There are no absolutes in life. “All” and “every” can be dangerous words without the wiggle room to adjust to extreme situations. Flexibility to change gets most of us through our every-day lives.
In football, and perhaps in military life – which is apropos this week with Notre Dame taking on the United States Military Academy – absolutes are the order of the day.
“We follow orders or people die,” is one of Jack Nicholson’s famous lines from “A Few Good Men.” Football’s equivalent is, “We follow our keys or we give up long touchdowns.”
“Eye discipline” is essential to solid, consistent defensive football.
Such phrases were first heard around Notre Dame during Bob Diaco’s four-year reign (2010-13) as defensive coordinator under Brian Kelly. Diaco also introduced catch radius, ball disruptions and foot strike to the Notre Dame football jargon.
Under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, following defensive precepts with absolute commitment to detail is the foundation of his work.
“When I’m out there or Jaylon (Smith’s) out there, you have a job to do, and if you’re doing your job, that’s all you need to do,” said fifth-year linebacker Joe Schmidt.
“Maybe you make a stellar play because you see somebody out at No. 1 that’s not supposed to be out at No. 1, and all of a sudden they’re running a reverse and you make a play. Maybe that happens, but that happens once in 575 plays.”
Working in absolutes works in football. A football coach must get his players to buy into his knowledge and concepts. Follow my lead, my instruction, and you will experience success 100 percent of the time.
If your technique is correct, you’ll make the tackle. If your technique is correct, you’ll make the pass breakup. If you technique is correct, you’ll win the game.
“Coach VanGorder always tells us to have our eyesight pre-snap, which gives you a better understanding of what possibilities can happen,” said defensive tackle Sheldon Day.
But life – and football – can be a bit more complicated than that. Offenses design their attacks to fool opposing defenses. Tendencies spanning games from three, four, five years ago are charted so that one play at the most strategic moment can be launched on an unsuspecting foe.
Even Irish head coach Brian Kelly can’t talk completely in absolutes when it comes to eye discipline and sticking to the exact plan.
“It’s a valid point,” said Kelly when asked if keys and eye discipline can be trusted all the time. “(Even if) you’re keyed into the right person, the right execution can get you as well.”
Case in point: UMass, two Saturdays ago, when the Minutemen executed a throwback play to the quarterback, who launched a 56-yard completion downfield. Contributing to the trickery was an offensive line setup – four offensive linemen to the right of the center – that screamed running play.
Not all trick plays are created – or presented – equally.
“Virginia was a little different where we lost sight of a key that would have gotten us into the middle of the field to defend their reverse pass,” said Kelly, referencing the Cavaliers’ 42-yard trick pass play for a touchdown.
“The UMass trick play was a difficult play to defend. We didn’t have it on film. There’s no excuse. We’ve got to do a better job…Sometimes it’s about if it doesn’t look right, it’s not right, and you have to be able to sense it and feel it.”
Yet football players are trained in absolutes. Follow the rules. You’ll be okay. Trust us. Then all of a sudden, all hell breaks loose.
“Sometimes we’re going to be in keys and they’re going to trick us,” said senior safety Elijah Shumate. “Those gadget plays, you can be on a key and things like that happen.
“You’ve just got to be locked in, know the situation and what could happen, and just have football savvy. You see a wide receiver running super fast down the field, you know there’s got to be something that’s going on.”
“Yes and no,” added Jaylon Smith when talking about trusting the keys. “Everyone’s responsible for some player in every system. It’s impossible to simulate everything that a team is going to do. You just have to rely on concepts, which is something that Coach VanGorder tells us all the time.”
And when those concepts are not applicable?
“It’s reactionary,” Day said. “You go in with pre-sight, and if it doesn’t work out that way, you pretty much fly around.”
The concept of “flying around” is easy for a defensive lineman. If the defense allows a 75-yard pass completion for a touchdown, they’re not pointing at the defensive tackle who came up just short of a sack. All eyes are on the defensive backs – particularly the safeties – who are the last line of defense…and the first ones to be blamed.
“It’s within a split second of making the decision as to what your key is doing, whether it’s blocking or looping, coming in, different things like that,” said junior safety Max Redfield. “Once you make a decision, you have to go with it.”
Such decisions can be outcome altering, the difference between a bowl game and the end of the season, a minor bowl and a good bowl, a good bowl and a playoff spot.
Choose wrong and your team loses. Choose wrong and you may no longer be in the starting lineup. Even if you retain your job, you are targeted by future opponents as one who can be exploited.
“Being a safety, you want to play high to low and defend the deepest pass first,” Redfield said. “If I have deep middle and I see a low route coming between them, I’m not going to pick it up automatically because I have deep middle and it obviously would be a lot more detrimental if they threw a long ball than a short ball.”
With so many split-second decisions being made, defensive players have no choice but to lean heavily on the eye discipline they’ve been taught every single day on the practice field.
“I’m trying to think if there’s ever a point where reading my key is (wrong),” said Schmidt, Notre Dame’s most cerebral defender. “Over 95 percent of the time, reading your key will put you in the right position.
“The other five percent…maybe it’s one percent or .0 percent.”
When it doubt, follow the rules…and then run like hell after the ball.