Notre Dame Football: Development Needs to Come Quickly on Defense

Keith ArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterAugust 6, 2014

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 02:  Eilar Hardy #16 (L) and Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a sack against the Navy Midshipmen at Notre Dame Stadium on November 2, 2013 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Navy 38-34.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

NCAA rules limit the amount of time teams can spend on the field during their first week. So while two hours feels gone in an instant, a football coach would point out there are 22 hours left to get more work accomplished. 

That's certainly the case for Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The veteran assistant has spent most of the past decade working in the NFL, where 20-hour rules and other time constraints vanish once a team hits training camp. 

But VanGorder's been tasked with getting a young and inexperienced defense up to speed, with the clock ticking closer and closer to August 30. And after two days of practice, VanGorder caught up with's Jack Nolan and gave an appraisal of where his unit stands learning the decidedly different scheme he's installed.

"I think the guys, the veterans have moved along, and schematically are more responsible and familiar with it," VanGorder told Nolan. "But the idea of consistency right now, which you expect in a Day Two, is something of concern. So that's what we've got to continue to preach. We've got to get consistent good play, we've got to get more productive plays, and that will all come."

VanGorder specifically citing productivity is interesting, only because last season's defense struggled to make the productive plays that catapulted Notre Dame into the BCS title game in 2012.

While Bob Diaco built a system that held strong to basic principles, it thrived by making game-changing plays, with Manti Te'o taking the football away at a ridiculous pace for a linebacker, and the Irish defense playing sensational red-zone defense.

Those big plays were few and far between last year. Personnel changes were made to combat the deficiencies that hampered the 2013 defense, a group that was 103rd nationally in turnovers and 83rd in sacks.

Young safety Max Redfield was moved into the starting lineup, pushing Matthias Farley outside to cornerback. Jaylon Smith was pushed inside to the Will linebacker spot, forcing teams to deal with the Irish's best playmaker on every snap.

While Kelly continues to talk about the Irish playing multiple fronts, just about everybody expects the Irish to base their defense out of a 4-3 after four seasons with a 3-4 set. 

Of course, the Irish won't be able to utilize their skill if they're unable to fully grasp what they're doing.

So after 15 spring practices, VanGorder and the defensive staff utilized June to spend time reinstalling their defense, taking a page out of the NFL playbook by holding their own version of OTAs (Organized Team Activities). 

Apr 12, 2014; Notre Dame, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder watches warmups before the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

"It was another chance for our guys in our new system, maybe more important to us, because it was a new system that they were learning," VanGorder explained. "I think it worked well for us and was advantageous." 

At every level of the defense, the Irish are counting on new blood to make an impact. With pass rush a need, converted outside linebackers Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams will start at defensive end.

Former walk-on Joe Schmidt has proven early in camp that his spring ascent into the starting lineup was far from a fluke. He's the man in the middle, while youngster Nyles Morgan learns the defense and Jarrett Grace continues to heal from a gruesome leg injury. Converted safety John Turner will play outside linebacker, as will former wide receiver James Onwualu, two wild cards who will be counted on to make plays in space and hold up against the run. 

Sophomore Cole Luke holds down the cornerback position across from KeiVarae Russell. Florida transfer Cody Riggs looks like the type of versatile cover man VanGorder and Brian Kelly have coveted, an undersized but physical talent who will bounce into the slot to cover inside receivers in multiple personnel groupings. 

"I think that's the battle you're in," VanGorder said, when asked about the personnel tweaks. "When you have a new system and you have new roles, and you're trying to encourage those particular roles from each player, he's in the battle of learning the system—a new language, new terms—so sometimes, it takes a little bit longer for them to accomplish their particular roles."

Less than a week into things, VanGorder and the Irish defense still have some time. But with an offense primed to score a ton of points, Notre Dame will win football games if the defense can complement Kelly's spread attack. 

So as we hunt for answers at position battles and wonder how VanGorder's attacking scheme will help force turnovers and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, the veteran coach is still preaching patience. 

"They've got to get comfortable," VanGorder said. "They've got to be able to go out and play fast. That's really the goal of all football players... When they get a comfort level with all those things, now you've got a player who is playing fast. That's when I think our scheme will become more effective and exciting for them."