Bob Diaco's dominant November, season-saving defense wasn't built in a day. In fact, at first, the first-year defensive coordinator's 2010 unit looked a lot like that of his fired predecessor's: slow, susceptible, ineffective.
September's four-game slate saw 11 defensive touchdowns allowed – the alarming majority of them from more than 20 yards out. October's Irish enjoyed a strong start but horrendous finish, ultimately yielding another 11 scores.
November's total touchdowns against? That would be one – a two-yard drive that took four plays to complete.
Diaco's defense improved and peaked late – a polar opposite of recent season's past.
Four months later, the process is again his purpose.
A fall from the wall?Various Irish media outlets have offered that Notre Dame's 2011 defense will rank anywhere from "team strength" to "dominant." I surmised last week they'd be "good" (at worst) and potentially a "top 10 group."
Posed with similar flowery prospects by the media this week, Diaco unintentionally channeled the lyrics of a children's nursery rhyme…as well as comparing his rebuilding process to a cake that lacked a binding protein (I think).
"Because the defense has to be put back together," Diaco said when asked why his unit couldn't simply hit the ground running this spring. "You don't pick up where you left off and you don't mentally pick up where you left off. I'm sure you can cite times in Notre Dame history where they had a great season or a great finish and thought, ‘Okay, we're going to have any even better season next year,' and it turns out to be a flop."
(Editor's note: 2003 and 2006 immediately come to mind.)
"You don't just have that feeling as a person, as a coach, as a player, and as a unit, that we're going to pick up where we left off," he continued. "Everything has to get put back together. It's a new formula, a new chemistry. If you're going to bake a cake, and you don't have eggs, you don't just get to put something else in there. You have to get eggs, and you have to put them in there."
To outsiders, it appears Diaco has a full carton of eggs at his disposal, though apparently a few came home from the supermarket with requisite cracks.
On returning starter Carlo Calabrese:
"Carlo has to clean his game up. He has to get himself to a point where he's not a liability of one of those 11, and right now he is."
"He needs to be a player that fits in our defense. And he's a long way from being able to be that. Despite of how many stars he has, or how fast you think his feet are. Otherwise we'd get a bunch of track guys to come out for the football team. They might be good, they might not."
On returning starters and their neophyte backups:
"It's not the (lost players), it's also the players we have coming back fighting complacency, or fighting the feeling of: ‘Oh, I played 949 reps last year, I got this slicked up good.' As soon as that happens, you decelerate and everybody passes you, your opponent passes you.
"To say we're a long way away from being formidable, we're looking at the thing from top to bottom," Diaco offered. "You may be looking at it from a sheet of paper and one dimension. We're looking at it as a life and a sphere where, if we put the backup MIKE in there, we can't function right now. So we won't be formidable.
"We're going to have to put him in and we're going to have to put a lot of guys in. So we have a long way to go. I can't speak for the offense…but defensively for sure. Those young guys are not ready to go in the game and defensively we have a long way to go."
The long road backDiaco's belief in the process and steadfast adherence to its necessary steps built and transformed a long-suffering defense.
Fans and media saw a unit that clicked, because it surrendered six touchdowns over a five quarter span vs. Navy and Tulsa – then yielded but one more over its next 18.
"A lot of guys fitting in the structure of the defense, doing their job in their fundamental assignment better than they were doing it before, and continually improving," he offered as a key aspect of the turnaround.
Key to that structure is improvement of the pieces seemingly set. Which brings us back to junior ‘backer Carlo Calabrese, of whom Diaco appeared critical (when asked directly), but only if you're unable to read between the lines of his straightforward response.
"He needs to improve on all areas," Diaco said when pressed specifically of Calabrese. "He needs to improve on his run fits and his eye progressions in his run fits. He needs to clean up his pass fits and the fundamentals in how to get that done. He needs to clean up his cardio so he can play harder, longer. He needs to clean up in general, his game. If he wants to be the starting inside linebacker at Notre Dame, and not be 11 of 11, then he has work to do.
Diaco continued with a sensible comparison for Calabrese, an example of player fans are quick to anoint but in reality is anything but ready for prime time.
"How many plays (by comparison) has Manti played? Darius (Fleming), Ethan (Johnson), Kappy (Lewis-Moore)? And you keep going on and on – Gary (Gray), RJ (Blanton), the safeties. Those three safeties are like three starting safeties (Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter). For (Calabrese) to get caught up to those other guys he has to really, really focus on his game and grind it out."
A player under his tutelage grinding it out – Diaco would have it no other way.