevention and red zone struggles. And those issues require a great deal more introspection than the challenges exposed by Larry Fedora or Ken Niumatalolo.

 

THE PERSONNEL

While there is plenty of talent on Notre Dame’s defense, personnel limitations can’t be discounted. That Devon Cajuste found his way between an undersized, in-the-box middle linebacker and defensive back who would’ve been the third choice for the role had the secondary been moderately healthy deserves mention. In a perfect world, neither Joe Schmidt nor Matthias Farley are on the field in end of game situations. A week earlier, Farley might not have been, and had Drue Tranquill not torn his ACL, Schmidt might not have been, either.

Notre Dame’s defensive personnel is still a work in progress. Trapped in that awkward phase between Bob Diaco’s physical 3-4 personnel and VanGorder’s scheme that sacrifices size for athleticism, the Irish were doomed by roster deficiencies that only became over-exposed once injuries hit.

Utilizing College Football Focus’s player evaluation tools, it’s simple to see that while Notre Dame’s offensive personnel can be viewed among the elite of college football, there’s still a long way to go for the defense. That’s clear when you look at the uniform grading system that CFF/PFF uses to breakdown every snap of ever game played in college football.

Only Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith were elite players. Both played like stars this season. Day ranks as the No. 1 4-3 defensive tackle in the country in terms of overall grading. Smith grades out as the No. 3 OLB in a 4-3 system in the country. But from there, the defensive struggles show clearly, especially when you look at defenders with negative grades that were forced to play significant snaps.

Of the top six teams in the current College Football Playoff rankings, Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State have a total of five players who have played 300 snaps with a negative CFF rating. Notre Dame has six.

You’d suspect some of the names on that list—Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate, true freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Others you would not—seniors Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell. Game-specific deficiencies CFF picked up make sense from 30,000 feet. Max Redfield’s struggles as a run defender have been often discussed, same with Schmidt and Shumate’s difficulties in coverage.

Many thought Jarron Jones’ preseason injury was the biggest loss of the season. But the Irish defense might have been undone by the injuries to Shaun Crawford and safety Drue Tranquill.

Notre Dame’s ability to be multiple was lost when those two defenders went down. So much of what VanGorder wanted to do against the pass was lost when Crawford couldn’t play nickelback. Same for Tranquill’s injury, robbing the Irish not just of a perfect hybrid player who could excel on third down, but also taking away the ability of the defense to play Smith in the middle of the field on passing downs—essentially limiting his impact as a coverman and interior blitzer. Schmidt came within steps of a half-dozen sacks as he blitzed up the A-gap. Smith’s explosiveness would’ve likely turned many of those into big plays.

VanGorder has changed the way Notre Dame has recruited the defensive side of the ball. Gone are some of the hard-and-firm prototypes that Diaco demanded when looking for players. Those changes have built the Irish roster for the future.

But in addition to the injuries, roster attrition hasn’t allowed reinforcements to hit the field, players like Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams and Bo Wallace gone before having a chance to impact the team in situational jobs. That’s forced some legacy personnel into jobs that were tailored for a different type of football player.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Notre Dame’s success this season has elevated expectations for the future. But to play up to them, VanGorder and Kelly will need to recalibrate how they approach defending opponents.

Moving forward without Schmidt as the nerve center is one thing. The reality that Jaylon Smith is likely joining Sheldon Day in the NFL Draft is another, with significant personnel hits likely to be taken. Yet the Irish are well-equipped with the athleticism needed to fill those holes, even if we might not see another linebacker like Smith wearing a Notre Dame jersey for many years to come.

But without a simplified scheme, personnel advancements will only do so much. Elite athletes become ordinary very quickly if they don’t fully grasp their jobs. And a scheme that forces 11 players to defend without a safety net is a flaw in the foundation of the system.

One man missing a tackle can’t result in a 30-yard gain, like we saw so many times this season. Exotic schemes that force a linebacker to sprint into coverage for the sake of surprise does little when an opponent’s counter-punch exposes your own vulnerabilities.

Kelly and VanGorder know these things, of course. And as the coaching staff spends the offseason analyzing their strengths and weaknesses, there’s a very high likelihood that Kelly still comes out with the same answer he gave a few weeks back when asked why his defense was giving up long touchdown drives and big plays.

