Notre Dame Football: Winners and Losers of the Brian VanGorder Hire
Frequent scheme overhauls are not uncommon in today’s nomadic nature of college football coaching. After three different coordinators during the Charlie Weis tenure, Notre Dame ran a conservative 3-4 defense for four seasons under Brian Kelly.
When coordinator Bob Diaco left for Connecticut in December, Kelly tabbed former colleague Brian VanGorder to direct the Irish defense. VanGorder, the 2002 Broyles Award winner at Georgia for the nation’s best assistant coach, has transitioned Notre Dame to a 4-3 alignment.
Much of Notre Dame’s defensive roster was recruited for specific positions in the 3-4, so many players spent the spring adjusting to new roles. Others who were recruited more for their raw athleticism have found the system change more to their liking.
Which Irish defenders will be most impacted by VanGorder’s arrival? Let’s look at the winners and losers of the move to a 4-3 defense.
Winner: CB KeiVarae Russell
KeiVarae Russell was thrown to the fire as a true freshman in 2012, being forced to start the season opener at cornerback after an August injury to projected starter Lo Wood. Two seasons later, Russell is a budding star as he enters his junior season.
Notre Dame was mostly a zone-coverage team under Diaco. That will change under VanGorder, who will be more aggressive in both coverages and blitzes. In order to really draw the eye of NFL scouts, Russell needs to show he can handle playing press coverage.
The VanGorder hire comes at the perfect time for Russell. He has less than ideal NFL size, so he’ll have to prove his versatility and sound technique. Playing closer to the line of scrimmage should allow Russell to add the final piece of the puzzle to his expanding resume as an elite cornerback.
Loser: LB Kendall Moore
The switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 was not ideal for Kendall Moore, whose skill set is mostly limited to inside linebacker. With one less inside position in the new alignment, the likelihood of the fifth-year senior making a significant impact has dwindled.
Former walk-on Joe Schmidt blew past Moore on the depth chart this spring. Moore will enter the season as the No. 2 middle linebacker at best, depending on the health of Jarrett Grace as he returns from a broken leg.
A productive finish to the 2013 season gave the Irish coaching staff hope that Moore could help ease the loss of Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. A difficult spring for Moore adapting to VanGorder’s system has changed that tune heading into the summer.
Winner: DT Sheldon Day
The Irish defensive line is full of inexperience, with Sheldon Day being the lone proven commodity. He’ll transition from a 5-technique 3-4 end to a three-technique tackle in the 4-3, a perfect fit for his size and athleticism (think former Pitt star Aaron Donald).
In VanGorder’s one-gap system, he’ll be able to attack the backfield rather than just taking on blockers in the two-gap system that Diaco ran. This will allow the junior to utilize his quickness to be more disruptive behind the line of scrimmage.
With Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt both now in the NFL, Day will have to go from simply a promising player to one of the top interior linemen in college football for Notre Dame to contend for a playoff berth. We saw Nix do just that in 2012. Will history repeat itself with Day?
Loser: CB Matthias Farley
A surprise starter in 2012 after Jamoris Slaughter tore his Achilles tendon in Week 3, Matthias Farley developed into a reliable safety who could defend the run well. A spring switch to cornerback will likely come with a reduction in playing time.
Farley will be on the field mostly in sub-packages, with Russell, Cole Luke and incoming transfer Cody Riggs ahead of him on the cornerback depth chart. His big-game experience is invaluable, but there are simply more talented athletes on the roster in the defensive backfield.
It’s the second position switch for Farley, who moved to defense from wide receiver following a redshirt year in 2011. While it hasn’t been spun as such by Kelly and VanGorder, it’s hard to argue that this is anything less than a demotion for the two-year starter.
Winner: DE Ishaq Williams
After three years, Ishaq Williams has lost the benefit of the doubt about breaking out into the player that he was expected to be as a top-50 recruit in 2011. However, moving from “Cat” linebacker under Diaco to defensive end under VanGorder should prove beneficial for the Brooklyn, New York, native.
It’s been a struggle for Williams for most of his career, but his ability has never been questioned. He can now play with his hand in the ground and simply rush the quarterback, a job description simpler than the one he had under Diaco.
Time is running out before declaring Williams a bust. There are plenty of instances of players becoming stars in their senior season after underwhelming during their first three seasons. However, after having yet to meet expectations despite plenty of opportunity, we’ll believe it when we see it with Williams.
Loser: DT Chase Hounshell
We haven’t seen Chase Hounshell for over two years, as shoulder surgeries have sidelined him since 2011. He’s back to full health now, but where does he fit in the unproven-and-crowded defensive line depth chart?
Hounshell’s measurables fit best as a 3-4 end, but that’s no longer an option. Is he big enough to play tackle? Is he disruptive enough to play end? After two seasons on the shelf with a bum shoulder, the reality is that no one is really sure.
Spring saw Hounshell get most of his work at 3-technique tackle behind Day, but on a given day, he’s anywhere from 15-20 pounds lighter than Day. The perseverance Hounshell showed in coming back after two shoulder surgeries will again be necessary as he adjusts to a new defense.
Winner: LB John Turner
John Turner was buried among a loaded safety group, but VanGorder appears to have carved out a niche for the Indianapolis native as a hybrid strong-side linebacker/nickel safety. Entering his third year in the program, his impact on the team should come much sooner than it appeared it would just a few months ago.
Expect VanGorder to use five and six defensive backs frequently early in the season due to injuries in the linebacking corps. Grace (broken leg) and Ben Councell (torn ACL) both missed the spring, with Grace’s availability for the fall still a question mark.
Turner has taken advantage of both the scheme change and the lack of available bodies for spring practice. Converted wide receiver James Onwualu is also working at the position, but Turner’s additional year of experience plus not having to switch sides of the ball gives him a leg up in the competition.