Brian Kelly wanted a different perspective. He needed elevation to do it, so he now spends part of practice atop the tower installed between Notre Dame’s two turf fields.
The vantage point lets Kelly watch the offense and defense with a simple turn of the head, not that Notre Dame’s head coach likes that distance from the action. But there’s not much Kelly has liked about this year.
“I've never been a tower guy,” Kelly said. “I've always been on the ground, but I'm up in the tower so I can try to see both sides.”
That change reinforces what’s already known, that Kelly is scrambling to figure out what’s wrong across the board. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is how Kelly has spent his time in meeting rooms. He’s made time for Notre Dame’s defensive backfield, the position that’s arguably sunk this season most and also the position with the most upside to save it.
Kelly won’t say how much time he’s devoted the defense beyond the admission he’s been logging 80-hour weeks. Somewhere in there he meets cornerbacks Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Troy Pride alongside safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott.
That party of five can’t be asked to save the season, yet it will be part of whatever solution the coaching staff can craft during the second half. Perhaps more importantly, they’ll be the foundation of the defense in seasons to come.
“There is a lot to like. Where do I start?” Kelly said. “Football IQ I like. They understand the game. They play the ball well in the air. I think more importantly, an eagerness and willingness to be coached. They take coaching very well.”
They take reps well too based on their rising workloads. After the secondary struggled early and lost Shaun Crawford, the staff went young in late September and probably won’t look back.
Vaughn didn’t take a real defensive snap against Texas or Michigan State but logged 105 against Syracuse and N.C. State. It appears Vaughn is now the third corner when Notre Dame goes to nickel personnel. Love, meanwhile, has become an every down player, logging 65 snaps at N.C. State, tied for tops on the defense with James Onwualu and Drue Tranquill.
Pride didn’t take a defensive snap at N.C. State after playing 60 against Syracuse, but he’s now part of the special teams rotation.
“I think they have a tremendous amount of just pure athleticism,” said receiver Torii Hunter Jr. “It's just matching the technique now. They're super young, and in high school everybody's kind of playing off their athletic ability. When you get here you have to fine tune everything, and that's the main thing they'll have to work on.”
In terms of production, early returns have been promising.
Syracuse managed just one touchdown in 40 pass attempts when Notre Dame had five defensive backs on the field. N.C. State quarterbacks went 3-of-6 for 17 yards against nickel personnel.
Even in the Duke game when the secondary got torched, a five defensive back look worked.
Blue Devils quarterback Daniel Jones went 19-of-23 for 243 yards and three touchdowns against the Irish base defense. When Notre Dame got a fifth defensive back into the game, Jones went 3-of-7 for 54 yards and an interception. Vaughn made it, and he probably has the highest upside of anybody in Notre Dame’s freshman class.
At 6-foot-2 and appearing a couple inches longer than that, it’s clear Vaughn is built unlike any corner on the Irish roster and like few others in college football. On National Signing Day, also known as National Hyperbole Day, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght compared Vaughn to Richard Sherman.
Vaughn has been targeted 16 times and allowed 10 receptions this fall, although those have averaged just 6.5 yards per reception. That’s the best figure among Notre Dame’s healthy cornerbacks and trails only Crawford (3.7 yards per target).
“Donte's probably the tallest corner I've ever played against, for sure,” Hunter said. “It's just so easy for them to get their hands on it because they're so long. Sometimes it's difficult to block longer guys too because of how long they can extend their arms and stuff. So I think he'll definitely be a problem once he starts nailing down his technique and all that.
“So he'll be someone to look for in the future.”
Actually, Vaughn is somebody to look out for right now.
Same goes for the rest of Notre Dame’s freshman class of defensive backs.