Saturday morning, Sept. 24, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was on the job, digging in, prepared to do whatever it took to get the Irish straightened out.
Twenty-four hours later, VanGorder was out and analyst Greg Hudson was in.
The decision by head coach Brian Kelly/the University of Notre Dame athletics department to remove VanGorder four games into the 2016 season was a call Irish fans had demanded.
Of course, they didn’t have to deal with the logistics and unnerving elements that come with replacing a coordinator mid-season under extremely negative conditions.
On the coaching end of things, Kelly reached into his small bag of football analysts and pulled out Hudson, a former Irish player who coordinated FBS defenses for 11 seasons at Minnesota, East Carolina and Purdue.
Kelly leaned heavily on long-time defensive assistant Mike Elston to spearhead the refurbishment while catching up/coaching up Hudson on the nuances of the Irish defense. Kelly, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, secondary coach Todd Lyght, defensive analyst Jeff Burris, and special assistant Bob Elliott assisted in the collaboration.
The first order of business: come up with a plan that the players could understand and thrive in. After a first-quarter struggle with Syracuse, Notre Dame’s defense clamped down, surrendering no plays of 20 yards or more after the first play of the second quarter and allowing just 165 yards in the second half.
Here’s how the players explained the week of transition.
• OLB-James Onwualu: “The coaches did a great job of pulling together a game plan last week. Coach Elston worked very hard to make sure everything was on point. It was putting an emphasis on a few things instead of covering a wide variety of things. Just focusing in really helped our strategy.”
• DE-Jay Hayes: “It was very understandable. The scheme made players feel very comfortable. Guys were in there playing loose, playing free, and running around with a lot of energy. We were playing a lot more players, so guys still had fresh legs in the third and fourth quarter.”
• LB-Greer Martini: “We had to put in a base defense and we ran only a certain amount of plays. We got in the same lineup and played. As the game went on, we saw what was working and what was not. We stayed in our base defense and played sound football.
“By no means is it a simple defense. But we only had so many plays, so when we went in there, we were confident with the resources that we had and we played well.”
• DE-Isaac Rochell: “It wasn’t overly basic, but it wasn’t overly complicated, either. Notre Dame always prides itself on having smart players, so no matter what the game plan is, we’re not going to be overwhelmed by it. But (the coaches) did a good job of putting together a game plan that we could understand and excel at.”
• Onwualu on Hudson: “It’s tough to gain trust in the locker room, especially being here part-time. Coach Hudson,,,all I see is him caring about this program. His past has been all about Notre Dame. He obviously still has that love for the school and he’s brought that to practice and the locker room. When you see a fellow alum that’s been through it and been in the same seat that you are, you can put everything past you and start to gain that trust.”
• Onwualu on Kelly: “Having him (on defense) has an impact. He’s coaching up every position and has a better understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish on the defensive side of the ball. Him helping out and him being an assistant to the assistants made a difference.”
• Hayes: “They changed it up, changed the practices a little bit, and the guys were looking forward to something new and having Coach Hudson as the coordinator. Running around and having all that energy, guys enjoyed it and trusted the plan that Coach Hudson, Coach Elston, Coach Gilmore, Coach Lyght and Coach Elliott (formed).”
• Rochell: “The biggest thing was bringing energy. Every coach bought into the game plan and bought into changing the mentality of practice. We knew we had to change something because obviously what we were doing wasn’t working. Coaches were bought in to bringing tons of enthusiasm to practice.”
• QB-DeShone Kizer: “It was a complete team attitude change. We completely bought into the idea of just having a good time and enjoying the game, taking all the stress off our backs. The way to build off a win now is to take all the good things from last week and apply it to this week.”
• WR-Torii Hunter, Jr.: “(The defensive changes) didn’t really affect us too much. We knew we had to be there for the defense. It’s important to do that when they’re going through a tough time. Whether it’s scoring extra points because we didn’t know how they would react to it, trying to be a spark for them or trying to lift them up in practice when they were down…
“They came out with tremendous energy and (desire) to compete. Kudos to the defense. They showed a lot of heart. They went out there and played very well.”
• OT-Mike McGlinchey: “The biggest change was the energy level in practice. The last two weeks have been very fun at times on the practice field. That was something we definitely needed to get back to. You could tell when we went against the defense that guys were flying around, guys were chatting and talking and going back and forth with each other.
“That’s what we needed. We needed that competitive spirit, that fun mentality. It’s been a good thing to see the last two weeks, especially with the defense.
“It’s feeding off each other and not letting anybody let that energy go. It was a huge part of why we were successful last week. I’m confident we’ll have that same kind of energy and approach this week.”
THE SYRACUSE GAME
• Rochell: “The biggest thing was that people were excited to get back on the field. Any time you lose consecutive games and you’re expecting to turn it around, guys are excited. Guys had a really good attitude. People were locked in. The energy was great in practice, and that carried over into the game.”
• Martini: “The week was pretty chaotic. But we got around each other and said, ‘We’ve got to get something changed.’ We had good energy and we rolled with it. We came out and not everything was perfect. But we had good energy and the defense started playing good ball.”
• Hayes: “What we had was very simple. When things got crazy – which they do because Syracuse is a tempo team – guys needed to understand what was going on. You can’t look to the sideline and see different signals. So when things got crazy, there was a base call that allowed people to be comfortable with. That’s really the only difference.”
• Martini: “It’s a different approach, but there are similar things in the run game we can carry over. Syracuse threw the ball a lot more than N.C. State will. N.C. State’s running back is amazing, so we’re going to have to be very good against him. That part is different. Our defense will be the same but do manipulations here and there.”
•Rochell: “Football is football, so there’s obviously a lot of translation and a lot of things that carry over. But ultimately with a team like N.C. State, the emphasis is going to be stopping the run and stopping it forcefully. Football is football. Rushing the quarterback is rushing the quarterback. So there’s a lot of carryover.”