Progress on defense will be measured Sunday night

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Lost amidst the grumbling about Brian VanGorder‘s defense, the complexity of his scheme, and the wonders if it’s too much for a student-athlete, was the fact that the unit made some very nice improvements in 2015.

The Irish shut down the option, slowing the greatest Navy triggerman since Roger Staubach. They were the first fist to the face of a Georgia Tech team that went into free-fall after losing in South Bend. And when teams tried to go up-tempo on the Irish like North Carolina did with great success in 2014, VanGorder’s defense handled the pressure without struggle.

In an offseason where the defense was rebranded “likable and learnable,” Notre Dame’s coaching staff also likely went to work making sure that the tagline wasn’t going to serve as a punchline.

Knowing that they were tasked with breaking in an almost entirely new depth chart, after spending last offseason focused on option preparation and slowing down the up-tempo schemes, this year’s focus was likely turned inward—reexamining every one of the team’s teaching points with hopes that a clarified message will make the mental lapses and blown coverages disappear.

Did it work? We’ll get our first progress report on Sunday night.

Notre Dame’s rebuilt defense will face a new Texas scheme that incorporates spread and speed elements. And while there are legitimate questions as to how quickly the Longhorns can install and efficiently run Sterlin Gilbert’s up-tempo, spread attack, Kelly expects to see play volume coming at the Irish similar to the one that put the Irish on their heels in 2014.

“I mean, it’s fast. This is going to be North Carolina fast,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This is a fast, fast tempo. We’ve worked hard on that to prepare our defense for the kind of tempo they’re going to see.”

One other reason for optimism is the depth the Irish bring with them to Austin. Last season’s defensive lapses seemed to coincide with a lack of depth—taking away one of the main strategic benefits of VanGorder’s multiple-look, attacking system.

Certainly, the loss of Max Redfield forces VanGorder to pivot in the secondary. But the installation of Avery Sebastian (at least initially) over Devin Studstill puts in action the coaching point that Kelly and VanGorder stressed this offseason, consistency and assignment-correct football over talent, however promising.

Starting lineup aside, if there’s good reason to believe in the Irish defense, it’s mostly that they’ll have all hands on deck, with only Jay Hayes moderately hampered by an injury. They’ll also bring with them a handful of freshmen—including edge players Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara—two players most had pegged for a redshirt.

“We think they’ve got some skills that can help us in pass rush,” Kelly said.

Getting to the quarterback will be a key to the season. Many expect vaunted freshman Daelin Hayes to also help off the edge. The five-star recruit was on campus for spring drills, but recovering from shoulder surgery, the latest challenge that kept Hayes off the field more often than on it during his high school football career. That leaves Kelly keeping things simple for his talented pass rusher.

“Daelin hasn’t played a lot of football over the last year and a half. So settle into the game, get lined up right. Don’t jump offsides. Put your jersey on the right way,” Kelly said. “We’re not asking him to change the complexion of the game, but just to get into the flow of the game. And I think if he does a good job of settling down and getting into the flow of the game, I think he’ll have some success.”

You don’t replace a linebacker like Jaylon Smith. The front four will miss a competitor like Sheldon Day. And KeiVarae’s moxie needs to be replaced.

And even if it’s difficult to count on young players until you see them do it when the lights go on, there’s good reason that Kelly and VanGorder are confident that Year Three will continue to move the Irish defense forward—even after suffering the talent drain.

Sunday night, we’ll see if they were right.

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For more on Notre Dame’s defense and a preview of what to expect when the Irish head to Austin, former team captain and MVP Joe Schmidt joined John Walters and I to talk about the weekend and the season head.