It will take a village

Notre Dame's spring session offered its new defensive coordinator the chance to make certain pieces fit.

It likely didn't take Brian VanGorder long -- perhaps a handful of film reviews and conditioning sessions with his new troops -- to realize that Notre Dame's collection of promising pieces wasn't ready-made.

No Louis Nix. No Stephon Tuitt. No Kapron Lewis-Moore.

Nearly 1,000 pounds of rough and tough was missing, at least from the last time Notre Dame fielded a formidable defensive front.

No Manti, no Motta, and not much in terms of past production.

So he went to work.

A former third-string safety ended the spring as the starting strong side linebacker. The team's most gifted player, a 2013 freshman that excelled on the perimeter, was moved closer to the action.

One of his two most experienced defensive backs, a senior that struggled mightily last fall, found a new home in the defense's most challenging role -- and shined.

And Notre Dame's alignment, a combination of 3-4 and 4-3 fronts over the previous four seasons of the Brian Kelly era remains multiple. But now a preponderance of 4-3 looks and sub packages are the norm. No longer will a 255-pound inside linebacker be aligned opposite Purdue's best football player on 4th and 10 from the Irish goal line.

The pieces fit, because VanGorder changed the mold.

The above isn't an indictment of former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who ran a more traditional defense because A.) he could (see the names above), and B.) it most often worked.

But mismatches that took advantage of the Irish in space were part of the previous equation.

The 2014 defense won't be vanilla, they won't be predictable. They'll be outside the norm because they have to be. Spring 2014 challenged VanGorder, Kelly, and the defensive staff to utilize what it had, not what it did not.

"We feel like we've identified some of our really legitimate playmakers," said Kelly of the defense following Saturday's Blue Gold game. "And then we've identified some of our individuals that will really play roles for us. Maybe not 60 plays, but that will have a significant role for us. Maybe not 60 plays, but that will have a significant role for us.

"So I think what Brian has done is he has found players that maybe have not played a lot of football for us, that can have roles in assisting and helping our defense. And I think that that's what his experience brings. Here is somebody with a lot of experience that can take an individual and say, 'All right, here is where he can help us.'

"So I think that that's what the spring has allowed us from a personnel standpoint defensively to do. Secondly, we've added a scheme that certainly has some more pieces to it that we didn't have in the past."

Building blocks are conveniently positioned at each level of the defense: junior Sheldon Day is far and away the team's best defensive linemen -- "a handful" -- as his head coach noted.

Sophomore Jaylon Smith is among the nation's 10 most talented defensive athletes. He's ahead of schedule as a second-year player and he has to be.

"He can play a number of positions for us," said Kelly of Smith who settled at will linebacker to conclude the spring. "We can move him around, and he has an understanding of how to play this defense both inside-out and outside-i, and he had no knowledge of going into the spring. That's a smart football player, and a guy that now is an asset to our defense in a manner that he never was before.

"It puts arguably our best off-the-ball player -- Sheldon Day in my opinion is our best on-the-ball player. It puts (Smith) next to all the things that you can do defensively, and so that was really in the decision more than anything else, just to get him in a position where we can activate him at any time."

Junior Keivarae Russell believes he'll be the nation's best cornerback. Better news for fans not fond of bluster -- his secondary coach Kerry Cooks doesn't disagree.

"There's not a wide receiver in the country, in my opinion, I've been doing this for 13 years, that he shouldn't be able to compete with," said Cooks of Russell. "Not saying he's going to win all those battles but there's not a player in the country he shouldn't be able to compete with. That's just how strongly I feel about him and what I've seen and the guys that I know that I've coached that are playing in the NFL. He's by far and beyond the best from a talent level. He's got all the tools. He's got all the tools. But the consistency and challenging him to be the best and be a leader, he's gotta work those techniques and those tools on a daily basis."

Okwara must emerge as a pass-rusher next fall

Manufacturing Depth

Last fall, Notre Dame returned to its defense two potential All-Americans and seven full-time starters. No unit was bereft of depth save for the team's inside linebackers, but that group had three starter-worthy competitors.

They fell short of expectations.

The 2014 Irish counter with far fewer known quantities, a reality that might benefit the unit's overall hunger level and daily approach. An unexpected leader already emerged.

"Joe Schmidt is the leader on our defense," said Kelly of his undersized middle linebacker. "You know, there's no one probably that has the kind of leadership and understanding of our defense than Joe has right now. Right now he can't come off the field. His knowledge base in terms of getting people lined up and having them execute what we do defensively, he's absolutely integral to what we're doing.

"(Sophomore safety) Max Redfield has had a really good back end of the spring. And I say the back end; probably the last seven practices, has really stepped his game up and his knowledge of what we're doing has been really good.

"I think we found a role for (junior) Romeo (Okwara), one that I think we feel a lot more comfortable where he is. He's got to do a good job of taking care of his body and keeping up the weight up and doing those things. But I think those three guys in particular."

Three more pieces at three levels of the defense. Add to that a pair of certain opening game starters in nose tackle Jarron Jones and safety Austin Collinsworth and the 2014 defense begins to take shape.

The foundation (Day, Smith, Russell) and the building blocks (Schmidt, Redfield, Okwara) are in place. VanGorder's pending additions will determine the unit's overall value, and they will be numerous.

Shumate must bring a physical presence to the back line

At least six defensive backs (Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate, Cole Luke, Devin Butler, and transfer Cody Riggs will play key roles -- Riggs enters as one of the defense's five best football players. Period.)

Two others, Nicky Baratti (injured Saturday) and Eilar Hardy are on the cusp.

Sub package linebackers include John Turner (the aforementioned third-string safety turned sam 'backer), and sophomore James Onwulau (a wide receiver last fall). Both make up for a lack of size with speed, and in Onwualu's case, a penchant for the physical.

And the defensive line? Expect an additional nine, potentially *10 competitors to augment the efforts of Day and Jones, with Ishaq Williams, Isaac Rochell, Chase Hounshell, Andrew Trumbetti, Justin Utupo, and as many as four true freshmen providing relief, but inside and on the edge.

(*Injured senior defensive tackle Tony Springmann is crucial to the unit's 13-game effort.)

Mark in ink seven players on your pre-season depth chart, but don't bother penciling in the rest of the two-deep, it will be ever-changing, based both on production (not all the names above will prove worthy) and opponent-specific.

Trial and error. Trial by fire. Likely more than a few trials and tribulations.

It will take a village to make Notre Dame's defense whole next fall.

The village's architect set the foundation this spring. Top Stories