"Well, we need to tighten up our calls," Irish defensive coordinator Corwin Brown said. "Like, there are certain stunts and calls and games that we run that the kids, they know, you know, now we've just got to nail it down. You want to be as sharp as possible when, ‘there's a certain gap I'm supposed to blitz through,' or ‘there's a certain pickup I need to make.' You know, we want to tighten that down. There are a few other things that we're putting in, a couple of exotics, so-to-speak. We want to get a look at those, and get those on tape, and just kind of see where we are, just last week stuff."
Before innovative schemes and formations are added, however, Brown has assessed the defensive unit's progress. Despite improvements, he never wants to say that the team is ahead of expectations, because his philosophy as a coach is to believe that there is always room for improvement.
"I don't want to say ahead of where I though, because I always like to think that we've got good coaches here," Brown said. "I like our ability to teach so I kind of like where we are. Of course you're never satisfied, but I do like the direction that we're headed in and some of the things that we're getting done."
Now that Brown is in his second spring as the Irish defensive coordinator, his players have a greater understanding of the type of teacher that he is and his style. His system has become more familiar with the squad the second time around, but coach Brown has admitted to learning a great amount of knowledge about his team and himself this year.
"This year, probably next to after my first year in New England when Al [Groh] sat me down that off-season and he would teach me all the underneath coverage stuff and quarterback reads, I've probably learned more this year, than I have in any other year, minus that year," he said. "That was like a big jump and then this is even more. It's good because Mike Westhoff used to say, ‘it's what you learn once you've figured it all out.' That's when you're really starting to get it. Everyday is like a learning experience, so we're just talking and we bounce stuff off the wall… That's why you never listen to people that don't really know. You've got to trust the people that you know, and you've got to follow your instinct and your heart. Don't worry about what the outside world says, you do what's best for the team."
With the process of gaining knowledge through spring practices, this year's has brought Brown a great deal additional information from newly acquired linebacker's coach Jon Tenuta. With the former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator now having a say at meetings and practices, Brown has learned the ins and outs of aggressive blitzing schemes.
"Well, how to gang up on the run, how to constantly pressure the other side," Brown said of Tenuta's early impact. "Sometimes, even when you're not pressuring, there's a feeling that you're being pressured, or those guys have the mindset that they're being pressured… [Being aggressive] is all he thinks about. That's a good thing because now, you see how or why other people view him in that light, because he's constantly talking about pressuring the ball, making the quarterback not set his feet, making the running back run sideways. Whereas I've been more, we're going to pressure them sometimes, and all of a sudden we'll change it up and give them a curveball and give them a little bit of coverage… Whereas he's more got his foot on the gas."
The adaptation with Tenuta's presence hasn't necessarily changed Brown's style, but what it has done is allowed the former New York Jets secondary coach to take more risks on defense.
"I wouldn't say that's not what my style was," Brown said of his philosophy last year. "I just didn't do it regularly. I'm comfortable. Anything that works, I can be comfortable with. When you're in a situation, and things work, whatever goal you set, and you go into that, if you get that result, then you should be comfortable and you should be happy with that and I think that's where we're headed. I'm good with that."
On the other side of the fence, Tenuta has also had the opportunity to take away some ideas from working with Brown in his short time at Notre Dame. Being born and bred in the Buckeye territory, Tenuta had heard about Brown long before they ever had the chance to meet and work together.
"Well, I think Corwin is a very bright, intelligent man that understands football, that understands defensive football," Tenuta said. "Obviously, I've known about him for a long time. He played at Michigan, and being an Ohio guy, an Ohio State guy and the things we go over and over everyday is like, ‘Corwin, think back when you were at Michigan and you ran slant and angle.' ‘When you were with the Patriots and you ran this blitz.' ‘Think about when you played at the Jets and you guys did this,' and so on and so forth. He has it, and he's been around it, it's just getting it all together and just do it. And I've been fortunate enough in my career to have that opportunity and do it an a lot."
The relationship isn't about imposing one philosophy over another; it's become far more symbiotic, allowing both coaches to take previous experiences and fuse them together into one package that fits both styles.
"There is no substitution for experience, good, bad or indifferent" Tenuta said. "And he has it, let's just keep going, you know. And like he said, in the numerous conversations that we've had, just let it fall into play and now put it into down and distance by personnel and so on and so forth. Once you understand the menu, then everything falls into play."
Part of the reason that the relationship has worked thus far, according to Tenuta, is because both coaches are students of the game.
"Oh, I think we're both good students because we're both good listeners," he said. "I think for anybody to be a great teacher or a good teacher you have to be a good listener and I think we're both good listeners. That to me is what makes it even easier to communicate with as we go into meetings, practice or whatever. ‘Okay, how do we do this?' ‘Bang, this is how I did it. Bang.' So it's never been an ego issue or anything like that, it's what's best for our players to put them in position to make plays."
Returning to the idea of Brown always seeking improvement out of his unit, the defensive coordinator has seen some progress out of his defensive line.
"I'm happy," Brown said. "I'm happy. I like our kids. I like what we're doing and once our guys really start to hone in, and get comfortable because everything is still new to them right now… The more comfortable they get, the better they'll get and the better we'll play."
Defensive line coach Jappy Oliver also sees development, but views it as a work in progress.
"Well, to me it's always a work in progress," Oliver said. "I got some guys playing better than others. They're still learning the package. I think that once they learn the package, they'll start to play a little bit freer. They're attacking more and doing some things that they weren't doing before… I think we're okay. We've had a couple of guys step up."
When looking as to why there has been some improvement along the defensive front one doesn't ned to look further than Oliver's animated demeanor in practice — a demeanor that he hopes his players posses regardless of his style.
"I don't know how you could play on the defensive line without that passion, without that fire," he said. "I have it as a coach, and I'd like to think they have it as players. And even if I didn't have it as a coach, I'd like to think that they've gotten. I'm hoping they take my lead and just run with it."