Progress or Spinning the Wheels?

The Irish clearly have developed better depth at defensive end, cornerback and linebacker. But will it be enough to compensate for the loss of individual talent?

When Brian VanGorder arrived at Notre Dame from the NFL following the 2013 season, he wasn’t sure what to make of the defense that ultimately would be his first with the Irish in the fall of 2014.

“My first spring I just didn’t know if we could be any good at all,” VanGorder said. “Honestly, I looked at our linebackers…I didn’t know what I was going to do with Jaylon (Smith) at the time. Joe Schmidt had been a career backup guy. There were issues all over. Depth issues.”

VanGorder made a strong first impression. In fact, there were those who bid good riddance to VanGorder’s predecessor, Bob Diaco, whose fourth defense with the Irish in 2013 came up well short of the record-setting 2012 unit that held 10 of 13 opponents to 14 points or less and limited foes to 12.8 points per game.

But after the first five opponents to face off against VanGorder’s Notre Dame defense scored just 60 points in ‘14, the floodgates opened. Notre Dame’s last eight foes scored an incomprehensible 319 points, or one point shy of 40 points per game as injuries decimated the unit.

The second season portended better results, if for no other reason than the return of personnel, which included 14 of the top 15 tacklers from 2014.

“Last spring, I thought we did a good job of building our front seven,” said VanGorder as he reflected on 2015. “But we only had three scholarship corners and we were way short in safeties.”

Opponents didn’t average 40 points per game over the last eight like they did in ‘14. But six of the 13 teams scored at least 27 points against the Irish in 2015, and in the most notable measurables, the stats were virtually the same as the previous season.

2014 2015
Tackles for loss 73 84
Sacks 26 25
QB Hurries 52 54
Interceptions 16 9
Fumbles Forced 10 10
Funbles Recovered 7 5
Passes Broken Up 39 37
Passes Defensed 55 46

The Irish shaved off five percent on third-down conversions, from 41 percent in ’14 to 36 percent in ’15, but they were abominable in the red zone, allowing two-thirds of the 20-yard-line penetrations to result in touchdowns.

A remarkable 27 touchdown drives of 70 yards or more – two per game -- cost the Irish a shot at a spot in the playoffs, particularly in the regular-season finale against Stanford when the offense did its part by scoring 36 points in a losing effort.

So why should Year Three of Operation VanGorder be any different? In fact, how can it be any different with the loss of defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, and defensive backs KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate?

VanGorder is banking on two things: the third year in the system and better depth.

“This spring I was really looking forward to our best personnel from the starter right into a possible third-teamer,” VanGorder said. “So we’ve got some depth.

“We had the unfortunate injury with Nick Watkins at corner, but we (were) still functioning with our corners out there. But the loss of Te’von (Coney) and Greer (Martini) left a hole this spring.”

Knowledge of the system and how it translates into Year Three is completely speculative. The Irish have not been a fundamentally sound defense in virtually any aspect the first two years of the VanGorder system.

As for the depth, VanGorder clearly is on to something with more bodies to try to offset the talent and experience lost from a unit whose parts were greater than the whole.

With the arrival of the freshmen this summer, the Irish will be deeper than they have been at most positions, which at the very least will help guard against the pitfalls of injuries should they strike again in ’16.

• Defensive End: The depth is promising here with three solid prospects at each end position as spring concluded.

At Big End, Isaac Rochell returns as the anchor with junior Jonathan Bonner and early-entry freshman Khalid Kareem forming a nice one-through-three pecking order.

At Rush End, establishing a frontrunner is yet to be accomplished, but pass-rush threat Andrew Trumbetti and converted interior defensive lineman Jay Hayes form a promising one-two punch to rush the passer (Trumbetti) and defend the run (Hayes). Grant Blankenship looks to be on the outside looking in, but promising freshman Daelin Hayes is the third piece to the puzzle. Incoming freshman Julian Okwara and Adetokunbo Ogundeji have off-the-edge skills.

“Daelin Hayes is a guy that could end up in multiple positions,” VanGorder said. “Those high-trait, high-production guys that can learn well, there’s a lot they can do for us. He’s going to do a lot of things for us once he gets comfortable to the system.”

• Cornerback: The Irish will head into the fall with a veteran starter in Cole Luke and one of the most exciting prospects in the program – Shaun Crawford – whose loss last August when he suffered a torn ACL was devastating to VanGorder’s sub-packages.

“The arrow is way up on Shaun Crawford’s game as an in-and-out guy,” VanGorder said.

“Crawford changes everything at that nickel position. It’s not easy to find those in-and-out corners. We see 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back) all the time. He opens the inventory up and he’s really intelligent, so there are a lot of things we can do.”

The numbers are way up at cornerback. Behind Crawford at left corner are junior Nick Watkins, who was derailed by a broken arm this spring, and sophomore Ashton White. Behind Luke are senior Devin Butler and sophomore Nick Coleman. Three freshmen – Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride Jr., and Julian Love – will be joining the mix this fall.

That’s a boatload of young but talented players that should benefit the Irish defense greatly, both in the short-term as well as the long-term.

• Linebackers: Shoulder injuries to Coney and Martini prevented the linebacker corps from resembling the defensive ends and cornerbacks in terms of numbers at the position. But with a healthy Coney and Martini back this fall, the sheer amount of bodies offers promise. The talent level is not too bad, either.

Mike linebacker will have junior Nyles Morgan and sophomore Josh Barajas with incoming freshman Jonathan Jones. Will linebacker features sophomores Coney and Asmar Bilal, although Bilal could slide back to Sam linebacker if Martini logs time at the Will. Incoming freshman Jamir Jones projects as a Will according to linebacker coach Mike Elston. Jamir Jones also could see time at Sam.

At Sam, it’s James Onwualu and Martini (at least in sub packages) with Bilal as a long-term possibility.

The two tackle positions and two safety spots have numbers but don’t quite project the “good depth” impression left at end, cornerback and linebacker.

The top defensive tackle is Jerry Tillery, who entered the starting lineup at nose tackle as a true freshman in ’15, shared time with Cage, and failed to make a positive impression in the spring.

“Inconsistent, very inconsistent,” VanGorder summarized.

Behind him are lightly-recruited Elijah Taylor and Micah Dew-Treadway, who likely offer limited long-term upside. VanGorder may be forced to move nose tackle Jarron Jones – coming off two major injuries – to the three-technique with junior Daniel Cage at the nose. Rochell also could slip inside on occasion.

It’s not an ideal setup. The Irish need Tillery to play to the talent within his 6-foot-6 ½, 315-pound frame. Someone will have to play out of position, or “rob Peter to pay Paul” to solidify defensive tackle.

The safety positions offer a similar scenario. Veteran Max Redfield returns with as many question marks as definitive statements about his game.

Freshman Devin Studstill challenged Redfield all spring. At the very least, he’s a skilled pass defender, but playing a freshman on the back end of a defense is a high-risk proposition.

Drue Tranquill is a weapon in the box but a concern on the hash, particularly coming off back-to-back torn ACLs. Sixth-year Avery Sebastian is a quality run supporter but lacks mobility against the pass. Freshmen Spencer Perry, Jalen Elliott and D.J. Morgan are well behind Studstill in development.

So indeed, Notre Dame’s depth is improved over where it’s been the first two years of the VanGorder regime, but will it be enough?

“It’s still not maybe what I envisioned when I came in,” VanGorder said. “We’ve done a good job of developing personnel, but it still was a little bit short this spring.”

Where will it be in Year Three? Notre Dame nation awaits with a skeptical, doubting eye on the Irish defense.


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