As Notre Dame takes the field this spring, improving the defense is Job No. 1.
Brian VanGorder‘s unit struggled with consistency in 2015, plagued by big plays and red zone struggles. Now asked to rebuild without stars like All-Americans Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day and key starters Joe Schmidt, Romeo Okwara, KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate, it’s back to the drawing board for VanGorder and his defensive staff as they work to prepare a young but talented group.
VanGorder spoke Wednesday morning to reporters looking for answers to questions that all of ND Nation have. And VanGorder—not always the easiest of interview subjects—was fairly candid in his responses, especially as the staff spent the offseason self-scouting and evaluating what went wrong.
“It was a very difficult year for quality control to look at,” VanGorder conceded, before talking through the ups and downs. The positives included strides on third down and three-and-outs. The negatives? Big play touchdowns, red zone struggles and slow starts.
After making great adjustments against up-tempo attacks and the option heading into 2015, VanGorder keyed in on those three big factors when working to solidify this defense.
“I think starts; the start of ball games were not good. Our explosive play count, while somewhere in the middle of pack respective to the country, was really bad relative to big-play touchdowns and long, long yardage,” VanGorder said. “And we’ve got to get better in the red zone. We started red zone today. Those three things to me would be really critical moving forward.”
Billed as a mad scientist and Xs and Os specialist when he came to South Bend, that reputation has been thrown back in VanGorder’s face by those looking for answers for the defense’s mental breakdowns. When asked about finding a more simplified approach to delivering the message, VanGorder pushed back on the entire idea of dumbing things down.
“A player that comes here and plays in our defense, he’s going to put a lot of tools in his toolbox. It’s not just wild tools thrown from all over. It’s pretty consistent from the player,” VanGorder said. “It’s likeable and it’s learnable. That’s how we approach it. We’ve got smart players.”
Those smart players are going to be asked to step into roles that they haven’t had much experience filling. Back from injury, defensive backs Drue Tranquill and cornerback Shaun Crawford open up the flexibility that helps VanGorder thrive. Pushing Nyles Morgan into a starting role will add an explosive playmaker at middle linebacker. The versatility of James Onwualu will help keep opposing offenses honest with the Irish in their base defense.
Yet none of that can be accomplished if the big problems aren’t solved. And VanGorder knows that all too well.
But those expecting a major change in teaching philosophy or scheme are going to be disappointed. After giving the cliched “players have to play better and coaches have to coach better, he also supplied what looks like the money quote, recounted by Tim O’Malley of Irish Illustrated. This might be the closest thing to a rebuke of the “keep-it-simple-stupid” philosophy as you can get.
“It’s because we have a large inventory and we didn’t play real good defense, right?” VanGorder said. “So if you have a large inventory and you don’t play real good defense, then that’s the assumption. That’s true in athletics and true in competition. That’s just the way it goes. If you don’t do well you’re going to hear those different things that come out. But within our room we know. We know the truth.”
The truth is it’s a results based business. And heading into 2016, if the Irish are going to get back into the CFB Playoff mix, they’ll need VanGorder’s defense to improve during a youth movement. No small task.