It took Brian Kelly about a split second to answer the question.
What would Kelly be looking for in pre-season camp to provide assurance that the predominately youthful Irish defense – under the leadership of coordinator Brian VanGorder – was making progress and picking up the multi-faceted scheme.
“I would say probably more than anything else, no big-play runs and no big-play passes,” Kelly said.
“If you look at our defense last year, we played really good defense and (then) let up a big play. Eliminating the big plays is the thing we’ll have an eye towards more than anything else.”
It’s no wonder Kelly and his staff will have an eye on it since they frequently received an eyeful in 2015. Notre Dame tied for 73rd in the country in plays allowed of 40 yards or more with 15. The year before, the Irish were tied for 84th with 16.
Last year, four passes of 40 yards or more and four runs of 40-plus yards went for touchdowns.
“Last year, not only was the big-play count not where we needed it to be, but it was big-play touchdowns,” said VanGorder, Notre Dame’s third-year coordinator. “We had some issues with gadgets.
“We’ve got to see that. We’ve got to make that part of our daily practice. Respect the gadget plays. I look for us to improve in that area. We have to.”
As Bob Diaco was completing his fourth year as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator in 2013, his critics believed the Irish needed to make a change. Diaco’s keep-the-football-in-front-of-you defense was too passive. An “attacking defense” would take the Irish to the next level.
Their wish was granted when Diaco accepted the head-coaching position at Connecticut and Kelly brought in long-time/long-ago associate VanGorder, who had plied his trade in the NFL after an ultra-successful stint at Georgia.
VanGorder’s trademark was multiplicity of schemes and attacking the quarterback with multiple pass rushers. While Notre Dame’s tackles for loss went up by five in ’14 from Diaco’s four-year average of 67, and by 17 above Diaco’s norm in ’15, the backlash in big plays was significant.
Consider the following numbers as it relates to plays allowed of 40 yards or more under Diaco:
• 2010: 8 (tied for 19th nationally)
• 2011: 7 (tied for 12th)
• 2012: 5 (tied for 3rd)
• 2013: 8 (tied for 9th)
In four years under Diaco, Notre Dame allowed 28 plays of 40 yards or more. In two years under VanGorder, the Irish have surrendered 31.
It’s fortunate for the Irish that Kelly’s high-powered offensive numbers finally kicked in during the 2014-15 seasons. For the first time in his fifth year on the Notre Dame job, Kelly’s offense averaged more than 30 points per game (32.8). Last year, that was upped to 34.2 per game.
So now that we know what the opposition can’t do to the Irish defense in 2016 in order to avoid a constant flow of shootouts, the easy part is complete – identifying the problem. Now comes the difficult part -- preventing the problem.
“Your eyes have to be right,” VanGorder said. “It’s not as hard as one might think. You’ve just got to be responsible to your job. We had breakdowns in that particular area, especially with eye violations.”
Secondary coach Todd Lyght – who knew a thing or two about eye discipline as the last Irish player with eight interceptions (1989) – echoed VanGorder’s words and elaborated further.
“We have to talk about the mentality of the secondary and how we have to play from the top down,” Lyght said. “For a great secondary, we always double the up route if we can and challenge the intermediate throws. If we start with that philosophy you can really help yourself.
“Also, eye discipline. We got caught looking in the backfield too many times with regard to play-action, jet sweeps, things like that where we didn’t have the proper eye discipline to put us in a position to be successful down the field.”
Senior cornerback Cole Luke and junior safety Drue Tranquill will be entrusted with making sure the fundamentals of Notre Dame’s defense are in order.
Luke enters his final season in an Irish uniform with six career interceptions and 24 passes defensed. Four of those interceptions and 15 of the passes defensed came during his sophomore season in ’14.
“Big plays (allowed in ’15) were just a matter of people missing on small things like your eyes, your responsibilities, and trying to play one-man football,” Luke said. “You take your eyes off your work because you see something else and before you know it, the guy is gone running down the sideline.
“Trying to do somebody’s job, hopping out of your gap…There are so many things that can make a huge difference.”
The addition of Tranquill on the back end of the Irish defense will be interesting in that while the Irish lose athleticism with the departure of Elijah Shumate at safety, Notre Dame gains a quicker-study of the position.
“Safety is one of those positions, especially in Coach VanGorder’s defense, that is one of the harder positions to play,” Tranquill conceded. “You’re asked to support the run, cover the pass, be in zone, be in man…There are a lot of ins and outs to VanGorder’s defense. Some of those older guys like Shumate did not have a long enough time to grab on to it.
“When you look at explosive plays, especially in the passing game, it boils down to pass rush and the secondary. Being in the secondary, I’ve really seen our guys take that responsibility. Every time we line up, we want to say, ‘Bring it on. Let’s dance.’”
Luke concedes that the difficulty of learning and applying VanGorder’s defensive principles lends itself to more mistakes, and thus, big plays.
“But that’s no excuse,” Luke said. “We could run an easy defense every single play, but they’re going to run down the field each time.
“The complexity, yeah, it’s difficult and it’s hard for some people to understand what to do. But that’s why we win games. The defense is strong for the players that we have and the defense that we have.”
The other Irish safety, Max Redfield, also is in his third year in the system. Although he’s had his setbacks along the way, he now has 23 career starts to his name.
Add red-shirt freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford – who looked like Notre Dame best cover corner until Luke’s spectacular pre-season camp -- and maybe, just maybe the Irish will be in better position to prevent getting gashed by the opposition.
“We had the personnel last year,” said Tranquill, “but a lot of times, the big play came when guys broke down with their assignments.
“We talk about it all the time in our meeting room. We’d have 70 plays of great defense. Sound, assignment football. And then there were five plays where it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’
“We can’t afford a guy breaking down and having a mental error. Just understanding that as a secondary was huge in the off-season. We need to continue growing in our knowledge of assignments, leverages and situational football. There’s a necessary focus on each and every play.”
And an absolute need to take a significant bite out of the opposition’s big plays.