Notre Dame Football: Brian VanGorder's Defenses by the Numbers

Mike Monaco@@MikeMonaco_Contributor IApril 25, 2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Excluding a certain position battle between a pair of quarterbacks, arguably the biggest Notre Dame football storyline of the past few months has been new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and his aggressive approach.

VanGorder arrived in South Bend with a wealth of experience as a defensive coordinator—many years and many different stops—at both the collegiate and professional levels.

Entering his 26th season as a coach, VanGorder is now with his 12th school or organization. His longevity provides us with a strong sample size to analyze his past defenses.

We’ll take a by-the-numbers look at what trends have emerged over his years as a collegiate defensive coordinator, and we’ll examine what we should expect from the Irish in 2014.

(The following charts feature stats and rankings from VanGorder’s years as a defensive coordinator at the collegiate level. Notre Dame’s 2013 stats and rankings are included for comparison’s sake.)

Scoring Defense
YearTeamRankPoints Per Game
2013Notre Dame27th22.4
2012Auburn65th (tied)28.3
2000Western Illinois23rd (tied)17.6
1999Central Michigan96th31.3
1998Central Michigan43rd23.0
1997Central Florida73rd27.5
1991Grand Valley State5th11.8 and

Bend but don’t break.

Aggressive. High pressure.

Very generally, those are two different approaches to defense. But no matter the style, the substance is how many points a defense allows.

In these 10 years, VanGorder’s defenses finished around 34th in the nation in scoring defense, on average. There were elite years at Georgia and struggles at Central Florida and Central Michigan.

While an elite defense is likely a stretch for the Irish in 2014—especially with loads of youth and inexperience—a solid, above-average unit is reasonable, based on VanGorder’s past.

Total Defense
YearTeamRankYards Per Game
2013Notre Dame31st366.2
2000Western Illinois12th278.0
1999Central Michigan79th386.1
1998Central Michigan50th354.1
1997Central Florida81st393.9 and

In the nine years in which we analyzed total defense, VanGorder’s squads finished, on average, 42nd in the nation, slightly worse than they did in scoring defense but still solidly positioned.

Again, VanGorder’s defenses are historically good—not great—when it comes to allowing yards, something we saw from Notre Dame last season, when the Irish ranked 31st in the nation in total defense.

Rushing Defense
YearTeamRankYards Per Game
2013Notre Dame70th168.0
2002Georgia19th (tied)114.0
2000Western Illinois40th131.0
1999Central Michigan84th171.8
1998Central Michigan69th164.5
1997Central Florida39th131.5 and

When it comes to stopping the run, VanGorder’s units checked in at an average of 44th in the nation, right in line with the rest of the defensive numbers.

It’s unreasonable to expect the Irish to be dominant against the run in 2014. Notre Dame is replacing five starters in the front seven of a defense that was below average—70th in the nation—defending the rushing game last season.

Passing Defense
YearTeamRankYards Per Game
2013Notre Dame15th198.2
2012Auburn48th (tied)222.9
2001Georgia96th (tied)252.6
2000Western Illinois12th147.0
1999Central Michigan68thN/A
1998Central Michigan32ndN/A
1997Central Florida107th262.5 and

The average ranking for VanGorder’s passing defenses is 46th, which slots those defenses closer to the middle of the pack than to the cream of the crop.

The Irish appear to be stable in the secondary, with KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke manning the corners and Max Redfield emerging in the back half of spring practices. Matthias Farley earned praise from coaches for his work at nickelback, and Cody Riggs is scheduled to join the program in June after graduating from Florida in May.

2013Notre Dame53rd (tied)13
2012Auburn123rd (tied)2
2004Georgia113th (tied)5
2003Georgia21st (tied)17
2002Georgia36th (tied)16
2001Georgia54th (tied)12
2000Western Illinois22nd (tied)17
1997Central Florida54th (tied)11 and

On average, these seven defenses finished 60th in the nation in interceptions, highlighted by the especially weak 2012 and 2004 seasons.

Looking ahead, if Notre Dame does, in fact, play more press coverage on the perimeter and bring more pressure off of the edges, there figure to be plenty of opportunities for defensive backs to make plays in one-on-one situations.

Fumbles Recovered
YearTeamRankFumbles Recovered
2013Notre Dame118th (tied)4
2012Auburn53rd (tied)11
2004Georgia21st (tied)12
2003Georgia42nd (tied)12
2002Georgia21st (tied)15
2001Georgia60th (tied)9
2000Western Illinois13th (tied)17
1997Central Florida62nd (tied)10 and

VanGorder’s defenses ranked 20-plus spots higher, on average, in recovering fumbles than they did in nabbing interceptions. That’s good news for an Irish defense that tied for last in 2013 in fumbles recovered with four.

The key takeaways

No matter how we slice up the statistics, VanGorder’s defenses have averaged out to produce good seasons. There have been stellar and struggling seasons, with middling years mixed in, as well.

On very few occasions have VanGorder’s defenses been elite at causing turnovers. Except in 2000 at Western Illinois—when the Leathernecks finished tied for 13th with 17 fumbles recovered—no VanGorder defenses cracked the top 20 in either interceptions or fumbles recovered.

Still, an aggressive defense might not automatically translate to more turnovers, and that also might not be the primary goal of VanGorder’s attacking approach, according to Irish head coach Brian Kelly.

“I think that’s too simple of a term—creating turnovers,” Kelly said in early April. “I think what Coach VanGorder and I want to create there is, we want to create more pressure for the quarterback. We want them under more duress. And so 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.”


*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.


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