Notre Dame's defense will be a force in 2011.
Ask any Notre Dame fan, and they will tell you that by the end of the 2010 season, Notre Dame's defense kicked ass. Ask them why and you'll get a lot of mumbling about how they kicked ass. Ask them why they sucked at the start of the year and you'll get nothing.
Don't bother asking what scheme they run (a 3-4) or heads will explode.
The fact is, if you're Alabama and everyone on your roster weighs 285 and runs a 4.6 40, scheme doesn't really matter. You can run a 1-1-9 and just throw some meat on the field, and you've got a better than even shot at a shutout.
For non-SEC schools that don't negotiate price as part of the recruiting process or have a condo for momma five miles from campus, it's a little more complicated than that.
For Notre Dame, it gets way more complicated.
The Defensive Renaissance
Notre Dame's defense in 2010 was like a date with that homely girl that likes to sit at a bar and pound a few with you; at first she's not much to look at, but after a while, she's in the running for America's Top Model.
By the end of the night, you’re in love.
In 2010, Notre Dame had an early season stretch where they played three straight bowl teams and gave up an average of 33 points, along with 219 yards rushing and 252 yards passing per game. Needless to say, all three were losses.
Notre Dame finished out the season with two bowl teams and an 8-5 USC squad on the road and gave up an average of eight points, along with 95 yards rushing and 138 yards passing per game. Needless to say, all three were wins.
So did they get a good pep talk, or could it be even deeper than that?
The Shift In Defensive Philosophy
History tells us that if we don't learn from our mistakes, we are bound to repeat them, which is why I never touch Wild Turkey after an all-u-can-eat taco buffet.
But I digress.
To understand what happened to Irish football between September and November 2010, we have to first understand what happened going into the 2010 season...
A new coach (Brian Kelly) brought his new defensive coordinator (Bob Diaco) to convert to a new defensive scheme (from a 4-3 to a 3-4).
The key word here is "new."
Sounds simple enough, and in fact, it had already been done at this very university as recently as 2007, when Charlie Weis...
...brought in his new defensive coordinator (Corwin Brown) to convert to a new defensive scheme (from a 4-3 to a 3-4).
The Weis Experiment was not so great, as the Irish got lit up to the tune of 29 points per game on the way to their hopelessly inept 3-9 season.
Kelly's Experiment, on the other hand, worked pretty well, as the Irish improved game to game and finished up allowing 20 points per game on the way to a respectable 8-5 season. The last three games ND gave up 8.2 per game.
So what happened in 2010 that didn't happen in 2007? And what happened in November that wasn't happening in September?
To answer those questions you need to know something about a 3-4 defense.
The 3-4 Defense
The 3-4 defense formation is three-down linemen (two defensive ends and a nose guard) with four linebackers lined up behind them. Two cornerbacks cover the outside receivers and a strong and free safety make up the middle of the defensive backfield.
Corners tend to be a little bit bigger for them to jam receivers more often, but for the most part, corners and safeties in a 3-4 are the same as in a 4-3 or other conventional defenses.
In the 3-4 defense, the nose guard needs to be a player that can clog up the middle and savage double teams—think fat Godzilla. These are almost always the boys that eat cheeseburgers like tic-tacs, 330 lb-plus guys (like me holding three cases of beer but with a football scholarship in the other hand).
Defensive ends in the 3-4 are the size of defensive tackles in a 4-3. The primary job of the defensive end in the 3-4 is to be strong at the point of attack and be able to push past double teams on running downs and not be taken out of the play by chip blocks when rushing the passer so the pocket (and QB) cave in on a regular basis.
DE's need to be big to tie up blockers and mobile enough to get to the QB. Linebackers love them for doing all the dirty work they get to clean up. (It isn't unusual for a 3-4 linebacker to name their first born child after a good 3-4 DE).
The job prerequisite typically requires DE's to check in somewhere around the 6'4", 285 lb and up range.
Behind the DL Big Uglies (though mom will argue with the insult to her big ugly child), the 3-4 will have an infestation of stud linebackers, so much so you can't swing a shell-shocked QB without hitting one.
Without going too far into the necessary skill set, Outside Linebackers must be able to ignore the "S" on their chest and cope with an unruly red cape to drop into pass coverage, rush the passer or read and react to the run.
When it comes to the inside linebackers, one is generally a run stuffing player who is better able to handle offensive linemen and stop running backs when the offense features a running play, while the other is often a smaller, faster player who excels in pass coverage but can still plug a hole when needed.
All the linebackers usually range in the 6'2",245 area with superior athletic skills, especially on the outside where pass-coverage skills are a must. The very best must almost have Dan Stockrahm-like skills.
The idea behind the 3-4 defense is to disguise where the fourth rusher will come from. Instead of the standard four-down linemen in the 4-3, only three players are clearly attacking on nearly every play. The 3-4 is primarily built to blitz the fourth dude (or not) from regions unknown and/or use the extra linebacker to disguise complex coverages.
A guzillion blitz packages are also available to defensive coordinators as blitzes can come from any of the eight spots in the defensive backfield.
The design concept of the 3-4 defense is to confuse the offensive line in their blocking assignments, particularly in pass blocking, and to create a more complex read for the quarterback.
(Authors Note: Really good QB's like Peyton Manning hate the 3-4 so much he sends it dead roses on Valentine’s Day.)
If you watch a good 3-4 team, the illusion they give you is that they're bringing six or seven guys, but they rarely bring more than four if the D-Line is earning their scholarships.
The Advantage of the 3-4 over the 4-3
As the theory goes, the 3-4 defense has an immediate advantage over the standard 4-3 defense with defending the pass because of the ability to have four linebackers drop into coverage instead of three and by having the ability to rush any combination of linebackers and defensive linemen.
With the right personnel, the 3-4 is also superior to the 4-3 in run defense by having the three big-boned and more mobile defensive linemen occupy multiple blockers, giving the linebackers free lanes to hit the hole and thereby promoting tooth decay among running backs.
For all of the truly wonderful visuals set forth, what truly sets the 3-4 apart from the 4-3 is the amount of versatility it gives to the defensive coordinator.
For example, on 3rd-and-long, the defense could come out with its base 3-4 defense, and midway through the snap count, two big ass, bone-crushing linebackers with intemperate dispositions could put their hands in the dirt that is really synthetic turf and rush the passer, or they could just as easily drop into coverage, or go for a smoke.
It's just that versatile.
Disadvantages of the 3-4 Defense
If it's too good to be true, it's probably a college defensive coordinator telling you if you install his 3-4, you will have an instant winner.
The big drawback of the 3-4 defense is that it's a personnel-based defense, meaning, if you don't have the personnel, you don't have a defense. The second drawback is that even when you have the personnel, you have to teach them how to run it.
From a personnel standpoint, if a team doesn’t have the linebackers who have the speed and size needed or lack defensive linemen who can sneer at the mere idea of blockers, the 3-4 is vulnerable to everything from the pass to the run and even the more common allergies.
Why you ask? With the wrong personnel, teams playing a base 3-4 not only sneeze profusely, but the defense will look worse than morning Snookie.
If the D linemen aren't good enough to draw double teams and cave the pocket, the offense has two extra lineman running free to hunt linebackers and corners or pick up the extra blitzer, giving wide lanes for RB's or all day passes for QB's.
If the linebackers aren't big and athletic, they can't plug holes and the slot back and tight ends will catch 57 passes apiece.
Rumor has it undersized and terminally slow 3-4's are even open to a sneak attack from the unincorporated territory of Guam. I’d heard that elsewhere but have not independently verified its veracity.
The result of these situations is that non-athletic teams that run a 3-4 defense often have bring a linebacker up as the fourth down lineman, often referred to in technical terms as a '4-3 with a linebacker grossly out of position.'
Putting that hand down pretty much moots the whole point of a 3-4, which would prompt me into writing an even worse article about the 4-3.
Both Corwin Brown and Bob Diaco were well aware of these concepts when they took the job.
So what happened to the 2007 3-4 squad that the 2010 3-4 Irish avoided? For one...
If you have that rare football player that has a heart big enough and a brain small enough to run naked through a brick wall, size isn't important, but ask any self-respecting Bleacher Report woman that reads about a 3-4, and she'll tell you, size matters.
The 2007 Irish had all players that had been recruited for a 4-3 defense, and it showed.
They played Maurice Crum, Jr. at ILB at 6'0", 220, Justin Brown at DE at 6'3",255 and Pat Kuntz at nose guard at 6'2", 272, supported by a host of undersized and athletically challenged role players. DE Trevor Laws (6'1", 305) was the only player that probably would have been recruited for a 3-4.
The 2007 Irish defense was a classic case of Aunt Martha opening up the kitchen cabinets and seeing all that's left is spaghetti noodles, a jar of Ragu and three pounds of Italian sausage, then tries to whip up shrimp scampi for dinner.
The line didn't command double teams, the linebackers were not capable of handling both run and pass responsibilities, and the blitzing schemes were useless as the D gave up close to 200 yards rushing a game, so nobody needed to pass if the game was played on a weekend.
The 2010 Irish version of the 3-4 on the other hand, featured DE's Ethan Johnson (6'4", 300) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (6'4", 295), backed up by Kona Schwenke at 6'4", 285.
Linebackers Manti Teo (6'2", 255), Anthony McDonald (6'2", 238), Prince Shembo (6'2", 250), Danny Sponds (6'2", 242), Darius Fleming (6’2”, 250), and Carlo Calabrese (6'1", 245) led a deep contingent of big, fast, athletic linebackers.
Ian Williams (6'2", 305), Hafis Williams (6’1”, 285), and Sean Cwynar (6'4", 280) were undersized at NG but held their own.
By the later stages of 2010, this group was almost as physically intimidating as Khloe Kardashian, though not as scary looking.
With Great Versatility Comes Great Responsibility
So I ask myself, "Self, with oh so many studs, why didn't ND dominate early in 2010?"
I'll tell me why: Because the 3-4 is a professional level defense that's very hard to learn, so much so, most college coaches just pass on it altogether. The learning curve is longer than the horizon. Of Jupiter.
Pro teams that run the 3-4 have more physically and mentally-developed athletes for longer periods of time with way more practice and film time, and they still screw it up.
The 3-4 defense puts heavy responsibilities on the linemen and the linebackers. There are lots of reads and it takes a long time to get them down. These responsibilities are not clear cut and vary dramatically from play to play and formation to formation.
Also with the quick play and misdirection offenses prevalent at the collegiate level, reading those offenses while dealing with the vast responsibilities of the 3-4 can be hard for players that have little experience in the defense.
It's not rocket science, but it's harder than brain surgery by a lot (You can't do it while drunk which is why I hung up my cleats and went back to removing frontal lobes and such).
That's why the defense started slow and kept getting better.
Early in the year, ND sat back on its heels and tried not to make a mistake, mooting some very good athletic talent on the defensive side of the ball and defeating the whole purpose of the 3-4 scheme.
A 3-4 is a sports car with lots of gears and tons of options—you have to drive it hard or performance sucks.
As the defensive personnel became more familiar with the 3-4, there were less blown assignments, and the players could react quicker and do more of the things the defense was designed to do, like confuse O-Lines and QB's with disguised blitzes, mix coverages and jump short routes (see Harrison Smith, Sun Bowl).
Why ND's Defense Will Dominate Going Forward
By the end of last year, the defense was just starting to figure out how to play with their new toy. For 2011, ND has the pieces back with enough experience to exploit the advantages of the 3-4.
This season, expect the Irish to release hell.
The linebackers are big, athletic and fast, enough to plug the run and still get back in coverage. The DE's are big and quick, capable of demanding double teams, stopping the run and pinning their ears back to get at the QB.
The secondary is experienced and very capable, and the NG (Nix) is a space eater that will compete for playing time with Cynar and Williams.
Except for the thin unit behind the DB's, there's depth and heated competition at every position other than Manti Teo at MLB.
Just as importantly, they have the prototypical athletes waiting in the wings that have the size and speed needed to learn now and play the 3-4 down the road or kick ass now if the need arises.
Aaron Lynch (6'6", 260), Stephon Tuitt (6'5", 260) and Ishaq Williams (6'5", 245) are freshmen that are already near the size and athleticism needed for the 3-4, and Kelly has recruited a number of solid athletes like Troy Niklas and Brad Carrico with big frames that can grow into a number of positions.
As his own personal preference, Kelly has also targeted bigger corners that can fight with larger wideouts and more physical safeties that can bring the hammer to better compliment his system.
If you track ND’s recruiting class, Kelly doesn’t give a damn about the player’s press releases.
Kelly Has a Plan
Unlike Ty Willingham that liked to do 18 holes of recruiting a day, or Charlie Weis who thought he was recruiting professional athletes that didn't need to be taught fundamentals or told to work out, Kelly has a specific method for building his team and has been around enough to know how to implement it.
Just as in every place he's coached, Kelly has a clear plan for this defense and it's working.
He has a body type he wants at each position, and a range of speed and athleticism that is required for him to recruit you. He targets his type of kids, and he recruits his ass off to get them.
Kelly demands complete commitment to the weight and conditioning program to develop bodies into stone, and one look at the Spring game will tell you the players are bigger, stronger, and in better shape than any time since the Lou Holtz era.
Kelly has a veteran staff that knows the drill. His coaches have a teaching system to develop the necessary skills for a complex defense, and they coach their kids up every week, both scheme and fundamentals. With every game, you see them growing into a nastier, faster, more aggressive unit.
With the athletes he gets at ND, Kelly is getting the right personnel for a personnel-based defense.
As a testimony to how competitive it is now, my 89-year-old mom is a terror off the edge (although admittedly a disciplinary problem when the whiskey runs out), but at 5'1", 185, she can't even get preferred walk-on status—Charlie would have given her a full ride in a heartbeat.
We've all been through the "new system" dance before, and none of us ever want to hear the words "schematic advantage" ever again, but this time's different.
The 3-4 is one of the predominant defenses in the NFL for a reason, it works, and it works well.
When you watch this defense done properly, it’s a thing of beauty. Tell me: When was the last time you wanted to see a Notre Dame team play defense?
Our D-Line isn't fat and slow anymore, they look like small mountains (big mountains in Nix' case) and run like skill position players. Our linebackers look like they could stop a herd of crazed Rhinos.
The defensive backs don't start 10 yards off the ball and then back pedal on the snap anymore. One out of three plays isn't a blown assignment with some 170-pound slot back running wild after a four-yard slant.
And there are lots of big hits by lots of big hitters.
What you see is a system that works, coaches that know how to make it work, and players coming in that were born to work it.
And it's only going to get better