Making grand declarations after one practice is never wise. But our first look at the Irish defense this spring leads us to believe that things are going to be quite different when Notre Dame takes the field against Rice to kick off 2014.
Everybody already knew that Brian VanGorder's arrival in South Bend signified that change was coming. But in the weeks since the veteran assistant joined Brian Kelly's staff, the Irish head coach did his best to keep the status quo intact.
"I think at first glance, the birds are going to line up the same way," Kelly said during his spring practice introductory press conference. "Just generally speaking, it's going to look like what it's always looked like."
Sure thing, Coach.
Strategically, it makes all the sense in the world to say this. No need to give away a potential schematic advantage, as opposing coaches will need to spend time digging through Auburn, Atlanta Falcons and even old Georgia Bulldogs game tape to get a read on what VanGorder will bring to the table early in the season.
But signs of a full-scale change are there if you're looking for them. They start with something as simple as terminology. After four seasons calling outside linebackers Cats (on the boundary side of the field) and Dogs (on the wide side), the phrasing is gone, with Rush and Drop filling their places.
After a late tweak in the recruiting cycle keyed a search for a different type of defender than Bob Diaco targeted, Kelly acknowledged the evolutionary changes that have come with VanGorder's edict to take the defense to the next level.
"When I hired Bob to come here, we needed to build consistency and stability with our defense, and he's certainly answered the charge that I had given him," Kelly explained. "We needed fundamentally sound defense, and we got that.
"We have now developed what we consider a demeanor on our defense and an expectation. Now we're going to take it to the next level defensively and Brian is going to be able to take our defense to that next level."
What the next level is after losing likely first-round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt remains to be seen. The Irish will also need to replace their best pass-rusher, defensive captain and two starting inside linebackers. So apples to apples might not be so easy.
But it's clear the Irish staff has taken the offseason to identify some deficiencies and improve them. And after building a foundation under Diaco's tutelage, the defense will benefit from VanGorder's years in the SEC and the NFL, helping to optimize the personnel currently on the roster.
The Irish will likely play primarily with a four man front. In the Irish's first practice, the No. 1 defensive line had Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara surrounded by Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones. If you were to believe the spring roster, that's two outside linebackers, a defensive end and a nose guard lined up. But in all likelihood, that's the front four the Irish will start against Rice.
Another immediate change you'll see with VanGorder is an emphasis on packaging personnel and ratcheting up the schemes on third down. The Irish's third-down defense plummeted last season, dropping to 85th in the country as Notre Dame lacked personnel to rush the passer and underneath players to defend the short passing game.
"A lot of our personnel are first- and second-down personnel," Kelly conceded. "As you can see in our recruiting last year and this year, we're recruiting more third-down personnel. Guys that can be on the field more on third down, rushing the passer, third-down linebackers, safeties."
That might expect the move of Matthias Farley to cornerback. It also could explain why former walk-on Joe Schmidt is getting first-team reps at middle linebacker, when he was a forgotten man under Diaco.
Kelly acknowledged that his preferred front likely comes down to the personnel he's got on the roster. Without Tuitt and Nix, two essential ingredients in a 3-4 defense, it's not hard to see that the best version of the 2014 defense might very well be a four-man front.
But as the staff balances the roster through recruiting, Kelly's newly formed relationship with Patriots coach Bill Belichick could serve as the inspiration for defenses to come.
"I think it just really depends on who we're playing, the schedule, the teams that you're playing," Kelly said. "It's so easy now to get in and out of the three-down and the four-down defense, that the way we're going to construct it, it's really going to be week-to-week. It's going to be similar to what New England is doing. One week they might be all four-down the entire game and the next week they're three-down.
"The way we're going to play it, it's going to be easy for us to be in-and-out of three-down. It's really going to be more game-plan structured than it has been in the past."
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.