Irish defense finds success in rotation
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, October 27, 2017
For all of the hype surrounding Notre Dame’s turnaround this season, especially after the program’s biggest win over USC in 40 years, perhaps none is more warranted than that around the defense.
Coming off a year that saw the Irish defense suffer from on and off the field issues, the firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and a number of unproven freshman playing significant minutes, Notre Dame finished a mediocre 44th in total defense. The Irish allowed 175.6 yards on the ground, the most since 2007, and finished 98th in forced turnovers with 14.
But through seven games this season, the transformation has been radical. Not only is Brian Kelly’s team only allowing 126.1 yards on the ground and is the only program in the country with just one rushing touchdown allowed, but Notre Dame is in the top 10 in the country in forced turnovers and fourth in turnover margin, already eclipsing last season’s total with 17 takeaways so far. For Kelly, the change starts with defensive coordinator Mike Elko.
“[The] philosophical plan in the hiring of Mike Elko in terms of what he’s always been about, what we’ve really wanted to accomplish,” Kelly said. “We felt like last year, when we started to get into a deeper rotation with players, we saw how the culture began to change within our defense in terms of camaraderie, in terms of closeness, in terms of guys being into what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis.
“Part of the decision to hire Mike was, ‘How do you feel about getting guys involved in rotations?’ That was part of who he was coming up through the ranks. So this was just connecting with another philosophical alignment that we had.”
Elko’s scheme calls for a simplified philosophy — attack the ball downhill, force turnovers and utilize everyone. And after a year of being baptized through fire, many of the young players who were forced into action last season are really starting to come into their own.
Take the game against the Trojans for example. The Irish defense had a number of performances from younger players, starting with the defensive line, where sophomores Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem combined for three sacks, and Kareem received the USC game ball after a dominant performance. At linebacker, junior Te’von Coney, who leads the team in tackles, filled in for the injured senior Greer Martini and subsequently had a sack and fumble recovery. And in the secondary, sophomores Julian Love, Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliot all showed continued improvement.
The theme of rotation on defense has been a major one for the Irish this season — Notre Dame has had 26 defensive players play in at least six games this year, and 16 different players have recorded a tackle for loss. With such a wealth of experience, Elko has had the luxury of rotating his defense consistently, and the personnel, particularly on the younger end, have responded.
“We all have experience … and that’s an amazing thing to have,” Love said about the secondary. “We knew we had that in our back pocket the whole season, and now we’re getting into late in the season when we’re trying to manage reps, and Troy [Pride Jr.] has done a great job of knowing his role and coming in and doing whatever. Me, Nick [Coleman] and Shaun [Crawford], we do a great job at learning all the positions we could possibly be playing and I think it’s just knowing everything that really helps us.
“We’re a great defense when we play together, and that’s the biggest thing for this game, just communicating with each other and being on the same page, identifying certain things and that’s our biggest challenge and what will lead us to success.”
Irish senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill echoed the same sentiments, especially with Kareem’s performance against USC in recent memory.
“I think you’re just seeing the depth we have on defense. I think guys are being put in positions to be most successful and Khalid is obviously an incredible asset to us in terms of rushing the passer,” he said. “Even in his run defense, has incredibly long arms and is able to make things happen and make plays.
“So we have those kinds of players all across our defense. And it’s cool to finally see those guys reap the fruits of their preparation, because those guys prepare very hard. Te’von, another guy having a huge game — 10 plus tackles, the strip fumble there in the first quarter.
“And so guys just prepare really hard and it’s cool to see all those guys having success.”
One of the biggest stars has been Coney, who has had a tremendous impact for the unit, despite playing behind captain Greer Martini and in the same unit as Tranquill and captain Nyles Morgan. But the senior leadership has definitely paid off for Coney, who has come a long way from his arrest last fall as one of the players with former Irish safety Max Redfield.
“Those guys have been through a lot here, and have lot of wisdom,” Coney said on being surrounded by his linebacker mentors. “They’ve seen a lot and done a lot. To have those guys when I need help, it just great to have those guys, and have the support people that, anytime challenges come, it makes it much easier to have those guys help you move forwards.”
And while he’s still only a junior, Coney has already begun to embrace the leadership role, even within his rotation.
“He really pushes us to be better,” Love said. “During the game [this past weekend], we were up by a lot, but he was still yelling at us, saying ‘Alright let’s go, let’s get our stuff together — no let back, remember how it felt last year.’ We knew how great of a player he was, and now the world can see how great he really is.”
“Everyone on the defense is important to us,” Martini said. “But a guy like Te’von, with our rotation, the three-man rotation that we’ve done the whole season, it isn’t like he hasn’t had that starting position. He might not be the first guy out there, but he’s been taking starting reps all season long, so he was ready for the moment. And that’s for us. Whether it’s Te’von or I or Nyles starting, we all kind of have had enough reps that we feel like we’re all starters.”
With that mentality, the Irish have been able to maintain an intensity on defense that seemed to be missing last year. And with a lot of talent still waiting in the pipeline, the next steps for the unit seem to only spiral upward.
“The future is always bright for us, we’re living in the present, and trying to make the most out of every second here, but it shows that we have a future,” Love said. “[We have] other guys that step up in make big plays in their roles, and it’s definitely reassuring and great to see.”