Irish Spring Ball: Question No. 11

Void of 2015 star power, Notre Dame’s defense looks to improve as a result of increased depth, player development.

Prior to the outset of spring ball, Irish Illustrated identified 12 key questions regarding Notre Dame’s ongoing 15-practice session. The eleventh, and perhaps the most pressing among the dozen, was addressed yesterday by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

In the wake of heavy, crucial personnel losses, how can Notre Dame’s defense improve in 2016?


VanGorder’s unit lost its best defensive lineman and linebacker from 2015 – the latter honored as the nation’s best at his position. It likewise lost a multi-season starting cornerback, middle linebacker, defensive end, and safety from the group, plus a backup defensive back with four seasons of starting experience.

How then, should a defense blessed with young talent but bereft of proven stars, improve over last season’s disjointed campaign that included veterans and all-stars alike?

“I can only answer that by looking at my first spring here, 2014,” said VanGorder, now entering his third spring and season with the program. “I think our personnel is much different, much deeper. We may be a little bit more developmental but you can’t forget that in that first year we were taking a Jaylon Smith and moving him from Sam, to Will and he was very uncomfortable there in the beginning.

“In my mind we’re much further ahead than where we were two years ago relative to depth, to snaps and experience with guys in the system.”

The Irish defense will feature a new starter at Rush End and both Mike and Will linebacker. It will likewise include a relative neophyte at defensive tackle (a change for 2015 nose tackle Jerry Tillery), left cornerback, strong safety, and potentially free safety pending result of spring and August camp competition at the latter.

And it will have a new Nickel. That’s a good thing.

“Last year as you know, we lost our nickel package,” said VanGorder. “Shaun Crawford, we knew in training camp was our best Nickel, then he got hurt. I think we’re ahead (of the game) relative to putting Cole (Luke) in there and having him work some Nickel to learn it, and then we have a couple in-and-out corners that will be here this summer so we can get ahead in that nickel position.”

Whether he wins a starting job on the perimeter or cedes that left corner role to junior Nick Watkins, the redshirt-freshman Crawford will man the Nickel. Doubtless the starter at right cornerback (as he was in 2014-15) Luke’s additional spring work inside allows for an attractive insurance policy at the position.

Depth from within.

“We still want to be able to lineup in base,” VanGorder offered amid the discussion of sub packages. “We have a great cover-down linebacker in James Onwualu who’s really special in doing it. But anytime you have a linebacker walk out over a receiver you’re a little bit more limited. We still want to be multiple; we think that’s an advantage for us. We’ll stay that way, but the whole sub/nickel package for us is back in play.”


VanGorder added that his defense lost its “speed package” in mid-September when Drue Tranquill suffered a torn ACL. Tranquill will man multiple roles this season – starting strong safety likely among them – but he’s no longer the only defender that can effectively serve as a Dime linebacker, aka, the Joker.

“James (Onwualu), we’re training him at the Joker position behind Drue, so we get a reliable smart player there where if we do get an injury like a year ago we’re not completely removed from that particular look.”

VanGorder offered that Onwualu and Tranquill represent the ideal – players that will do anything, and are capable of many things – to aid the cause.

“Drue is very bright. Very good student of the game,” said VanGorder. “It’s important to him. Any task you give him, he’s going to work at it and learn it. We like to, in our system, because we’re more multiple, take players like him who are high production players and be able to do more with them – like we did with Sheldon (Day), like we did with Jaylon (Smith) at times. He gives us a lot of advantages.

“We’re really proud of the quality control of our players and looking at how they’ve developed from a year ago,” VanGorder continued. “Confident that with their input, their investment in it, with coaching and player commitment to it all should make a large difference with some of these young guys.

“We’ve got some talent, we just have to get experience. But we have a lot of players to look at.”

As for the defense’s bottom line need to limit big plays – there were 20 gains in excess of 35 yards against his defense last fall including seven that resulted in scores – VanGorder offered, “The explosive play thing, that’s a difficult thing. I just think (it’s a) combination… of players playing better and coaches coaching better. That’s gotta happen. Players have to play better and coaches have to coach better.

“We’ve got to get it solved. I think the (main) challenges that we’ve faced since I’ve been here, we’ve been able to improve in those particular areas. (Greater emphasis) should help. We have to get it solved.”

And developed, not to mention still-developing depth, will be among the myriad keys to that end.

Note: To examine 10 previous pressing questions, click the links below: Top Stories