Whether you use numbers or watch the games, there is one thing that is very clear about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish: They are better than they were a season ago.
In fact, over the short three years that Brian Kelly has been in South Bend, Notre Dame has gotten better each year, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Bob Diaco has made some tremendous strides with his unit, and both the stats and the production prove that point. On paper, the Irish have gone from 23rd and 24th in scoring defense in 2010 and 2011, respectively, to No. 1 in 2012.
Against the run they have moved up from 51st and 47th in 2010 and 2011, respectively, to fourth in 2012. They have the 20th-ranked passing defense this season after spending 2010 and 2011 ranked at 53rd and 38th, respectively. Even total defense has taken a big leap, up from 51st in 2010 to 30th in 2011, and now they find themselves sitting at sixth.
That said, the bigger leap comes when you watch the film of the progression of this unit over the last few seasons. Throw in some video of Diaco's similar scheme at Cincinnati and then watch 2012 Notre Dame football. You will see the improvements.
The reality of it is that, schematically, the Irish have grown by leaps and bounds from year to year, and that is a testament to their coaching staff and their players. Instead of getting nuggets of information and pieces of a playbook, the Irish, in year three, have the bulk of the scheme installed and running on all cylinders.
Take a look at what better players can do for a scheme:
That's Diaco on a goal-line play against a very run-heavy Pittsburgh team in 2009. Notice the lack of big bodies and the way players are off the line in an effort to help them get angles to the football.
This is Diaco in 2012 against USC. Notice that he's only got one guy off the line, Manti Te'o. Te'o handles the side-to-side work as the safeties, Zeke Motta and Matthias Farley, crash off the edge, pinching to disrupt plays.
Schematically, this is not something that most defenses do—or can do—when they get to the goal line. However, because of Te'o and his ability to cover ground side-to-side, Diaco is free to do different things in critical situations.
Te'o gets a lot of the spotlight, but players like Louis Nix III and Prince Shembo also have to be highlighted for increasing the schematic freedom of the Fighting Irish. Both guys have spent the entirety of their collegiate careers working under Diaco. The understanding and trust that he has in both of these players is tremendous.
Throw in guys like Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day, two physical specimens at the longstick position, and you gain schematic freedom that steady players like Kapron Lewis-Moore were unable to afford.
Diaco has a knack for meshing styles through his scheme as well. While Lewis-Moore is not as physically gifted as Tuitt or Day, the fifth-year senior, with plenty of games under his belt, is still available to do more than just fill a role for the Irish.
Nowhere is Diaco's knack for meshing styles within his scheme more apparent than in the usage of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese. Fox, who is quicker and more athletic, gets the go in passing situations or against teams where the Irish need more out of their second interior linebacker in coverage.
Calabrese, more of a brawler who likes to slug it out in the box, gets on the field in short-yardage situations and moments where teams are more prone to run the ball. Instead of having one linebacker with a deficiency for teams to exploit, Diaco has found a way to juggle down and distance, two tendencies to help two players become one quality linebacker.
Bob Diaco has crafted a monster out of an Irish defense just a few years from being ranked 86th and 63rd in total defense and scoring defense, respectively, to end the Charlie Weis tenure. His scheme—thanks to these players—has reached heights that would have been unattainable at Cincinnati or directional Michigan. He is earning his paycheck, and the guys out there grinding for him are making it all possible.