The notion that 11-year defensive coordinator Greg Hudson will make a significant difference in the way the Irish play defense compared to the previous 25 games under Brian VanGorder needs to be put in perspective.
No one – particularly someone whom the players barely know – can “turn things around” during a three-day practice week, particularly in preparation for an 86-play-per-game offense and particularly not a guy who is a relative stranger to his players.
That’s why I asked Brian Kelly earlier this week which assistant would be the “co-defensive coordinator” moving forward. Not surprisingly, it’s linebackers coach Mike Elston, whose background is predominately along the defensive line. Elston will be the eyes from the booth while Hudson begins the process of improving/increasing his line of communication with his new troops.
Tweaks to reduce on-the-fly decision-making and allow the defensive players to line up, make a read and make a play is the simplification the Irish need. Reduction of personnel groupings will help limit the confusion. Kelly’s stated desire to get more players on the field will be dictated, to a large extent, by the tempo Syracuse runs.
(Note: Syracuse slows the pace and runs a lot of “check-with-me” from the sideline when the offense sees something defensively that doesn’t fit the original play call. Look for tempo to play a big role because the Irish likely will be in less defensive looks, and thus, creates less confusion for quarterbacks Eric Dungey and/or Zack Mahoney.)
Hudson’s job this week, as spelled out by Kelly, is to be the energy guy. It also sounds as if he’s the one who will be responsible for offering uplifting and positive feedback, which sounds a bit silly on this level of football, but probably the most you can expect from a guy who had not spoken with most of the defensive players prior to Sunday.
With each passing week, Hudson’s role will evolve and adapt to the situation. He’ll be able to talk nuances, put his fingerprint on specifics, and gain the respect of the players over time.
To judge Hudson too positively or too negatively Saturday would be premature. He’s trying to corral a defensive situation that is, at best, unsettled, and at worst, muddled.
Simplification will help, but communication – in the short term – could be as tricky (in a different way) as it was under Brian VanGorder. It will be interesting to see how that communication works as adjustments are made during the course of the game.
Long-term, this is addition by subtraction with the removal of VanGorder. Short term, it will be difficult to accurately judge Hudson for anything other than his ability to get his players to settle in, clear their minds, and play free-and-easy.
If you’re Dino Babers, you give Notre Dame the whole ball of wax in terms of formations and plays, looks and variations. (That’s what he does normally anyway.)
If the Irish defense plays better than expected, the credit belongs mainly to Kelly, Elston and even Kelly’s special assistant, Bob Elliott, who will try to make sense of the chaos as Hudson plays a stabilizing role.
Here we go. It will be fun…Wait! Make that fascinating.
This is the good and the bad of Greg Hudson’s production as a football coach, beginning in 2002 when he was named Glen Mason’s defensive coordinator at Minnesota.
During his three-year stint with the Gophers, Minnesota was 25-13 with a 10-victory season in 2003, a 3-0 bowl record, and a defense that allowed 24.5 points per game in ’02, 21.9 in ’03, and 22.7 in ’04.
It should be noted that the Gopher defense allowed 331 yards total offense in ’03 and 408 yards total offense in ’04. But upon Hudson’s arrival, Minnesota reduced the opposition’s scoring by a field goal and trimmed off 65 yards total offense.
The following season, Hudson was in Greenville, N.C. coaching the East Carolina Pirates’ defense under head coach Skip Holtz, who was a teammate of Hudson’s at Notre Dame.
It begs the question: Why did Minnesota/Mason fire Hudson? It had to be more than the numbers produced on the field, which were solid. Interestingly, secondary coach David Lockwood replaced Hudson. Lockwood served one season – 2001 -- as Notre Dame’s defensive backs coach before Bob Davie and his staff were fired.
After Hudson’s departure, the Gophers went 13-12 in Mason’s final two seasons in Minneapolis, lost both of its bowl games, and saw its point yield defensively rise to 28.0 the year after Hudson’s departure. In terms of production, the decision to fire Hudson proved wrong.
During Hudson’s five-year stint (2005-09) at East Carolina, it was hit and miss, although the immediate impact of Holtz’s/Hudson’s arrival on the defensive side of the football was strikingly great.
The Pirates allowed an obscene 39.9 points per game in 2004. In Hudson’s first year as coordinator, that number dropped to 28.8 while shaving off 55 yards total offense per game.
In Hudson’s second year at East Carolina, the Pirates dropped the point total from 28.8 to 20.5 while knocking off another 70 yards in total offense allowed. In two years, Hudson’s defense clipped off an amazing 125 yards and 19.4 points per game.
Those numbers took a sharp increase back up in 2007 (29.8 ppg., 436 ypg.), but then dipped back down to 20.8 points and 335 yards total offense in ‘08.
