For Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, A plus B does not necessarily result in C.
The veteran defensive coordinator is well aware of the perception regarding his inconsistent Irish defense, how its various struggles over the last two seasons are attributed to a voluminous scheme, one that has proved too taxing on players.
But to VanGorder and his pupils, an outsider’s perception is not their reality.
“It’s because we have a large inventory and we didn’t play real good defense, right?” he said of queries that his scheme might be too complex. “So if you have a large inventory and you don’t play real good defense, then that’s the assumption. That’s true in athletics and true in competition. That’s just the way it goes. If you don’t do well you’re going to hear those different things that come out. But within our room we know. We know the truth.”
Despite the presence of both a first team and second team All-American along its defensive front seven, despite the presence of 11 defenders that had started in previous seasons, Notre Dame’s defense still surrendered 29 touchdown drives of 70 yards or greater last fall. A whopping 26 were in competitive game situations.
Asked if he needed to simplify the scheme for his youth-filled group of Irish defenders entering 2016, VanGorder offered, “I really don’t,” countering that a misconception likely exists regarding the scheme and the implementation of it.
“It’s pretty consistent for them. It’s pretty consistent,” VanGorder said. “Now…a player that comes here and plays in our defense, he’s going to put a lot of tools in his toolbox, but it’s not just wild tools thrown from all over. It’s pretty consistent for the player.
“It’s likeable and it’s learnable. That’s how we approach it. We have smart players,” he added.
A TIME TO REFLECT AND TO TWEAK
Rewind, if you will, to Spring Ball 2015, when Irish head coach Brian Kelly and VanGorder tasked themselves and fellow staff members with improving upon a definitive weakness of the 2014 defensive unit: dealing with up-tempo offenses.
The Irish defense made good on that pledge for the most part, instead falling victim to a trio of deficiencies VanGorder identified today.
“Very difficult year to quality control (review),” VanGorder admitted of 2015. “We made some tremendous strides relative to third down efficiency though in games we lost, we just weren’t as good. And (better with) three-and-outs; getting off the field much better.
“I think (in general) the start of ball games were not good. I think that our explosive play count, while probably somewhere in the middle of the pack respective to the country, was really bad relative to big play touchdowns and long, long yardage. So that was a major issue.
“We have to get better in the red zone. We started red zone (install) today. Those three things to me are critical moving forward.”
Notre Dame’s defense surrendered 27 touchdowns in an aggregate 41 red zone trips by its 13 foes last fall. Among the program’s 2015 peers (Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Iowa, Stanford, and Ohio State), only the Spartans with 26 touchdowns allowed in 41 total trips placed near the Irish in terms of defensive red zone touchdown percentage (65.8 percent).
(Fiesta Bowl foe Ohio State was next at 61 percent but the Buckeyes’ red zone was penetrated just 31 times in 14 games.)
As for VanGorder’s identified defensive strength – and not including a poor outing at Stanford – the Irish third down defensive efficiency placed 32nd nationally, with opposing offenses successful in converting on third down in only 35 percent of their chances.
Among the peer squads identified above, MSU, OSU, Clemson, and Alabama fared better than did Notre Dame while Iowa, Stanford and Oklahoma were worse (the Sooners were much worse at 40 percent.)
Only national finalists Clemson (27.7%) and Alabama (28.6%) were clearly superior.
More difficult to track – and for VanGorder or for that matter anyone to explain – was Notre Dame’s repeated early-game failures defensively, especially against top foes Clemson, USC, Stanford, and Ohio State, three of which scored touchdowns on both of their first two drives while the Trojans managed a touchdown and field goal.
“That’s a good question,” VanGorder offered when asked how to “start faster” defensively. “We’re going to do some more things such as starting practice with some faster paced things to make sure they’re awake and ready. (But) I don’t want to say that’s the problem. We just didn’t do a good job. I don’t have a good reason.
“There were some explosive play scenarios: an explosive play against Clemson to start the game; a leverage breakdown. There’s not a good explanation, but this is what I do know, the more we emphasize it, the more important it becomes. There has to be an emphasis and then there has to be a method to (eradicating) it.”
Consider them Jobs 1, 2, and 3 for a defense under development.