In a little over a week, Notre Dame will open training camp at the Culver Military Academy. While most of the headlines will focus on Everett Golson's return, the biggest question mark as the Irish enter the season is the state of Brian VanGorder's defense.
Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator has had 15 practices to work with a young unit that needs to replace Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt on the defensive line, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Prince Shembo at linebacker and captain Bennett Jackson in the secondary.
New NCAA rules allowed VanGorder and his defensive staff to work with their players this summer, a huge help as installation continues.
But aside for the brief look at the new defensive scheme in the televised Blue-Gold game—where most of the Irish's big changes were likely kept away from public eye—what VanGorder plans to do with the Irish personnel is still the team's biggest mystery heading into the 2014 season.
With only two seasons at the college level in the last decade (one as the head coach at Georgia Southern, the other as Gene Chizik's defensive coordinator at Auburn), VanGorder has spent much of his time game-planning at the sport's highest level.
That means no wasted time spent recruiting but rather just logging hours in the proverbial laboratory, building exotic sub-packages and attacking schemes as one of the heaviest blitzing coordinators in the NFL.
Charlie Weis still hasn't lived down his "decided schematic advantage" comments, but VanGorder's work with top defensive minds such as Jack Del Rio, Mike Smith and Rex Ryan can only help the Irish move forward, with Bob Diaco gone to run the UConn football program.
To get our best guess at what VanGorder will do with the Irish defense, you need to turn back the clock to his time at Georgia.
Handpicked to be Mark Richt's first defensive coordinator, VanGorder quickly built an elite defense, immediately pushing the Bulldogs into a Top 25 scoring defense. His next three seasons had Georgia among the top units in the country, with the No. 4-, No. 3- and No. 9-ranked units from 2002-2004.
It was over a decade ago, but it's likely the best clue as to how VanGorder might approach the Irish defense in 2014. So let's turn back the clock and see if we can find any hints as we prepare for a new-look Notre Dame defense.
Any attempt at an apples-to-apples comparison needs to start with personnel. In the four years VanGorder coordinated the Georgia defense, plenty of talent played between the hedges in Athens.
The Bulldogs produced four All-American defenders under VanGorder, led by three-time All-American defensive end David Pollack and joined by outside linebacker Boss Bailey, Rover Sean Jones and free safety Thomas Davis.
Six more players earned All-SEC honors, with cornerback Tim Wansley, defensive end Charles Grant, defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, linebacker Tony Gilbert, rover Kentrell Curry and linebacker Odell Thurman each being named to an All-SEC team.
The NFL draft was also very kind to VanGorder's top performers. The 2002 draft had six Bulldog defenders taken, including Grant in the first round. In 2003, defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan gave VanGorder a Top 10 pick, with Bailey going in the second round and Gilbert selected late. Undrafted defensive end Chris Clemons is still active in the NFL.
Three more defenders were taken in the 2004 draft before Georgia produced two first-rounders in 2005 with Davis (14th overall) and Pollack (17th). Thurman was selected a round later.
Looking at Notre Dame's defensive personnel, both KeiVarae Russell and Jaylon Smith project to be potentially elite players, with Smith on pace to be another first-rounder. If VanGorder can awaken Ishaq Williams from his slumber, he's got the physical ability to play on Sunday as well.
Defensive tackles Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones should get a boost from VanGorder as well. Day is a breakout player waiting to happen, while Jones has the size that should play very well in VanGorder's system. Romeo Okwara is learning a new position, so he's another unknown heading into the season.
It's too soon to tell about young players such as Cole Luke or Max Redfield, though both have expectations on their shoulders. And veteran Cody Riggs should find a perfect niche in VanGorder's attacking scheme, capable of using his diverse skill set as both a cornerback and safety.
Still, it's hard to look at Notre Dame's personnel—especially after losing Nix, Tuitt and Shembo—and see anything close to the talent the Bulldogs produced.
A big reason why VanGorder had so many players earn postseason accolades is the ridiculous productivity the Bulldogs put together during that four-year run. Comparing those stats to the not-too-shabby four-year run Bob Diaco had in South Bend is a study in contrasting styles.