Hudson served as linebackers coach at Florida State from 2010-12. In the last two years of his three-year stint in Tallahassee, the Seminoles finished among the nation’s top six in scoring defense, rush defense and total defense. You can safely assume that the linebackers tackled well.
Season Nos. 9, 10 and 11 of Hudson’s coordinating experience came at Purdue where the immediate aftermath of the Joe Tiller era – first Danny Hope and now Darrell Hazell – has been ugly.
Hudson’s first defense in West Lafayette (2013) allowed 39 points and 460 yards total offense per game. In 2014, they reduced the scoring by a touchdown and dropped the yardage by 45, although the numbers shot back up in ’15.
Clearly, Hudson has inherited some difficult opportunities. Just as clearly, he’s showed signs of making great strides statistically with his defense.
There’s enough good on his resume in some difficult situations to warrant an eight- or nine-game look. But again, to avoid jumping the gun, easy on the immediate expectations.
HANDLING THE HOT SEAT
It’s a pretty amazing environment in college football today when a guy who has averaged nine victories per season and taken a team to a national championship game and six straight bowls is placed on the “hot seat,” if that is indeed where Brian Kelly now sits.
Then again, Les Miles lost his job after averaging 10 victories per season (114-34) at LSU, winning double digits in seven of his first nine years, winning the national title in 2007, and playing for another in 2011.
If Miles can lose his job and Mark Richt can lose his job at Georgia, so, too, can Brian Kelly.
To be fair and accurate, there are some disturbing trends with Kelly’s regime, including:
• Two touchdown deficits in 15 of his first 25 losses;
• A 5-9 mark against ranked opponents since 2013;
• Losses in eight of the last 11 true road games.
• At least four losses in four of six seasons with a very realistic chance of five in seven seasons.
Is Brian Kelly on the “hot seat?” The term is another one of those annoying phrases that generally is determined by someone who has no control over the temperature.
Jack Swarbrick (and the board of trustees) – not the media, not the fan base – monitors the thermometer. Yet some of the recent trends prompt debate.
A losing 2016 season, considering the mess that has become the Notre Dame defense, would be on Kelly, mainly for allowing Brian VanGorder a third season. But it wouldn’t be grounds for dismissal.
Too often, those who don’t take into consideration the most important aspect of a firing – the ability to hire a capable (re: better) replacement – demand a bloodletting. It’s shortsighted to call for one without consideration of the other.
Sometimes a firing is necessary regardless whether there’s a sure-fire solution. In the case of Richt and even Miles to a large extent, the numbers don’t justify a dismissal, but the stagnation of a program does, particularly in a league like the SEC where the competition is so stiff.
Brian Kelly remains the right guy for the Notre Dame job, even if this turns out to be a 6-6ish season. It’s disappointing that he is a good coach and not a great coach, but the overall success of the program would make a knee-jerk reaction unwise.
Unless there are mitigating circumstances – a deteriorating relationship between boss and employee, for example – Kelly should be the head coach at Notre Dame and beyond.
Sometimes better candidates who would choose Notre Dame come along. You’ll never catch moss growing under Swarbrick’s feet, and when a better alternative surfaces, a move will be made…unless Kelly makes the move first.
One final note: Swarbrick’s participation in the VanGorder decision was appropriate. VanGorder and his system were sucking the oxygen out of the program. Swarbrick is a very astute administrator. His evaluation matters.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON (AND DIAMOND)
• So Blake Barnett doesn’t like his situation at Alabama. Then go where you know you’ll play, preferably somewhere in the state of California or out West. There’s still a ton of good football to be played by Barnett. The path of least resistance seems to be the best fit for one so uncertain about what he wants out of football and the college experience.
• As a Chicago Cubs fan of 47 years, the view is much different. I will not be devastated by the failure to win a World Series. Why would my expectation be otherwise? I anticipate awaking on Monday with the Cubs’ record sitting at 0-0 entering the playoffs. That scares me, but I won’t let failure in the playoffs crush me.
“Wait ‘til next year” is, for once, legitimate because they’re built for the long haul. A trip to the World Series and a loss? I’ll take it and look forward to next year. That’s what 47 years as a Cubs fan has done to me.
• I’m easily moved by emotion. But if you watched Dee Gordon’s leadoff home run the day after Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident, saw the heartbreaking reaction from Gordon and his teammates, and weren’t moved to tears by that, you’ve been deprived of a basic human emotion.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
Never, ever follow my lead when Notre Dame is one of the top selections of the week. As for the over-unders, we’re on a roll. Going to step out with a few extra picks this week. (Translation: Choose from the list, if you are so inclined, wisely.)
• Under 52½ Tennessee @ Georgia
• Over 71½ Texas @ Oklahoma State
• Ohio State -38½ vs. Rutgers
• South Carolina +17½ vs. Texas A&M
• Over 69½ North Carolina @ Florida State
Season record vs. spread: 8-3