“I still think it’s personnel-driven. You’re still looking at who you’re putting on the field,” Kelly said. “I think Brian has brought the kind of pressure and aggressive defensive play that we’re looking for in a transition. We’re still evolving defensively. We’re still working to build our defense. We’re not there yet, clearly… We’re going to get better as we continue to recruit and develop our defense.”

The future of the program depends on it.

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Notre Dame at USC
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There are two ways to look at USC’s 38-27 win against Notre Dame on Saturday, and they both tie back to the Trojans’ being the best Irish measuring stick.

USC beat Notre Dame in a way that underscores how short-handed the Irish always were this season. When Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams began to cement his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a performance that will be long remembered, Notre Dame had no way to consistently counter him.

“We didn’t stop them,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said simply enough.

Without the offensive skill position players needed to match Williams’ explosive play for explosive play, Notre Dame needed its defense to play perfectly, clearly an unfair ask against a Lincoln Riley offense.

“USC is a great team,” Irish quarterback Drew Pyne said. “That was a really good team we played out there. They’re going to go on and do great things for the rest of their season. Caleb Williams is a great player.”

If the Irish had not had junior tight end Michael Mayer — eight catches on nine targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns — they may not have been able to stay in even vague distance of the Trojans. Three heaves to Deion Colzie gained 75 yards and three first downs, but each felt like Pyne was hoping more than anything else.

Notre Dame still made it a game, but the discrepancy in offensive playmakers stood out in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

And while both programs will undergo some turnover — most notably Mayer for the Irish; receiver Jordan Addison and running back Austin Jones will both likely be at the next level next year, among Trojans’ contributors this weekend — Notre Dame will need to close that gap to compete with USC next season.

The variance of a schedule may keep the Irish from too staunchly improving on their 8-4 record this year, but a certainty is that Williams will be ready to dazzle again in South Bend on Oct. 14, 2023.

Notre Dame right now does not have the offensive firepower to keep up with such a dynamic attack. As soon as the Irish gifted the Trojans chances to take a lead, their running game was mitigated and Notre Dame’s best hopes were reduced to Mayer and those heaves to Colzie.

Williams can dance his way through any defense, perhaps shy of Georgia’s. Even if the Irish secondary had been fully healthy, Williams’ rhythmic scrambles still would have broken down the defense. If Utah helms him in this weekend, it may be as much due to a USC letdown as it is to any Utes’ scheme. His stardom is an extreme, but this is college football in 2022, again aside from Georgia.

Many will instinctively point to Pyne’s shortcomings, ignoring how well he played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He made two mistakes, yes, but one of them (the cross-body interception) came as Notre Dame was more and more desperate and the other (the fumbled exchange) was in part a result of the Irish abandoning their ground game as they fell further behind.

Pyne finished 23-of-26 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Every version of breaking down those stats yields praise for Pyne. A reality of a loss and a reality when the opposing quarterback broke through as a national star, no time was spent in postgame press conferences discussing Pyne’s efficient night.

But it was, regardless.

His final incompletion, the interception from Notre Dame’s own red zone, also overshadowed the second-most accurate day in Irish passing history, but it was an understandable mistake. Notre Dame was trailing by two scores with only five minutes remaining. Wasting a play on a throwaway was low on Pyne’s priority list.

If Pyne had established more of a season-long rapport with Colzie, maybe he sees him down the left sideline as highlighted by Kirk Herbstreit on the broadcast. If Braden Lenzy is a bit less worn down by a season-long receiver shortage, maybe he is able to charge into Pyne’s ill-advised pass rather than try to settle in for a low catch. If … maybe, if … maybe.

Only twice this season has USC managed as few as 31 genuine points — discounting the short-field touchdown in the final three minutes courtesy of Pyne’s pick, though not all that necessary given the Trojans fell short of 40 points just twice in their first 11 games. Oregon State and Washington State had the luxuries of facing Williams before he had reached the peak of his powers with this new, transfer-obtained complement of receivers.

The Irish defense did its part against USC. Notre Dame’s offense just could not match the star of the season.

Williams will star again next year. The Irish defense will most likely still be stout. Those truths this season will carry over. Notre Dame then has to wonder only if its offense can develop and/or find more playmakers, a known need this entire season and now the pressing concern entering the offseason, a need emphasized by the Trojans’ offense, the foe that should again define 2023.