With the Irish having trudged through their 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers, Brian Kelly can get onto the task of replacing both of his coordinators. In his postgame press conference, the Irish head coach said he's still thinking about what to do with his offense after Chuck Martin left for the Miami (Ohio) head coaching job. But he revealed that the hiring of a defensive coordinator from outside the program is imminent.
Multiple reports have that hire being New York Jets linebackers coach Brian VanGorder. The 54-year-old coach has spent 24 years in college or professional football, working with Kelly at Grand Valley State from 1989 to '91. VanGorder served as Kelly's first defensive coordinator before leaving for the head coaching job at Wayne State, his alma mater.
That move was the first of many for VanGorder and his family, with the potential move to South Bend his 11th since leaving Grand Valley. But for Irish fans desperately wondering if VanGorder can keep the Irish defense moving forward, two successful stints at both the college and NFL level should have Domers breathing easy.
VanGorder became one of the SEC's premiere coordinators while orchestrating Mark Richt's Georgia defense. Over four seasons, he helped the Bulldogs finish three years in the AP top ten, while putting together three units that ranked in the top ten in scoring defense. For his work in Athens, VanGorder won the Broyles Award in 2003, the same award given to Diaco in 2012.
VanGorder left Georgia to test himself in the NFL, joining Jack Del Rio's Jacksonville staff. After a short stint as the Georgia Southern head coach, he landed with the Atlanta Falcons, eventually coordinating Mike Smith's defense between 2008-11. The Falcons posted four consecutive winning seasons with VanGorder calling the defense (the first time in franchise history), winning 43 regular season games over that period.
But when Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs matched Kirby Smart's contract and made VanGorder the highest paid assistant in college football, he returned to the SEC, working the 2012 season at Auburn before Gene Chizik and his staff were fired.
Notre Dame has yet to confirm what multiple credible media outlets call a done deal. But Kelly's comments after the game make it seem like the only thing left is red tape. Let's take a look at the direction VanGorder could take the Irish.
One of the biggest differences between VanGorder and Diaco is their base defense. As VanGorder confirmed in his introductory press conference at Auburn, his preference is to play a four man front, the opposite of Diaco's base set.
All that being said, both coaches believe in being multiple up front, with the Irish running splitting their looks almost 50/50 the past two seasons.
"I'm a 4-3 guy," VanGorder said in January, 2012. "Having said that, we consider ourselves basing off the 4-3, but multiple in its makeup. That's today's football. I think you have to be able to do that, but we'll base out of the 4-3."
VanGorder spent this season coaching under Rex Ryan, one of the foremost innovators in the 3-4 defense. That experience will likely come in handy as VanGorder gets set to work under another head coach that prefers basing out of a 3-4 set.
If there's one change that Irish fans will welcome most it's VanGorder's preference to attack. With the Falcons, VanGorder ran more zone blitzes than any other team in the league. While Diaco put much of his focus on point prevention and staying away from the big play, VanGorder's hallmarks seem to be blitzing, attacking and creating confusion.
As the Irish defense showed early this season, when they gambled in man coverage or with exotic blitzes, they often got hurt by big plays. It happened in Ann Arbor, when Michigan's offense continued to win one-on-one battles, and continued against Oklahoma, when a slant route broke for a long touchdown.
VanGorder might also give the Irish an edge schematically. Known as an innovator throughout his time at both the college and professional level, a defense that was sometimes tagged as vanilla could take advantage of a few new schemes after four seasons of a focus on the fundamentals under Diaco.
Where both VanGorder and Diaco are aligned is their energy level and their commitment to excellence. While interim defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks seems to exude calm and cool, VanGorder will bring the same frenetic energy that Diaco showed on the practice field.
"I saw a coach who I think can make that transition being a defensive coordinator at the college level from where he was in the NFL, because he’s got energy, he’s enthusiastic," Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer told the South Bend Tribune. "He’s the guy when the pack is running from one station to another in training camp, he’s the first one there. He’s not walking there. He’s running. He’s leading by example."
One of the big reasons that the media hasn't had access to assistant coaches much these past few seasons is Kelly's preference to have the staff speak as one voice. While it's taken away our access to characters like Diaco and Martin, it's something that Harry Hiestand appreciated when arriving in South Bend.
VanGorder understands that part of the business. Having spent stints in the NFL and the SEC, he knows football at the highest level. But VanGorder also seems comfortable with the role he has on a coaching staff, understanding what it is the coordinator does for the head coach.
While they may see defenses differently, both VanGorder and Diaco understand exactly how Brian Kelly wants to operate his football program.
Want proof? Here's an interesting snippet from VanGorder's introduction at Auburn, where he details his job, and the work he'll do to make sure the head message is understood completely.
"I think philosophically as Gene [Chizik] sets the table with that, and then I carry that message to the guys," VanGorder said. "It has to be very clear that as a football team, this is the mission and the things that have to follow in making that mission work. That is the commitment part of it that is so crucial."
Match those comments up with those from Diaco to Irish Illustrated last week:
"I fit with the boss. Whether it was articulated to me game-to-game or season-to-season, I just did it," Diaco told Irish Illustrated. "We did it as a defensive staff. We knew that to win games, we were going to have to do our business a particular way."
Heading into the fifth year of Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame, the head coach is looking for ways to push the program forward. On paper, the hiring of VanGorder looks to do it.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes gathered firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold.
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