There is no smart way to tell, for sure, whether Notre Dame will get the good or bad version of first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder in 2014 (or beyond). Given the extremes of his previous college experience, each pole of the good-bad spectrum is plausible, along with every data point in-between.
The good involves his four-year stint at Georgia in the early 2000s. VanGorder won a Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant in 2003, leading a Bulldogs defense that allowed just 14.5 points and 276.9 yards per game—both of which were in the top five nationally.
But it wasn't just one year that defined VanGorder's time between the hedges. The fullness of his work was just as impressive:
|Year||YPG Allowed||FBS Rank||PPG Allowed||FBS Rank|
On the flip side of this is the 2012 season at Auburn, VanGorder's only other season as a power-conference defensive coordinator. That was, of course, a historically bad year for the Tigers on both sides of the ball, and VG's defense allowed 420.5 yards per game and finished No. 95 on the Football Outsiders' defensive F/+ ratings.
With that as the last taste in their mouth, some Notre Dame fans didn't know how to feel when VanGorder was hired in late December. They were even more anxious when VanGorder started tinkering with the defensive formations. Where does he get the right?!
However, if ever any coach deserves a mulligan, it would have to be one from the Auburn staff in 2012. That was a sinking ship for reasons beyond VanGorder's control, as he joined Gene Chizik's crew the year before the whole thing got blown to pieces. It was unstable from the day he walked through the doors, which is different than the model Brian Kelly has established in South Bend.
Chizik lost his favorite assistant (Gus Malzahn), and the operation crumbled before him. Kelly loses his top assistants routinely, but the ship always seems to stay afloat.
With spring practice rearing to a close, Notre Dame has already seen a bit of the pre-2012 VanGorder—VanGeorgia, if you will. It has come in the emergence of walk-on linebacker Joe Schmidt, who has been running with the first team, per Rachel Terlep of the Elkhart Truth.
That is classic VanGorder. A linebacker specialist at heart, VG can coax the best out of a guy like Schmidt, whose physical limitations are offset with high football IQ and scheme comprehension.
VanGorder—the good VanGorder—makes average linebackers good and good linebackers great, just as he did at Georgia (but not Auburn).
That makes this spring, already, a very welcome sign.
Ultimately, though, VanGorder's first year in South Bend will be defined by how he rushes the passer. After registering just 21 sacks in 2013, the Irish return just three in 2014. He and Kelly are determined to improve those numbers.
"We want to create more pressure for the quarterback," said Kelly, according to B/R's Keith Arnold. "We want them under more duress."
"From that standpoint, maybe the net-gain there is turnovers, but I think if they're making bad decisions and throwing the ball away, we're gaining downs in that respect, too."
That means a shift to a multiple-front defense, abandoning the straightforward 3-4 of years past. It means VanGorder must be the same, only different, than he was more than a decade ago. The game has changed since VanGorder thrived in the early 2000s, and he knows, to his credit, that his philosophy must follow.
"...My mindset, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive," said VanGorder, according to Arnold (for NBCSports). "It starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach. Can we hold up out there?"
VanGorder's Georgia defenses were consistent. Even when they weren't at their best, they were at their good-enough-to-beat-you. According to Matt Smith of Southern Pigskin, they only gave up 30 points in one game during VG's four-year tenure—a paltry fraction of their output in the preceding and superseding years:
4 yrs pre-VanGorder: UGA allowed 30+ 11 times. 4 yrs with VanGorder: UGA allowed 30+ 1 time. 4 yrs post-VanGorder: UGA allowed 30+ 11 times.— Matt Smith (@MattSmithCFB) December 29, 2013
Notre Dame's defense might be different.
With so much emphasis on aggression and forcing turnovers, this team has the potential for a 30-point slip-up here or there. Especially with North Carolina, Florida State, Arizona State, Louisville and USC on the schedule, it will be hard to post the same numbers as UGA in 2003.
However, against an offense like Florida State, playing aggressive is the lesser of two evils. Unlike sitting back and trusting your base package, it does not put you at risk of systematic destruction. It might result in a few long plays and a massacre, sure.
It also might result in an upset.
In this regard, perhaps it's not right to ask whether Notre Dame will get the Georgia or Auburn version of VanGorder. Perhaps the right answer is neither: that he'll be a version of himself we've never seen.
The Notre Dame version of VanGorder.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT