When Brian Kelly finally made official his revamped coaching staff on Monday, the Notre Dame head coach showed a surprising willingness to examine everything. That meant bringing in new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford to shake up Kelly's offense.
But it also meant doubling down on defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. As the Irish enter 2015 with the highest of expectations, Kelly's moves show an enormous amount of trust being put on the back of the second-year defensive coordinator.
That means Kelly is betting that VanGorder's defense plays more like the one we saw in the first half of last season than the unit that got torched in November.
"Turn Down For What" VanGorder was one of the early-season heroes for the Irish. "Thirty-Plus" VanGorder—the defensive coordinator responsible for giving up 30-plus points in seven-straight games—was the guy who had many Irish fans hoping that VanGorder was a one-and-done coach in South Bend.
But any notion that Notre Dame would shift back to the conservative philosophy of Bob Diaco was removed when Kelly announced that veteran assistant Bob Elliott would be moved to an off-field role, serving as special assistant to Kelly.
Elliott's connections to Diaco and former assistant Kerry Cooks dated back to their days as players at Iowa, where Elliott served as defensive coordinator. But in replacing Elliott and bringing in defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, Kelly basically consolidated power for VanGorder, surrounding him with coaches who will teach his system.
Gilmore was a college teammate of VanGorder at Wayne State. He's worked with Kelly (and VanGorder) at Grand Valley, continuing with Kelly to Central Michigan and Cincinnati before reuniting in South Bend. He's a 4-3-based teacher, VanGorder's preferred scheme.
That means a move to linebackers coach for Mike Elston, the lone defensive holdover from Kelly's original staff. Elston will now coordinate the team's recruiting efforts as well, while working with perhaps the most talented position group on the defense after spending his first five years molding defensive linemen.
With former Irish All-American Todd Lyght making the move to his first full-time coaching job (technically his second, though he was only at Vanderbilt for a few weeks), VanGorder will be the veteran voice in the room. For better or worse, he'll have ownership of this unit's performance.
The key to defensive success is the Irish safety play. While Lyght is in charge of the entire defensive backfield, VanGorder is likely to work with safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate this spring, hoping to elicit a better performance out of that duo.
With Austin Collinsworth having graduated and Eilar Hardy choosing to move on, the depth behind Redfield and Shumate is dangerously thin.
Senior Nicky Baratti will attempt to return from his third major shoulder injury. Rising sophomore Drue Tranquill is coming off of a November ACL tear. Freshmen reinforcements and graduate transfer Avery Sebastian don't arrive until June.
As Joe Schmidt continues to rehab an ankle injury suffered against Navy, the Irish will go to work this spring without the team's MVP, who served as the nerve center of the defense. It's not coincidental that the Irish defense fell off of a ledge without Schmidt. How VanGorder gets the other 10 defenders to play to Schmidt's mental level will be key.
At its best, Notre Dame's defense was an aggressive, versatile, attacking defense. They shut out Michigan and shut down Stanford, relying on exotic third-down packages that showcased the young, but talented personnel on the roster.
At their worst, the Irish defense was a complete fire drill. After North Carolina exposed the Irish's sub-heavy packages with an up-tempo attack, VanGorder's defense struggled to find a base package to hang its hat on when opponents kept the Irish on the field.
With a full season of game tape to prepare from, VanGorder can't rely on smoke and mirrors any longer. With another year in the system, an Irish defense that lost only starter Cody Riggs should be ready to take a big step forward.
But only if VanGorder can lead them there.
Kelly's moves show the head coach believes in his defensive coordinator. We'll find out this fall if he's right.