In With the New
Mike Monaco | Thursday, April 10, 2014
Notre Dame returns 0 percent of its passing yards and 26 percent of its receiving yards from 2013.
Notre Dame returns 55 percent of its tackles and 14 percent of its sacks from 2013.
Youth. Inconsistency. Inexperience. They’ve been some of the buzzwords tossed around this spring. At many spots, the Irish boast a young group of players short on proven past production.
But also present have been themes like “attack” and “aggressive,” traits of altered offensive and defensive style that are, in part, the products of new coordinators coming in to mold the youthful yet inconsistent crop of players.
VanGorder installs new defense
New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has replaced Bob Diaco, who became the head coach at Connecticut after four seasons as the Irish defensive coordinator. While much of the talk initially centered around VanGorder’s defensive alignment — 3-4 versus 4-3 — the story quickly shifted to the new attacking and aggressive mentality that would typify the defense.
It’s not as simple as creating turnovers, a misconception Irish head coach Brian Kelly cleared up Friday.
“I think that’s too simple of a term ¾ creating turnovers,” Kelly said. “I think what Coach VanGorder and I want to create there is, we want to create more pressure for the quarterback. We want them under more duress. And so from that standpoint, maybe the net gain there is turnovers. But I think if they’re making bad decisions and throwing the ball away, we’re gaining downs in that respect, too.”
When it comes to generating pressure, VanGorder says the origin is, in fact, on the outside, at the cornerback position, where junior KeiVarae Russell and sophomore Cole Luke have garnered the vast majority of the first-team reps.
“You’ve got to win out there on that perimeter. You’ve got to win,” VanGorder said in late March. “We’ll keep challenging [the cornerbacks] and look for improvement each day.”
Russell has drawn praise from coaches and players alike for his work in the spring. The junior says he has been playing a lot more press coverage, with the end goal to disrupt the receivers and the offense.
“The new system that we’re under right now is just something that we want to challenge all routes,” defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said in early April. “We want to be on attack mode.
“And the whole philosophy is that we don’t want the offense to dictate how we play defense, so everything that we do, it doesn’t mean that we’re all pressed 80 snaps a game, but we’re aggressive, we’re competing, we’re physical, and that whole mindset of challenge every route.”
Sophomore Max Redfield, who has been slotted at one of the two first-team safety positions, reiterated the defense is “a lot more aggressive,” and Redfield noted it has been fun for the entire unit.
But whereas the secondary only lost one starter (Bennett Jackson) from last year’s squad, the rest of the Irish defense is especially green. Notre Dame lost defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, as well as linebackers Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Prince Shembo.
“The thing that stands out here is our youth,” said VanGorder, who is coaching his 12th different school or NFL team since he entered the coaching ranks in 1989. “We’re so young. We’re really young in the front seven especially.”
With the defense as a whole, much of the message has been being “multiple,” providing various looks — 3-4, 4-3 and so on — to offenses to keep the pressure up in that way. As a result, the linebacker position has remained fluid, with sophomore Jaylon Smith shifting all around the defense and junior John Turner adding speed and versatility in sub packages.
Kelly said in late March that even if Diaco had stayed, the Irish would have shifted their defense.
“We were going to be transforming our defense into a more of a third-down, sub-package defense,” Kelly said. “We were creating those looks as we moved forward.”
New looks include more blitzing, as Smith and others have mentioned throughout the spring. And it’s with the linebackers and defensive linemen that VanGorder has introduced a new mentality ¾ the pressure and pass rushing that could but doesn’t necessarily lead to the turnovers.
“I think what [VanGorder] has done … is created some pass rush from where we’ve lost some guys that could get after the quarterback,” Kelly said. “Just creating those scenarios and that extra pressure, he’s done a nice job.”
Throughout the spring, the players have expressed their excitement with the new attacking defense.
“Look, who doesn’t like to blitz?” Kelly said in late March. “Who doesn’t like to rip through the A-gap and not have to worry about holding on and can get into the backfield? So I think there’s a lot of excitement with some of the schemes we’re running.”
Asked to analyze the changed defense, the one he now goes up against each day in practice, new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said the defensive line has become more aggressive, with the linemen playing more into the gaps and upfield.
But although excitement and energy abounds with the new system, youth and inexperience serve as small, daily doses of tempered expectations.
“We’re moving in a new direction for our defensive personnel,” Kelly said Wednesday. “It’s coming, and they’re making progress in that regard. But it will take us some more time.”
New personnel leads to new offensive mentality
Whereas a new coach propelled much of the defensive shift, player personnel fueled the offensive changes.
Denbrock replaced Chuck Martin, who took the head-coaching job at Miami (Ohio) after two seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, but it was Notre Dame’s athletes who merited a faster-paced offense, a trip back to some of Kelly’s past offenses at other schools.
“If you’ve watched Coach Kelly’s offenses in the past, I think they encompass an offense that’s more in an attacking style,” Denbrock said Jan. 31 in his introductory press conference. “He likes to go fast. He likes to keep the defense on their heels. He likes to be very aggressive with what he does, and I think that’s the direction we’re certainly moving into.”
On that same day, Kelly noted that the “look” of his offense starts with the quarterback and his ability to be a playmaker within the offense. Kelly further said he was seeking somebody who could make plays outside the pocket, as opposed to the stuck-inside-the-tackles stagnation of recent years.
Enter sophomore Malik Zaire and re-enter senior Everett Golson, a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks who can provide that outside-the-pocket dynamism.
Sophomore running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant also add athletic, play-making ability, and the deep-yet-inexperienced receiving corps has flashed its talent.
“With the athletes that we have, we feel like we’re in a position offensively to push the tempo more and to put our playmakers in positions where they can make big plays and do the things that all of us hope our offense looks like, one that’s dynamic and can score more points and move the football consistently,” Denbrock said.
That was the plan in January. But the inconsistency that comes with inexperience has prompted stop-and-go progress.
“We’re young on offense — very talented but also young in a lot of spots — and those guys just gotta continue to do it the right way all the time,” Denbrock said Monday.
“We’ve got times where we’re clicking, and things are going really well, and guys are understanding and doing what they’re coached to do, and it looks pretty good,” Denbrock said. “And then there’s some bumps in the road with some young players in some new spots.”
The receivers are especially inexperienced, as Notre Dame’s top three pass-catchers from 2013 are not currently with the team. Junior Chris Brown and sophomores Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter Jr. have seen time at the X and W — the outside receiver positions — and senior Amir Carlisle is contesting junior C.J. Prosise for time in the slot. Denbrock and Kelly have repeatedly praised their talent and natural ability while noting the inconsistency.
“All of our guys, it’s consistency,” Kelly said Friday. “They flash at times where you go, ‘Wow. They’re really impressive.’”
The key has been and will be sustaining those flashes.