These are the cold numbers on Notre Dame’s rush defense today.
The Irish rank No. 99 in ground gains allowed per game. They rank No. 114 in carries faced. They rank No. 84 in yards per carry surrendered. Only eight FBS programs have allowed more rushing touchdowns.
Notre Dame has already faced 141 carries that gained 596 yards and hit the end zone nine times in just three games. For a point of comparison, the Irish allowed just two rushing touchdowns all season before running into Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game four years ago.
Yet while that defense seemingly fit everything perfectly, Brian VanGorder’s group has struggled with “run fit” concepts, which is the ability for players to play the correct gap. When that doesn’t happen, plays like Gerald Holmes’ 73-yard touchdown run in the third quarter show up.
“Sometimes it's maybe you played too many plays and you get tired,” Kelly said. “When you get tired, you lose your concentration on a particular fit. Sometimes you try to do somebody else's job, which requires discipline in your approach.
“To me, more than anything else, it's football maturity puts you in your fits all the time. That's really what we're talking about. When you have first-time starters, and you have a guy that's out there, the consistency of performance is where you're going to be exposed.”
Kelly complimented the work of Nyles Morgan and James Onwualu to date but called on Greer Martini and Te’von Coney, both rotating at the Will linebacker spot occupied by Jaylon Smith last year, to improve. Coney lost at the point of attack on Holmes’ long run, although it appeared he was being held on the play.
At issue for Kelly is the fact both young linebackers look the part on Tuesdays and Wednesdays before taking a step back when the lights come on.
“Both Te'von and Greer, quite frankly, have got to play more consistent football for us,” Kelly said. “We've got to coach them better. Those are great kids. They want to do it. But they're not doing it consistently enough.”
Safety play has been suspect too as Kelly lamented a lack of athleticism in his older safeties, where Drue Tranquill is coming off back-to-back ACL tears and Avery Sebastian has battled injury throughout his six-year career.
It’s part of the reason why the staff started freshman Devin Studstill the past two weeks, taking the good with the bad. Studstill made his first interception against Michigan State.
“There's inconsistencies in his game, obviously. We know that,” Kelly said. “But he's out there and learning valuable, valuable information. That's going to bode well for us, that he's in the game and he's playing a considerable amount of football for us.”
All this learning needs to starting paying off soon for Notre Dame’s defense, even with Kelly doubling down on VanGorder the day after the 36-28 loss to Michigan State. Remember, during the summer Kelly told the South Bend Tribune that a rush defense ranked in the 70’s was “not going to fly after this year.” Three games into the season, the Irish are actually worse off.
But Kelly believes the proper fix is working with VanGorder to make all that happen opposed to jettisoning his defensive coordinator now.
“I mean, this is not rocket science what we're talking about here. These are plays that we've got to continue to work on and fundamentally get better at,” Kelly said. “There's not a question about scheme. There's not a question about who's leading it with Brian. This is about coaching, communicating and teaching the fundamentals and getting our young players, those that don't have a lot of experience, better at execution.”