Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is the new kid on the block, looking to blend his defensive approach with the Irish's personnel and preferred schemes. For VanGorder, a long-time defensive assistant at both the collegiate and professional ranks, comfort and more importantly success in doing his job boils down to finding guys he knows will do the job.
Trust on a football field is an interesting blend of "will you" and "can you" at any given position. It is no more solely about the "can you" or the athleticism to make plays than it is the "will you" or the understanding of the scheme. Rather, it is a marriage of the two, and each coach has his own recipe that he is willing to accept before putting athletes out on the field.
On a roster, there are plenty of each type. There are players with great athleticism who cannot seem to do the right things within a scheme despite being physically capable. There are other guys who will dominate film sessions, score high on tests and show well in walkthrough but simply cannot get to the spot when the game is live.
VanGorder is going to be learning these players, making his terminology and approach to the game gel with the infrastructure in South Bend, and that works best with players he knows can get the job done. With Notre Dame, a team in transition in the front-seven, there will be ample opportunity for the players to step up and prove themselves to VanGorder.
Unfortunately, several players expected to prove their worth this spring and be key figures for the new coordinator will be missing in action. As reported by Mike Monaco of The Observer, linebackers Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell, both expected to be quality contributors, are non-contact during the spring period, making it tough to match their can do with the will do.
However, on the positive side, that means more athletes getting reps at the linebacker position, both inside and outside, for the Fighting Irish. Players like Jaylon Smith, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, well-known by the Notre Dame faithful, will get first cracks at showing VanGorder they should be his guys. But, up and down the roster, reserves can use the change in leadership to prove they belong in the mix.
The same point can be made for a defensive line group that loses Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt to the NFL and is without Tony Springmann due to injury this spring. Like Williams and Moore, Sheldon Day at defensive end will be the returning name tasked with proving to the new coach that he belongs.
As much as it is about experienced players proving they belong, spring with a new coach also means younger faces get to prove they can also be players worthy of VanGorder's trust. Isaac Rochell and Jacob Matuska get to prove whether or not they are ready for the spotlight that comes with being willing and able to step up on the defensive line.
The same goes for Cole Luke and Rashad Kinlaw at the cornerback spot, two talented players who will battle with converted safety Matthias Farley to grab the spot opposite KeiVarae Russell, who's looking to continue his success. James Onwualu, a receiver converted to safety, will get that same chance to prove he belongs at the new position, as he looks to match his athleticism with an understanding of the defense.
With spring ball, so much of the focus comes with position battles and which players become starters. At Notre Dame, with VanGorder running the show on the defensive side of the ball and players transitioning out of the program, there will be plenty of shuffling on the depth chart.
Those voids will be filled by players who are not only athletically capable, but who also prove during the spring season that they can be counted on to do the right things.