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Carson: Kelly should mull defensive changes

| Thursday, December 3, 2015

If you had to use one word to describe No. 8 Notre Dame’s defense coming into this year, it had to be “experienced,” right?

When the Irish walked off the team bus in Culver, Indiana, for training camp in August, they returned 10 starters from last year’s team. Only senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who was a two-year starter before missing last season due to suspension, hadn’t started for Notre Dame in 2014.

And with an inexperienced quarterback, who was supposed to be junior Malik Zaire, the defense should have been an area of strength for Notre Dame this season, a pillar to lean on with one of the most talented groups in the country.

But that never panned out.

When former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco left to take the head coaching job at Connecticut two years ago, Irish head coach Brian Kelly tagged Brian VanGorder to be his replacement. Unlike Diaco’s “bend, don’t break” system that worked so well in 2012, and earned him the UConn job, VanGorder came in with a different attitude: Be aggressive.

Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder looks on before Notre Dame’s 30-14 win over Purdue on Sept. 13, 2014 in Indianapolis.Michael Yu | The Observer

Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder looks on before Notre Dame’s 30-14 win over Purdue on Sept. 13, 2014 in Indianapolis.

And at the start of his tenure, it seemed like VanGorder had things figured out. In the first five games of 2014, his defense gave up just 12 points per game and routinely pressured opposing quarterbacks, including the four sacks racked up by the Irish against Stanford in a key 17-14 win.

Then everything changed.

North Carolina threw 43 points onto the Notre Dame Stadium scoreboard the next week, everyone got hurt, and suddenly the Irish defense that looked so good in September looked so bad in November.

But this year, there was hope. Everyone but cornerback Cody Riggs was back — and even after senior defensive lineman Jarron Jones went down, VanGorder had everything he could have asked for in a defense: a potential top-10 pick in Jaylon Smith, surrounded by a wealth of experienced talent. The idea was simple: Led by Smith and senior defensive lineman Sheldon Day, we would finally see Notre Dame run VanGorder’s defense to perfection.

On opening night at Notre Dame Stadium, it looked like it could be the case, when the Irish trounced Texas 38-3, racking up four sacks en route to a dominant performance.

But just like the previous year, it was a false dawn for VanGorder’s defense.

A week later, a Virginia team — one that got its head coach fired after a 4-8 finish — moved the ball all over the Notre Dame defense in a game that the Irish probably should have lost.

And in Notre Dame’s two losses this year, the defense consistently put the offense in tough situations. Within the blink of an eye at Clemson, the Irish were down 14-0, and Saturday, we saw what may have been the worst performance of the year from VanGorder’s unit in the biggest game of the season.

Despite containing Stanford’s Heisman Trophy candidate, sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey, the Irish defense still struggled massively on the West Coast. The defense got out of the gates slowly and couldn’t get off the field Saturday, as Stanford went 8-for-12 on third downs, including a perfect 5-for-5 performance to start the game.

While McCaffrey didn’t do too much to hurt Notre Dame, it was Devon Cajuste who proved to be the problem. The Irish secondary routinely lost the senior receiver, including on the defining moment of its season, a 27-yard completion between Stanford senior quarterback Kevin Hogan and Cajuste on the final drive, when the Cardinal picked up the chunk of yards required to set up the game-winning field goal.

It was a perfect microcosm of Notre Dame’s season on defense, one filled with so much potential and occasional execution but never finding that four quarters of consistency Irish head coach Brian Kelly so often spoke of wanting from the defense.

After Texas, we never really saw VanGorder’s defense play his scheme well — the Irish finished outside the top 70 nationally in sacks, with just 23 on the season — and never saw it play any scheme particularly well.

And if VanGorder couldn’t get it to work with this unit, what are we supposed to expect out of it next year?

Graduate student linebacker Joe Schmidt, senior safety Elijah Shumate, senior defensive lineman Romeo Okwara and Day are all out of eligibility. If Smith and Russell declare for April’s NFL Draft, like most of us think they will, Notre Dame’s defense will return just five starters from this year’s team when it opens its season in Austin, Texas, in September.

That doesn’t even count graduate student cornerback Matthias Farley, whose loss will also likely be felt in a big way.

VanGorder couldn’t get his scheme to work particularly well with an incredibly experienced crew this year — to expect anything different next year would be irresponsible.

I don’t want to explicitly call for VanGorder’s head. After all, watching him on the sidelines is a particularly enjoyable part of watching Irish football.

But Notre Dame came up short of fulfilling its goal this year — and Kelly would be wise to at least evaluate VanGorder’s merits prior to 2016.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.”At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer.A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa.When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

Contact Alex
  • Hotbod Handsomeface

    Maybe Kelly should mull red zone offense changes. Fix the abysmal red zone performance, defense wouldn’t be brought up as the reason Stanford showed up ND.

    • Billy Batts

      It’s kind of hard to blame the offense when they scored 36 points.

      • Susan

        It should have been 50 but they settled for two field goals because they couldn’t convert on the red zone. ND needs to work on that before their bowl game or they are going to loose.

