Information Overload

Heads are swimming on both sides of scrimmage as head coach Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff force feeds installation this spring in an effort to allow Notre Dame's players to hit the ground running in August.

Miscommunication between quarterback and receiver. A coverage error here, a missed run gap there. Alignment issues, missed checks among back seven competitors, and of course, continual correction from coach to player.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Such is life for most college football teams during spring practice, a time when development and offensive and defensive installation dominates most of a school's 15 allotted practice sessions.

Throw in two new coordinators, one new defensive scheme, three handfuls of new potential starters including the quarterback, and you have Notre Dame Football in the spring of 2014.

Learn it now, perfect it later.

"There are a lot of mistakes out there right not which is not unexpected," said first-year Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. "Players are getting a lot of looks thrown at them right now. We're moving guys around, trying to evaluate -- it's an evaluation period for us too. Trying to find a comfort zone in respect to a player and his ability, where he's going to fit best for us as we build our scheme."

VanGorder's scheme is new, the terminology's new, and in many cases, so are the players. A former safety is a linebacker while another is a nickel. Two former linebackers are now full-time defensive ends. As for the rest of the defensive linemen, they're now tasked with attacking and shooting gaps, rather than securing them.

VanGorder's chief charge is to get more speed on the field to better help the Irish defense handle the preponderance of spread offenses and four-receiver sets they face in the modern college game.

"I think it's obvious," VanGorder said of the game's trend toward speed. "You've got your third down scenarios where speed, coverage of the field and such, it requires those types of players. We're trying to find the right guys to fit all those situations.


VanGorder (middle) remains in the midst of heavy player evaluation

"If you consider defensively that there are more skilled wide receiver types on the field, your ability to match them up becomes critical. Any time they (the offense) can create a wide receiver matchup on a linebacker, they probably like that. That makes sense to all of us. You're going to find your guys that hold up best to that, and if you have linebacker that has special traits out there on cover downs, you figure out the coverages you want to use with him. If you have enough corners, you get them out there at times to match up."

That need for speed has elicited extensive work on Notre Dame's sub packages defensively. Third-down passing situations have been the early focus of spring practice and because of continuous offensive installation to date, it hasn't been easy for VanGorder's troops. The veteran coach remains cognizant of that fact as he evaluates and critiques his players.

"It's easy to install against a base offensive look which is how you (generally) install a defense. Then all of a sudden you're getting out there and you're behind in some things you get from offense so you're coaching it on the run," he explained of head coach Brian Kelly's myriad looks through six practice sessions.

"Then you try to repair it through film (study) and you hope it solves that issue, but it's just going to come up at times because in an install, I can't cover everything that we're going to get from our offense, so you have to understand that as a coach for the (sake of) coach/player relationship."

"We have a long way to go, but I really like our players," VanGorder added. "They're hard-working, they come ready each and every day. They're just a good group of players, mentally, they're fun to deal with. A good culture."

(Nearly) all new on offense, too

First-year offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock enters the fifth season of his second Notre Dame tenure. After coaching under Tyrone Willingham from 2002-2004 as the team's offensive line/tight ends coach, Denbrock has since worked with Notre Dame's tight ends and receivers under Kelly.

Now he's in charge of the entire offense, Kelly's offense.

Staff/player familiarity aside, that group's head is swimming as well.

"It's the whole-part-whole teaching method," Denbrock offered with a smile. "We've shoved a bunch of stuff at them, and did so again this morning. We need to sit down and talk about that as a staff and see what that cut-off point is so we can kind of go back and re-teach and reintroduce it again.

"You obviously have an install plan that you try to follow. So we followed that to this point and then at some point during the spring where it looks like a bit of information overload...you think, 'Let's push that back a day,' or 'Let's move that around,' and we're just about at that point.

"We've got about 80 percent of our offense installed at this point. We'll evaluate that pretty quickly and decide what we want to do."

The same holds true for VanGorder's defense. Notre Dame is the coach's eighth stop since the turn of the century, so teaching a collection of young dogs new tricks is nothing new. He had a plan, and knew well patience would remain a necessary virtue.

"We're installing right now in a more multiple way, and as we evaluate players' abilities, players' comforts, we'll get it narrowed down, but we've (been) multiple so to speak," said VanGorder. "It's going to be base teaching, a lot of different packages. We'll start paring that down. It's always tough for a player during spring ball and training camp because it's so much install. You have to assure them that when you get to a game you'll shrink it down for them. As you mentioned, new terminology, new language, all those things makes it even more difficult."

On offense, the terminology and language are the same, and with Kelly, Denbrock, running backs coach Tony Alford, and offensive coordinator Harry Hiestand, so are four of the five teachers.

The players, however…

"We are so young," Denbrock noted, specifically of the receiving corps but speaking for the offense in general. "I look at our offense and there's so many young guys in so many spots that are going to have to grow up pretty fast. I was in the team meeting and I looked over at our schedule and I'm like, 'To get from where we are now to where we're going to have to be in the fall, we're going to have to make tremendous progress.'

"The work ethic and the ability that guys have is going to help us do that. But we've got some strides to make to play that schedule."

That includes picking a player to lead his side of scrimmage.

Senior Everett Golson is the heavy favorite over redshirt-freshman Malik Zaire. (Should Zaire win the job, he'd be the fourth quarterback to start a season in Kelly's five years at the helm and the fifth to be a regular starter in season.

Kelly's January offering that Golson-to-the-head-of-the-class is not set in stone remains intact

"I know we're always in this rush to move to Everett, but I just want to caution everybody that we have, I think a very good quarterback in Malik Zaire as well," Kelly offered prior to winter conditioning. "And I'm not ready to hand everything over to Everett. 

Does this offense need to know its triggerman exiting spring ball? Can it wait until some point in fall camp?

"Yeah, but I just don't think, necessarily, we're to that point yet," said Denbrock of naming a starting quarterback. "I really think that for our team's sake in particular, the keenest element you can have on any football team is competition, and there comes a point in time where decisions have to be made. But that's not now and we're not playing next Saturday, obviously. Which is really good.

"But the more competition that gets generated at every position the better and I don't think that's any different at quarterback right now."

Leaders will emerge, as will starters and heavily relied upon reserves. Installation will end and the best will be given the first chance against Rice when the season kicks off.

Until then, evaluation continues.

"I think it's too early to say," said VanGorder when asked which defenders would form his foundation. "You know the guys that have been productive. You're looking for leadership from those guys (that were productive last year). But we've got a lot of young players that are trying to gain a comfort within an entirely new defense so you're not going to see the leadership qualities -- that maybe they possess -- that you'll see later.

"We just have to keep encouraging that."

And keep teaching.


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