VanGorder built his reputation around attacking. Diaco built his defense around conservative principles and an emphasis on big-play prevention. While players like Manti Te'o were able to rack up impressive stats, by and large, Georgia's defense performed far more impressively on the stat sheet.
Te'o is Notre Dame's only player to go over 100 tackles in a season the past four years. At Georgia, six players eclipsed the century mark, with three in each the 2002 and 2003 season.
Making plays behind the line of scrimmage also greatly favors VanGorder's scheme. The Irish never made more than 70 tackles for loss (TFLs) under Diaco, staying remarkably consistent as they averaged 68 TFLs a year. Only four defenders made more than 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage, with Darius Fleming, Te'o, Tuitt and Shembo accomplishing it.
At Georgia, the Bulldogs wreaked havoc behind the line of scrimmage.
Under VanGorder, they averaged 91.25 TFLs a season, including an astounding 116 in 2002. Pollock was Georgia's biggest playmaker behind the line of scrimmage, averaging over 18 tackles for loss during his three All-American campaigns, as six different players (Odell Thurman also had two seasons with double-digit TFLs) had 10 or more stops behind the line of scrimmage.
The last major stat worth examining are turnovers. Diaco's four-year run actually produced more interceptions than VanGorder's four seasons in Athens. Harrison Smith's seven interceptions paced the 2010 campaign, while Georgia only intercepted five passes in VanGorder's final season with the Bulldogs.
Where Georgia had the edge was forced fumbles. Notre Dame averaged just eight forced fumbles a season under Diaco, where VanGorder's units forced an average of 14 a season.
While the mystery will reveal itself come August 30, there are a few interesting pieces to VanGorder's defense that seemed essential-like elements in Athens. The first is the "Rover" position. A hybrid linebacker/safety, it was one of the most productive positions on the field.
|VanGorder's Defensive Production at Georgia|
|YPG Allowed||TFLs||PPG Allowed||FBS Rank|
|UGA Sports Information Dept.|
We saw early in Notre Dame's spring practice that John Turner found himself in a position fairly similar to the Rover. After spending the first two years of his career in South Bend buried on the safety depth chart, Turner looks like the leading candidate to play that role for the Irish—if VanGorder is running a similar system.
Converted wide receiver James Onwualu was also getting plenty of reps during spring practice, another hybrid-type player who could fit that mold. Then again, you should keep an eye on fifth-year transfer Cody Riggs, who played both safety and cornerback for Florida, not to mention Matthias Farley, who transitioned to cornerback this spring but has a similar skill set.
Of course, matching personnel to scheme is crucial to any defense's success. And while much of the spring was spent installing a completely new system and verbiage, you should expect Brian Kelly's fingerprints to be all over the defense as well.
That means a continued emphasis on not giving up big plays and a commitment to playing a multiple front, with Kelly still wanting to shift between three- and four-man fronts.
Regardless of the changes, one of VanGorder's main schematic challenges will be manufacturing a pass rush with a roster filled with players not necessarily recruited to get after the quarterback. Notre Dame's depth at defensive end is precarious, and a lot has been hoisted onto the shoulders of Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams, two converted defensive ends playing the position for the first time.
The depth behind them is even more unproven, making defensive end one of the more interesting positions to watch as recruiting moves forward. While Pollack is now only known as a talking head on ESPN's College GameDay, he's a player whom blue-chippers should spend a few hours on YouTube getting to know.
One of the biggest assets that VanGorder's unproven unit has going into the season is mystery. His one season at Georgia Southern and Auburn won't tell much. Finding coaching film from over decade ago is next to impossible. And guessing what wrinkles VanGorder took with him from coaches such as Ryan and Del Rio is even harder.
So while Notre Dame's defense is filled with question marks and unproven talent, VanGorder has a few rabbits in his hat as well. And while we won't know what's in store until the season begins, a look back at his Georgia defenses might be our best hint.