When freshly minted Notre Dame football defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder ushered in a new defense, much of the focus was on the alignment. Would the Irish switch to a 4-3? Would there still be remnants of the 3-4?
While those questions were and are certainly relevant, VanGorder has stressed the defense will be “multiple,” and Irish head coach Brian Kelly has always been quick to diminish the buzz surrounding a 4-3.
Rather, VanGorder has emphasized the importance of cornerback play in his aggressive, attacking defense.
And in 2014, it will be Notre Dame’s corners who set the tone for the defense.
One of the simplest overgeneralizations of former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s defense was that it was a bend-but-don’t-break structure. One could argue that Notre Dame, especially in its secondary, focused on keeping plays in front of it. The Irish defense allowed the fewest plays (34) of 20 or more yards to opponents in 2013, per CFBStats.com.
In turn, however, Notre Dame’s defense forced few turnovers. The Irish ranked tied for 103rd (of 125 teams) with just 17 turnovers forced—four fumbles recovered and 13 interceptions—according to CFBStats.com.
To be sure, turnovers aren’t the sole definitive measure of a defense’s aggressiveness and success. Pressure comes in different forms, as Kelly noted during the spring. But the Irish will look to ramp up the pressure, especially in the secondary.
“The new system that we’re under right now is just something that we want to challenge all routes,” defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said during the spring. “We want to be on attack mode. And the whole philosophy is that we don’t want the offense to dictate how we play defense.”
That philosophy starts with the cornerbacks. Junior KeiVarae Russell returns for his third season starting on the perimeter, and the talented and loquacious corner could set the tone for the entire defense as well.
Behind Russell, the Irish have one of their most impressive collections of talent and depth in recent years. Cole Luke and Cody Riggs will likely compete for the other starting role. Matthias Farley can be a key piece used in sub-packages, and Devin Butler and Nick Watkins have the talent to crack the rotation.
Combining that sort of depth and ability with an attacking mindset should position the cornerbacks as the tone-setters of the defense.
“Everything that we do...we’re aggressive, we’re competing, we’re physical, and that whole mindset of challenge every route, challenge every route,” Cooks said. “So just being more aggressive when the ball is in the air, being more aggressive when you’re engaged in a blocker, being more aggressive flying through the ball.”
In theory, more aggressive cornerback play should have a trickle-down effect for the entire defense—more turnovers, more energy. And the cornerbacks could lift up the rest of the defense, which is inexperienced along the defensive line and facing injury questions at linebacker.
Instead of being a reactive, preventative group, Notre Dame’s cornerbacks can propel a new-look defense in 2014.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.