Count on Them?

Notre Dame's myriad strengths and its future identity as an offense is clear to most. But what about their defensive counterparts, a group that surrendered more points over a two-month span last season than any in program history?

An overview of Notre Dame’s defense exiting spring ball 2015 features the following attributes:

-- Three potential standouts along the defensive line, plus an additional handful of competitors that project as “solid,” at worst, to augment their efforts.  

-- Five capable starters among three available linebacker positions and an additional pair of backups that continue to show well.

-- A starting safety tandem that journeyed last season through the fire and forged through it better since.

-- A 2014 breakout cornerback on one side…and the likely return of a potential All-American opposite.

-- Another handful of identifiable niche contributors that are experienced, or gifted athletically, or both.

Yes, there's a lot to like for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's unit heading into Year 2 of his reign.  

There's also the following bottom-line reality: 43, 31, 39, 55, 40, 31, 49, and 28.

Points scored against the Irish over the final eight games of the 2014 season. And no, the defense wasn't responsible for all of them. And yes, the unit was broken, battered, and depleted of many of its important resources.

But adding excuses or qualifiers to numbers so debilitating is self-defeating, because the following point cannot reasonably be argued against:

Notre Dame's defense failed last fall.

The belief here is it won't in 2015, that it could instead be quite good — solid at worst. But the proof is in the on field product, not any paper pre-season promise.

AN UNFLATTERING REALITY
Last year's Irish defense was young, learning on the fly, and a not-yet-realized version of its potential self.

More troubling, it was in a word, “soft.”

Not my word. His.

“Coach (VanGorder) says it all the time. We need physical players here,” said junior linebacker Jaylon Smith. “We kind of got a bad rap of being soft, intelligent, smart guys here at Notre Dame. Along with that (being smart), we have to have that mental and physical mentality.

“We have the capacity. It’s something we’re emphasizing. As a leader, I’m on them every day. We scrimmaged last weekend (the defense “won”) and it emphasized everyone buying in and playing for each other.

“It’s something we missed going on that five-game losing streak, or four-out-of-five, or whatever it was.”

Smith and his teammates conclude each practice uttering its mantra, “Count on Me,” but Saturday’s post-game interview after the defense “beat” the Irish offense in the 86th-annual Blue Gold Game wasn’t the first time this spring the All-America linebacker referenced a 2014 late-season lapse among the troops.

“(November) doesn’t leave a bad taste; it was a learning experience,” said Smith. “We had our defining moment playing LSU, understanding what the key was. It's everybody buying in and playing together. Playing selfless. Playing for your teammates and your University. No one is bigger or more important than that.”

Irish head coach Brian Kelly has more than once referenced the phrase “championship-level” when reviewing his quarterbacks and various aspects of his football team this spring.

Some are close; some have been singled-out for the work that remains.

But to approach that lofty status at the conclusion of 2015, Kelly’s program will have to field a defense and a resulting mentality that’s polar opposite of the group that took the field from mid-October through the end of November last fall.

Asked where he had seen the most improvement from his unit since the aforementioned Music City Bowl upset, Smith offered, “Just from a confidence standpoint, going into the second year with the same defense.

“It’s my first time, actually, going into an off-season being able to prepare in the same defense we ran last year.

“It’s about confidence and counting on each other.”

For Kelly and Notre Dame to attain their ultimate goal, they’ll have to count on them.


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