When Greg Hudson returned to Notre Dame last summer he did it under the radar.
There was no grand announcement, no press conference for the defensive analyst who was a reserve linebacker for the Irish under Lou Holtz in making a return to South Bend. But there was Sunday when Brian Kelly fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder after four disastrous games while leading the Irish defense to historic lows.
Now Hudson, who has defensive coordinator experience at Purdue and East Carolina, plus linebacker coaching experience at Florida State, is now in the spotlight, at least for the rest of this season. Kelly didn’t call Hudson an interim defensive coordinator, but acknowledged everybody on staff is on a “public interview” the rest of the season.
For Hudson to survive that, how he runs Notre Dame’s defense may be as much about appearances as statistics.
“I need to see our guys play fast and free and loose, and I need to see excitement on the field,” Kelly said. “I need to see guys playing the game like kids, and not so mechanical and robotic. They have to let it go and let it happen and that means we have to tweak some things.
“So what I'll be looking for in particular relative to these tweaks is these guys come at it with a clean slate, and I expect to see them play with a lot more passion and enthusiasm.”
Kelly said he’d be more involved with the Irish defense moving forward and revealed he’d sit in meetings this week after evaluating the defense last week in a similar manner.
The terminology on defense won’t change in full, as Kelly said he didn’t want to “pull the rug” out from under his players any more than he’s already done. However, the structure of the defense, including who plays and how much, is up for debate.
“There's not too much defense,” Kelly said. “There's probably too much analysis maybe, and we're going to streamline it and we're going to keep it fundamentally sound, certainly and we're going to allow our kids to play fast and free, and have some fun at it.”
Kelly noted that defensive lineman Jay Hayes will be activated after not seeing the field against Duke. Freshman cornerbacks Donte Vaughn and Julian Love figure to have their roles expand. Freshmen defensive linemen Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara might get more of a look as well.
Notre Dame has ridden Isaac Rochell, Nyles Morgan, James Onwualu and Cole Luke hard this season, virtually never substituting anyone from that group. Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery has also seen his workload more than double from last year.
“A number of defensive linemen have got to play,” Kelly said. “More linebackers have to play. I think they are playing way too many plays. We've got guys on the field that have eaten up way too many reps, and we just have not put those guys in the game and they are going to play. You'll see them this weekend.”
There’s also the issue of Hudson not knowing the players well while serving in an analyst’s role. His interactions with players are limited by NCAA rules, but he’s present enough for the roster to know he’s on staff.
It all means Hudson faces a familiarity test with a roster that just lost its coordinator.
“He doesn't have a ton of interaction with them because he's an analyst,” Kelly said. “He does a lot more obviously in the film room. He does a lot more of the work that's off the field. So they clearly know who he is. He's respected by the players. But this will be a new relationship that he'll be building with the defensive players.
“But they know who he is. He's been around. He's been with us through camp and certainly they know that he brings a lot of experience to the position. But this will be new relationships building.”