Notre Dame’s defense features new scheme, mentality
Marek Mazurek | Friday, September 1, 2017
If you talk to your grandparents or older fans about Notre Dame football, the second phrase out of their mouth behind, “They should use more fullbacks” is the old adage, “defense wins championships.”
And while cliched, the saying holds a lot of truth. In the last 10 years, the average defensive rank of the 10 national championship winners was 9.5 in their respective championship year.
If you take the last 25 years, that average defensive rank of the champion jumps to seventh nationally.
Unfortunately for Irish fans, young and old, the 2017 defense isn’t up to the calibre of a national champion.
The secondary is young, and will start two sophomores — Julian Love and Jalen Elliott — against Temple.
The defensive front has been solid against the run, but has struggled to generate much pressure. Last year, Notre Dame had a total of 14 sacks, but only eight of those sacks return to the roster in 2017, as Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones and James Onwualu all graduated and were drafted into the NFL.
But all of the flaws of the Irish defense have been analyzed and beaten to death.
As captain left tackle Mike McGlinchey said on Wednesday, “I give [the defensive line] a lot of credit because everybody, and a lot of people in this room [media], have given them a ton of crap since we’ve moved forward from last season.”
While some of that “crap” has been deserved, McGlinchey’s point is a good one: This is a new team, a new season and it may not be fair to assume the fault’s of last year’s squad will plague this year’s.
So what will make this year’s defense better than last year’s?
Halfway through last season, Brian Kelly ditched defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, and with him, the more complex, pro-style defense.
With the hire of Mike Elko in the offseason, Kelly made a commitment to playing a more simple, downhill style of defense. And his players have responded positively so far.
“I think it allows your players to play fast, and the defensive scheme in and of itself isn’t necessarily simple, but in terms of like the play calls you’re going in with, there isn’t a check to every type of motion,” senior rover Drue Tranquill said. “There’s a general check to how we’re going to play X or how we’re going to play Y, instead of complicating things, having to see Orbit versus Jet and having to recognize the small details within a game.
“I think he greatly simplifies the responsibility for each individual player and each individual player has his own checks, but I don’t necessarily have to worry about checking for the linebackers and checking for the safeties, like the safeties check for the safeties, the linebackers check for the safeties, the defensive line for the D-line, and so it simplifies each player’s game, not necessarily the schematic of the whole defense.”
More than just simplicity for simplicity’s sake, Elko’s unit hopes to turn its focus beyond memorizing a playbook and towards other aspects of the game, such as being aggressive and attacking the football.
“[Attacking] is what Coach Elko emphasizes,” sophomore cornerback Julian Love said. “We will attack and we will create turnovers and ball disruptions. That’s what we’re trying to be known for.”
“[Elko’s scheme] allows you to just line up and play your assignment, you understand it,” senior linebacker Greer Martini said. “The coaches have done an outstanding job preparing us for this game, the amount of reps we’ve taken is so much more than we have before in a game prep.”
The 2016 Wake Forest defense featured two players with at least 17.0 tackles for a loss, and senior linebacker Nyles Morgan said he thinks that can be him this year.
“His philosophy is getting into the backfield,” Morgan said. “The biggest thing for me, a lot of things that they’re coaching show up in film all the time. Guys getting in the backfield, guys getting TFLs, guys getting sacks. It’s exciting knowing that the things that are being preached to you and coached to you are actually working.”
A less complicated defense will also lead to a fresher squad, according to Tranquill, as underclassmen will be able to step in, without worrying about overly-complicated schemes.
“I think last year in order for guys to play, they have to understand the defense,” Tranquill said. “They have to understand the schematics behind what you’re doing, and when you have a complicated defense, not a lot of guys can grasp it, so you’ve got to leave guys out there who know what they’re doing and can make the checks and calls, but when you simplify things, it allows a lot more guys to get out on the field and keep your guys fresh.”
Notre Dame will come out with an aggressive mindset on Saturday, but as Martini pointed out, the focus is first and foremost on winning.
“The focus is right now, we have to beat Temple,” Martini said. “The business that we’re in is winning and so it doesn’t matter how it gets done, as long as it gets done.”