Brian VanGorder believes his defensive meetings haven’t changed.
The hyper-intense coordinator saw a give-and-take with players last season during the installation of seemingly infinite blitz packages. VanGorder believed that if players had questions they felt comfortable asking them.
“We like to keep it likeable and learnable,” VanGorder said. “They’ve got an incredible system to enjoy. I don’t really feel that much of a difference this year to last year.”
VanGorder may be a party of one.
Ask players about changes within defensive meetings and the take on VanGorder is decidedly different. They see a coordinator more willing to listen, more willing to explain and more willing to engage.
For Matthias Farley, that’s not a criticism of VanGorder 1.0. The veteran defensive back gets why last year had to be VanGorder talking at the defense more than talking with the defense. It’s just that Farley likes the reboot. The playbook isn’t being delivered by fire hose anymore. It comes in single-serving portions.
“It’s really, really big for all of us,” Farley said. “Initially you’re learning everything and you might feel, ‘I don’t know if I should ask that question.’ Now there’s a dialogue. It really creates an environment where everyone can learn and feel comfortable in asking questions.”
Evaluating last season’s defense is a gray area adventure. It opened as a statistical juggernaut, although that was against abysmal offenses and hapless quarterbacks. It closed as a disaster flick, although that was against pyrotechnic attacks with polished triggermen.
Ultimately the scheme that shut out Michigan also got savaged at USC despite the in-season roster turnover. Now, even with Jarron Jones lost, VanGorder basically has a full deck again, with KeiVarae Russell upgrading the cornerback spot vacated by Cody Riggs.
But a returning coordinator could rank as the most significant personnel move.
“You can definitely tell he’s more comfortable with us, giving us more plays and more open-minded about things,” said Sheldon Day. “We’re starting to answer his questions the way he wants us to answer.”
VanGorder insists he wants players to own meetings even if he runs them. Jaylon Smith said the players – with Joe Schmidt the major exception – never held that deed last season as VanGorder’s sub-packages, blitz schemes and substitutions could overwhelm the roster.
Now players have the confidence to pull the parking brake during a video session. They can talk about pass sets of linemen. They can talk about how an offense might react to a pressure. Instead of just learning their jobs, they can learn the entire defense.
“It’s just something that we probably didn’t feel comfortable in the meeting rooms asking him to do that,” Smith said. “Now there’s times where the players actually feel confident in not questioning, but getting a better depth of what he’s teaching us.”
With former assistant Bob Elliott heading up off-season option study in his role as Special Assistant to the Head Coach, VanGorder has been free to tinker with his system versus the spread. He knows the defense he ran at Georgia (2001-04) wouldn’t work today, although he believes he has the tools to adapt it.
The Irish have practiced against a faster tempo during camp, trying to recreate the chaos that overwhelmed them last fall. North Carolina wore out Notre Dame with 84 plays and 516 yards. Northwestern and USC both snapped off more than 90 plays and racked up a combined 1,124 yards.
“I think I have all the components based on the past to deal with tempo,” VanGorder said. “The game’s changed. It requires you to be more multiple. It requires even a different kind of personnel and maybe people are behind in respects to that.”
Notre Dame will continue to hunt for athletes in the Drue Tranquill mold, safeties built like linebackers and vice versa. Players who could be stuck without a true position in the past now fill a vital role. Tranquill continues to work at dime back, lining up in the box to chase slot receivers and blitz quarterbacks, even nine months removed from ACL surgery.
“Guys that can cross-train and guys that can do a lot of things in your defense are really required in today’s game,” VanGorder said. “It sounds good. Then again, it’s a lot on a young player’s plate.”
Notre Dame’s defense believes it can digest all that this season. After a year of getting used to VanGorder and VanGorder getting used to this roster, it seems the Irish have a new intra-squad rapport.
Just don’t tell VanGorder that. He claims he’s coaching this defense the same and the players aren’t any more engaged than last season. Have the lines of communication really been upgraded to fiber optic cable? The players say yes, at least.
“I think they’re overrating that,” VanGorder said. “But I enjoy that. I enjoy that with players that are thinking.”