The pace of spring practice has kicked up considerably. After a two-week hiatus for Notre Dame's spring break, the Irish are reaching the midpoint of their official workouts with the 85th Blue-Gold game fast approaching on April 12.
Earlier this week, Brian Kelly made Mike Denbrock and Brian VanGorder available to the media for their first sessions after introductory press conferences in January. We already tackled Denbrock's offensive adjustments, but VanGorder is busy at work evaluating his personnel and installing a new defense.
While our first looks at the unit hinted as much, after four seasons of Bob Diaco forcing an offense to matriculate down the field to score points, the attitude has shifted 180 degrees.
"I think my mindset, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive," VanGorder said after practice. "It starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach. Can we hold up out there?"
There may be no bigger question tied to the fate of the Irish than the one VanGorder asked. With a rebuilt front seven and a deep but unproven roster allowing the Irish to build a diverse set of sub-packages, Notre Dame will look and defend like a completely different defense.
"No matter what you do, you need to succeed," VanGorder told UND.com's Jack Nolan. "We’ll be different, but the expectations will be the same."
Is Russell Ready to Be a Shutdown Cornerback?
He may only be entering the third season playing cornerback in his life, but rising junior KeiVarae Russell is now the elder statesman of the Irish defense.
Russell's 26 starts at cornerback for the Irish are the most on Notre Dame's defense, a shocking reality that also says something about the youth of VanGorder's unit.
But after an impressive game in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers, Russell enters his third season in South Bend with sky-high expectations. The loquacious cornerback filled the South Bend Tribune's Tyler James in on his lofty goals:
My goal is to win the Thorpe this year,” Russell said in reference to the Jim Thorpe Award given to the top defensive back in college football. “I don't want to win it next year. I want to win it next year, but I'm not trying to say I'm going to wait until my senior year. I want to win it this year. That's a big goal for me, to win the Thorpe this year. I think I really I can. The biggest thing for me is perfecting my craft and becoming a true lockdown corner. I know I can.”
As his corner development continues, Russell hopes the progress produces more turnovers and big plays for him and the Irish defense. In his first two seasons at Notre Dame, he snagged only three interceptions.
“The first step is to be a lockdown corner,” Russell said. “I can't say forcing turnovers if I'm not even covering my guy each and every play. Once I get to that point to where I know no matter who I go against, I can lock you down. I believe I can. I really believe that. That's the next step after that: forcing turnovers even in the run game and the pass game.
While Bob Diaco's defense was built around a robust front seven, VanGorder's defense is anchored back to front. No position has more pressure on it than cornerback, which is seeming more and more like one of the strengths of the roster with Cole Luke, Florida transfer Cody Riggs, Matthias Farley and Devin Butler all looking capable.
The Irish haven't had a true shutdown cornerback since Shane Walton was a consensus All-American. Russell has the talent and confidence, but he'll be tested early and often next season.
At Least One Person Hasn't Given the Starting Quarterback Job to Everett Golson
Just about everybody expects Everett Golson to be the Irish's starting quarterback. After leading the Irish to the BCS title game in 2012, Golson's return to Notre Dame made his return to the starting lineup feel like a formality.
But don't tell Malik Zaire that. The rising sophomore quarterback plans to win the starting job.
"There will only be one guy starting August 30th against Rice at Notre Dame Stadium," Zaire told the Elkhart Truth's Rachel Terlep last week. "There will only be one guy on the field, and I believe that will be me."
That kind of moxie is needed if you want to be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame. And it's the type of attitude that's helped push both quarterbacks as they work towards next season.
"They help each other, but it’s not one where they’re going to share notes and sit down and say ‘How can I help you beat me out?'" Brian Kelly said last week. "It’s not happening."
Zaire's eligibility clock starts this season, a decision Kelly made last season without completely divulging his plans to the young quarterback. And while Golson's experience both on the field and inside Kelly's system make Zaire's battle an uphill one, it's a fight he's doing his best to win.
"It's always going to be an uphill battle at the end of the day going against a guy who has been there and done that in a sense," Zaire continued, per Terlep. "Being that it's an open competition, there are definitely some challenges I will have to overcome to get there."
After seeing Zaire's electric moves in the open field and his handling of the football in the read option game, expect to see the young quarterback on the field, if only in specialty situations.
His chance at the starting job likely won't come until Golson exits the program, but for the first time in the Kelly era, the Irish have two quarterbacks that can run the same offensive system.
In a Three-Headed Running Back Race, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant Can Do It All
With Will Mahone and Amir Carlisle playing slot receiver, the running back position has fallen on Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. After mixing and matching personnel groupings with different skill sets last season, the new offensive coordinator talked about the flexibility all three backs have and how it can help open up the playbook.
"I think there are things that all three of them do well," Denbrock said this week. "I don’t look at them and see major weaknesses in their game. I love the versatility of those three guys in particular because we don’t have to be predictable about who’s in the game and what type of scheme we’re playing."
Last year, George Atkinson's limitations in the passing game forced the Irish into some situations where defenses could key in on certain play calls based on who was on the field. With this trio, that's no longer the case.
A season after the running back position was practically absent in the passing game, all three backs could provide matchup problems and an explosive option out of the backfield.
“Power. Power. Powerful.” Kelly on Greg Bryant’s addition to the offense. “This kid’s powerful. He’s a powerful back."— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) March 22, 2014
The Future Is Bright For Mike McGlinchey
While Brian Kelly hasn't committed to anything, it's looking more and more like rising sophomore Mike McGlinchey will be the team's starting right tackle. And while Kelly has raved about the Philadelphia native's athleticism on more than one occasion, Mike Denbrock got in on the act as well.
"When he grows up and when the light comes on and he gets it, he’s going to be an incredible football player," Denbrock told Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. "Obviously, his size is hard to miss. But with that, he’s got some football intelligence that can be cultivated and can grow, I think, rather quickly.
Denbrock on McGlinchey: "We’ve kind of thrown him to the wolves this spring and let him fight through it and & he’s done a nice job so far."— Andrew Owens (@BGI_AndrewOwens) March 26, 2014
"That puts us in the position to get him on the field right away. We’ve kind of thrown him to the wolves here in the spring and let him kind of fight through it, and he’s done a real nice job so far."
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.