Malik Zaire was the first Notre Dame player – at least publicly – to say it.
Prior to his injury, there were numerous times, particularly during pre-season camp, in which Zaire stared across the defensive abyss, wondering just what the heck the proper play call was against defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s constantly evolving defense.
The “mad scientist” was busy at work, concocting another chemical variation in his laboratory.
As a long-time NFL assistant/coordinator, VanGorder brought to Notre Dame more defensive calls than the average college system employs.
It looked like genius during the first five games of the 2014 season when the Irish held opponents to 12 points per game; folly when the final eight lambasted VanGorder’s troops to the tune of 40 points per game.
It looked like the Irish defense had picked up the complexities of VanGorder’s scheme in the 2015 season-opener against Texas, limiting the Longhorns to three points, 163 yards total offense, and an incredible eight three-and-outs in 11 series. Last week in Virginia’s first two drives, the Cavaliers went three-and-out.
It looked like chaos during four touchdown drives of at least 75 yards over the final three quarters against Virginia, a program that scored as many as 27 points just twice in eight ACC games a year ago and just once the year before that.
So is the mad scientist mixing the right chemicals in his beakers or are the defensive potions constantly on the verge of blowing up in VanGorder’s face?
“Last year there were times when it was like, ‘Whoa, we’re having a hard time grasping all that,’” reflected Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “We don’t feel that way at all (this year). Our issues (against Virginia) were not communication-based. We needed to be in tighter coverage, more aggressive with our corners, and our safety play was not up to standard.
“Even when we communicated clearly, the response was not there. Last year at times, it felt like we were drinking out of a fire hose. This year we don’t have that feeling.”
One could argue that if the players don’t respond to the instructions, that’s a sign of system overload. On one crucial 3rd-and-4 in the second half against Virginia, linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Drue Tranquill literally ran into one another, and the Cavaliers converted for a first down. Trick plays worked against the Irish. A wrong coverage technique was employed on Virginia’s late go-ahead touchdown drive on a critical 3rd-and-15.
Are there times when it’s simply too much to all take in?
“I don’t think so,” said Sam linebacker James Onwualu. “We’ve got a lot of smart guys. It’s just continuing to clean up our game and being on point.
“Even with the teams that don’t have the inventory that we do, they still have those mistakes. If we have one or two of those, yeah, we don’t like that at all and we obviously want to clean it up. But it’s going to happen.”
Among the leaders on the Irish defense, their view on VanGorder’s multiplicity is pretty clear. The more the merrier.
“I really enjoy the opportunity to go through all the different schemes he comes up with and try to run them and try to be perfect,” said Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt. “It’s a lofty goal, but I like it.”
“I think it’s awesome because we’re learning a whole lot that a lot of guys in the country don’t get an opportunity to learn,” said safety Matthias Farley. “Everybody has done a really good job of picking it up. There’s a 'comfortability' this year that they didn’t have last year.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said defensive lineman Sheldon Day regarding system overload. “We make sure we’re clear on everybody’s assignment so that we know who’s supposed to doing what and where we’re supposed to be to make sure that the defense runs smoothly.”
Yet there are those moments – particularly on game-week Tuesdays – when players can be scratching their heads, heads that can be filled with more questions than answers.
“There are days where it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, what did he just do?’” Day said.
“Just when you think you’re done with the playbook, he adds something else,” said defensive lineman Isaac Rochell.
“Tuesdays are always a lot of fun, “Schmidt said. “They’re frustrating and fun.”
“It’s hard at times because there’s a lot on your plate,” Farley added.
Part of the reason VanGorder maintains a steady flow of installation is that he believes Notre Dame is one of the few places where an abundance of tweaks within the scheme is manageable.
“(VanGorder) says he does that because we’re Notre Dame and because we’re Notre Dame students,” Rochell said. “He says we’re smart enough to do this.”
Each call or variation of the scheme does not require a rewriting of the playbook. Theories stack off of one another. The general tenets of defensive play under VanGorder still apply.
“You can’t literally memorize every call,” Onwualu said. “We put in so much stuff, you have to understand concepts. I know how to play this specific coverage overall, and we can tweak a couple things and I can be here because I understand that concept. You can be moved around in many different places, but the concepts remain the same.”
“Coach VanGorder teaches conceptually,” Schmidt said. “He likes to talk in terms of concepts, so once you understand how to play this play out of this coverage, it kind of all builds on each other. If you understand the inside zone, the outside zone, you stop memorizing and just play from a central point of understanding.”
For most Irish players, the goal is to play on the next level on Sundays. The complexities of VanGorder’s schemes serve as a springboard to the NFL.
“You’ve got to look at it as a blessing learning so many different things,” said Will linebacker Jaylon Smith. “We’re running an NFL scheme, an NFL system, so you talk about the knowledge and how your football IQ is evolving. We appreciate him being here.”
For a group of information-seeking youngsters with high aspirations in football and beyond, joy and satisfaction can be derived from the gathering of knowledge.
“If you’re playing Cover 4 all day, that’s no fun,” Onwualu said. “You want to blitz them and get after them. It’s fun to have all this different stuff. It becomes a game (within the game). You want to know how to strategically attack this offense and how you want to play against them.”
“I think it’s enjoyable,” Rochell said.
“That’s the exciting part,” Farley said. “That’s the challenge of it that guys look forward to and really enjoy because we get an entirely different system, which is exciting and pretty cool.”
With the mad scientist, there’s always excitement, one way or another.