      • Hotbod Handsomeface

        Let me reiterate what Susan said, or better yet, bring up that we only scored 19 on BC on a night with 5 turnovers. Only time you win when you have 5 turnovers is when you play the 129th ranked offense in the country.

  • Jonathan Mehall

    The Irish did bottle up McCaffrey and that obviously presented major holes in the defense. BVG and company clearly committed to stopping the run with an all out attack on the Front 7. That is going to present holes in the secondary, as evident by Max Redfield and Matthias Farley cheating up in the box one too many times. It’s not that hard to grasp.

    “Notre Dame came up short of fulfilling its goal this year.”

    With over 9 starters injured and out for the year, down to the bottom of safety and corner depth, and a 3rd string running back and quarterback starting…you don’t say?

    What is there to complain about here? A potential 11 win season was practically unfathomable back in September. The defense needs to adjust its schemes and personnel, but please, look at things realistically here.

  • TGS

    need to see more articles like this pertaining to nd’s defense. the offense was NOT the problem. bvg, imo, needs to go and nd needs to recruit better athletes on defense. the tackling is so pathetic and the missed assignments are enough to drive you crazy. please, bk, get another defensive coordinator in the bend.

    • David Saint

      if Butler makes that tackle, instead of Rector scoring, its a different ball game. If Kizer doesnt fumble at the end of the half, and we get 3 points, Stanford is going for a TD instead of a field goal. The what ifs are endless, and MMQB’ing the D now isnt going to fix it. Better to let the kids continue to learn this aggressive, NFL style D. Notice, the big recruits are flocking to BVG and really wanting to play for him. All we need are shut down corners and his defense would flourish. Watch the Patriots D sometime..its dependent on the CB’s jamming at the line and being shut down..

      • TGS

        david. i partially agree w/ you here. you start off by making my same point that the defense misses too many tackles. is that not indicative of the coach? bvg needed to get his players prepared to play solid, fundamental defense. i’m not so sure they did play sound, fundamental defense this year, or last.

        and when your starting 3rd year safety {redfield} claims that learning his defense was harder than learning mandarin, something is not right.

        and how do you play prevent D on that last stanford possession???!! that is an epic fail by the d coordinator.

        and ‘big recruits are flocking to bvg’??? please tell me who they are. if nd wants to win championships {which is what we should all want them to strive for. not mediocrity} they need elite athletes on defense. they are simply not getting them. don’t get me wrong, the classes are pretty good lately, but not championship caliber on the defensive side.

        lastly, i haven’t watched the patriots and nor will i 😉 but i do watch nd’s cb play and it has a lot to be desired. so does the play at safety {see the daggers vs stanford etc etc}.

        i love this team and i am proud of what they overcame {injuries etc}. i really like kelly and the rest of the staff and hope they stay. i’m just not a big fan of bvg.

        • David Saint

          no, considering Butler is the 3rd String. Remember how many starters we lost this year, in some cases the 4th string was playing! We still went 10-2! Thats impressive, especially given in years past when just one or two guys went down the team went in the tank.

      • Hotbod Handsomeface

        If, if, if. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. What happened, happened. Deal with it.

        • David Saint

          lol to quote Jack Nicholson from Batman. “I didnt ask”.

          • Hotbod Handsomeface

            To quote no one because I’m original, “I didn’t answer some unasked question, simply responded to your ‘if’ whining.”

          • David Saint

            lol hey Fabio, i dont care.

          • Hotbod Handsomeface

            lol hey Davie Crockett, you obviously do since you’re still responding.

          • David Saint

            lol was that supposed to be an insult? smh wow guy, up your game a bit.

          • Hotbod Handsomeface

            up my game… ok gangster, lol.

          • David Saint

            lol yea dude, get creative.

          • Hotbod Handsomeface

            lol, no.

    • Hotbod Handsomeface

      3 field goals because you can’t convert in the red zone – offense isn’t the problem?

      5 turnovers against BC the week prior – offense isn’t the problem?


      Don’t get me wrong the defense is no prize, but don’t you dare give the offense a free pass.

  • tom beck

    Alex, a well written article, but as you and others that write or post critical commentary, you forget that the other teams also have scholarship athletes. It’s true that ND has more 4 and 5 start players on their roster than most of their opponents, but good talent is well-distributed across the nation because of the (good) limit of 85 scholarships.

    Speaking from experience of my time as a head coach at Grand Valley where both Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder were on my staff, I can state that VanGorder is an excellent man and defensive coach.

    To many are quick to judge. Be happy with the football staff at ND, it is a very good one.

  • John Stanton

    31 years of watching ND football. One thing I have learned about coaches, they don’t improve with time. If they suck in year 2, they will suck in years 3 – whatever. The good ones usually get noticeable results right away. If I were Kelly, I would make a change. Last year’s D was the worst in ND history in certain statistical categories, this year’s D was below average despite being talented. The O is elite, but the D kept us out of the final 4. Time to move on and get a new D coordinator.

  • What’s missing in this whole discussion is the Head Coach throwing an assistant under the bus.

    Whether it’s players or coaches, the leopard doesn’t change its spots.