Year in, year out, it is the same thing.
"Our defense stinks. We can't stop anybody. We lack speed, explosiveness, and big-play ability. Our front four is pretty good, but our LBs and DBs are mid-major caliber. We just don't have the horses on defense like we used to, like Ohio State, USC, and the better SEC schools do."
To that there are two responses.
- You're right.
- What did you expect?
Let me explain #2. Why do Irish fans expect great defense in the first place? Surprise! When your only bowl victory in, like, 15 years is over 7-6 Hawai'i (in the Hawai'i Bowl, no less!), you're going to have trouble recruiting big-time players at any position.
"But we have been getting great players on offense like Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Brady Quinn, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph, Maurice Stovall, Armando Allen, and Malcolm Floyd!"
Well, of course you have. The reason? The last three coaching hires in a row have been Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weis, and Brian Kelly. They are passing-game guys, so of course, the QBs, WRs, TEs. and RBs are going to come.
Also, guys like that are going to be able to manage a good offense even when the talent isn't great, as Weis (and admit it, at times, Willingham) did when there were issues at WR and OL.
If Notre Dame had hired defensive coaches instead, they'd recruit better defensive players and also better use the players that they do have on defense. Even if Notre Dame had hired an offensive coach who emphasized the running game or the offensive line instead of being a straight passing-game guy, the result would likely be better recruiting and play on defense.
And it is ridiculous that Notre Dame didn't go precisely in that direction by building a program around defense and/or ball control. First, it would have made a better use of the talent that you can get to South Bend, Indiana. The idea that Notre Dame was ever going to beat USC, Texas, Miami, Florida, and FSU at their own game was absurd. It requires getting practically every single "speed" player that the Midwest produces (fat chance so long as Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Penn State are playing football) or getting better players from California, Texas, and Florida than the schools located in those states get. Now if Notre Dame were still a top five program, that would be possible. But ND isn't a top five (or even top 25) program right now and hasn't been in years—that's the problem.
Second, defense and the running game gets you further in college football than offense—and especially the passing game—does. That's why Nebraska won more national titles in the 1990s than anyone else. It's why Nick Saban has won more titles than Steve Spurrier and as many as Bobby Bowden despite having been a college head coach for a fraction of the time.
It's why the SEC has battered the pass-happy Pac-10 and ACC. The type of football that Notre Dame USED to excel in is the very sort that they should have been emphasizing the past few years to get back to where they CAN go into California, Texas, and Florida and get the players they need like Ohio State, Penn State, Oklahoma, and Michigan are doing.
But Notre Dame gave that up. Why? Because Notre Dame fans want the star QB. They want the drop-back passers that contend for Heismans and are high NFL draft picks. Well, you got it Golden Domers, because Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen did just that. The problem is that a great defense would have taken you further than Quinn and Clausen ever did.
Top athletes on defense are no different from top athletes on offense. Their first preference is to go to a place where they can contend for a title (Notre Dame hasn't done that in years.)
But their second preference? A place where they can stand out by playing in a great defense. A head coach that emphasizes defense, like a Nick Saban or a Bob Stoops, or at least running the football and stopping the run, like a Jim Tressel or Kirk Ferentz, can go into the living room of a 4-star LB or safety and say, "I'll make you the next Brian Urlacher or Rodney Harrison" or "Our program needs guys like you to come in and win games for us by shutting the other team down."
That kid will listen. But Ty Willingham, Charlie Weis, or Brian Kelly coming in and saying, "Hey, we need somebody to come in and make a tackle or two and slow the defense down and maybe create a turnover or two while our offense scores 40 points a game and gets all the credit" isn't going to work.
The 4- and 5-star guys on defense that a passing-game coach will get to a program that hasn't done anything in years will generally be guys that the big-time programs don't really want that much and aren't trying hard to get. That's exactly what happened with all those 4-star LBs, DEs, and DBs that Willingham and Weis recruited.
But hiring a defensive coach means bad offenses like the Bob Davie era, right? Wrong.
Bob Davie's offenses stunk because A) he hired first Jim Colletto then Kevin Wilson as an offensive coordinator and B) because he kept vacillating between an option offense (which is what he knew that he needed to run to win) and a pro-style offense (which is what the fans and critics wanted him to run) and wound up getting the athletes for neither.
The truth is that if you have a good plan on offense and stick to it, it is easier to win with a great defense and an average offense in college football than it is to win with a great offense and average defense.
All one has to do is look at how Nebraska came within one horrible call made by Big 12 officials determined to get the Texas Longhorns into the national title game of winning the Big 12 title last season and compare that with the five years of frustration under Charlie Weis.
Or you can look at what Kirk Ferentz has done at Iowa by focusing on getting the best players up front on both sides of the ball that he can, and how Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez and his successor has had a similar strategy.
If Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin can do it, why can't Notre Dame?
The answer? Because of the determination to be the QB factories that FSU, Florida, Miami, and USC were. Notre Dame has chosen mediocrity in pursuing the next Troy Aikman over winning a national title with the next Craig Krenzel (or perhaps the next Tony Rice!)
Look, if Notre Dame were a more defensive-oriented school with a more run-oriented offense, what prevents guys like Terrelle Pryor, Eric Crouch, Pat White, Denard Robinson, or Tim Tebow from coming? Guys like that aren't going to come to a program that can't win a bowl game to play another position, as Charlie Weis famously tried—and failed—to do with selling Pryor on playing WR. But they might choose playing QB at Notre Dame over playing another position somewhere else.
Now maybe Brian Kelly can win enough games at Notre Dame with the passing game so that he will eventually be able to get better athletes on defense. He does deserve the chance to see and let that happen. Also, Kelly's small school background (which, let's face it, does include Cincinnati where he got his share of 2-star players) may help him identify guys that aren't 4- or 5-star recruits that can actually play defense. Notre Dame fans shouldn't scoff at that, because a couple of unheralded recruits from the Willingham era, Mike Richardson and Chinedum Ndukwe, beat out a lot of higher-rated players at Notre Dame to become not only starters, but went on to NFL careers.
The problem is that Notre Dame needed more guys like Richardson and Ndukwe and fewer 4- and 5-star busts. If Kelly can identify guys like that and reel them in, Notre Dame fans should be happy with that instead of bashing him for not getting top five recruiting classes like Florida, Texas, USC, and Ohio State.
I remember Ty Willingham getting hammered for not signing top-rated recruiting classes and everyone being so thrilled when Charlie Weis came in and signed those top five classes, thereby allegedly disproving Paul Hornung in the eyes of Notre Dame fans. As it turned out, even though Weis signed higher-rated classes, Willingham recruited more good players by focusing less on stars and more on ability. (Couldn't coach them, mind you, but he did recruit them.)
Bottom line, Notre Dame fans: quit undermining Brian Kelly's chances for success by whining about the defense.
If you wanted great defense, you should have demanded that Notre Dame go after a top defensive mind. But hiring a string of guys designed to make Notre Dame "quarterback U" and still expecting a great defense right off the bat is trying to have your cake and eat it too. That doesn't work in the college football world, so quit expecting it to.