Brian Kelly almost blended in with the large crowd of writers grouped around defensive coordinator Bob Diaco Tuesday at Notre Dame’s media day. But he didn’t have a question for his assistant — just an analysis.
“You have more people at your table than I had at my press conference,” the Irish head coach said, slightly exaggerating. Turning to reporters, he continued, “The onus is on him, huh?”
Diaco laughed, but didn’t deny his burden, which is to turn around a squad that ranked 86th in total defense in 2009.
Of course, Irish players are eager to rebuild their reputation.
“We don’t want Notre Dame to be known as a weak defensive team,” senior safety Harrison Smith said. “That’s something personal that we’ve all kind of taken it upon ourselves that we want to change.”
Adjustments under the new staff began immediately, when the Irish switched back to a 3-4 system after spending 2009 in a 4-3 scheme.
In the spring, players were excited about their play-making potential in the new system. Defensive line coach Mike Elston said they are learning how to make those plays at fall camp.
“I think that they’ve grasped the roles very well and understand exactly where they fit in the defense,” Elston said. “They have the ability to make the play and/or set somebody else up for the play. They’re not trying to work outside the framework of the defense just to make a play.”
The defense spent the summer getting stronger with help from strength coach Paul Longo.
“You always want to get bigger, stronger, faster,” said junior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, who has added 50 pounds since 2008. “Every day, that goes through your head. I made a point to really work hard this off-season, get my strength up. I bought into [Longo’s] program 100 percent.”
Strength and conditioning will be necessary for the defense under Kelly. At Cincinnati in 2009, Kelly’s speedy offense ranked last in the country in time of possession, leaving the defense with plenty of time on the field.
“I told them, don’t worry about playing time and don’t worry about starting or backing up,” defensive backs coach Chuck Martin said of his safeties. “Just worry about what Coach Elston asks you to do on special teams and what we ask you to do on defense, and I promise at the end of Saturday you’ll be pretty tired.”
Outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks agreed that position battles shouldn’t be a priority.
“Our kids don’t really get caught up in the depth as far as being a one or a two. … everybody’s going to play,” Cooks said.
The new coaching staff has never seen most of their athletes in game situations and couldn’t speak to how the defense operated in 2009. But players have an idea of how different it will be.
“I think you’re going to see an energetic team coming out of the tunnel,” Lewis-Moore said. “You’re going to see a lot more intensity from Notre Dame.”
Smith said the games would restore a good name for the Irish defense.
“When people think of Notre Dame, we want them to think of how nasty the defense is, how physical and tough the defense is, instead of thinking the offense is good but the defense can’t compete,” he said.