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Changes evident in defensive play

Sam Werner | Monday, September 6, 2010

If the theme of Notre Dame’s 23-12 win over Purdue Saturday was the change that new coach Brian Kelly had brought to the Irish, there was no place where that change was more apparent than the top of the defensive stat sheet.

While senior cornerback Gary Gray led the team with nine tackles, he was tied with sophomore linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Manti Te’o. In all, four of Notre Dame’s top six tacklers Saturday were linebackers.

This marks a stark change from last year, when safeties Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith routinely led the team in tackles. More tackles from linebackers means less times that Purdue’s running backs and receivers were able to get to the second level.

Senior nose tackle Ian Williams said the defensive change starts at the top.

“[Defensive line] coach [Mike] Elston is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had and he really puts pressure on us to produce and have fun out there unlike in the past,” Williams said. “We also have fresh rotations too.”

Williams added that the increased player rotations helped the Irish defense come up big when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter.

“It’s a testament to conditioning coach [Paul] Longo,” Williams said. “We actually had a rotation this year and it kept us fresh.”

Another difference on defense for the Irish was the switch to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s “gap control” scheme, as opposed to former coordinator Jon Tenuta’s blitz-heavy system.

“They blitzed almost every down last year and I thought that created some huge holes that we were able to take advantage of,” Purdue coach Danny Hope said. “And they did not blitz as much, and so the holes were smaller.”

Perhaps the most welcome defensive difference for Irish fans was the amount of open-field tackles made by Notre Dame players. Saturday, Irish players limited Purdue’s ability to gain yards after contact. Most notably, Gray finished with a career-high eight solo tackles.

In all, Kelly said he was pleased with the defensive effort, but there were definitely areas for improvement.

“We really want our guys to play fast and I thought they played fast today,” Kelly said. “I thought they were aggressive. We can get better. We missed a lot of tackles today and there’s some key players on our team that missed a lot of tackles today.”

Kelly was likely referring to Te’o, who, despite tying for the team lead in tackles, missed several more.

“He swung and missed a lot out of the strike zone, which was uncharacteristic for him,” Kelly said in a teleconference Sunday. “He was in great position so many times. I just think in the first game, maybe a little bit too excited. He’s got to slow down a step. He was in great position, got our checks down very well. He just missed uncharacteristically some tackles that I’m very confident he’s going to make in the future.”