Tackling the Challenge

36-year-old defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is charged with returning defensive pride and performance to South Bend.

Eight years have passed, depending on your personal criteria or level of expectation, since Notre Dame boasted a defense that could measure up at a national level. In 2002 Tyrone Willingham's first Irish squad won and changed games almost exclusively due to hard-nosed defensive football.

Unfortunately, the '02 offense ranked among the nation's worst and that thin but gifted group of playmakers on defense eventually wore down, with the death blow a 41-10 loss at streaking USC on Thanksgiving Saturday – an Irish BCS berth lost and a run of excellence launched in LA as part of the fallout.

While the '02 Irish defense ranked among the nation's best (as did Bob Davie's final defense in '01, a group that finished No. 13 nationally in total defense though 22nd in points allowed), Irish fans can realistically point to 1993 (there's that year again) as the season in which Notre Dame boasted a true top-tier defense – one stocked with necessary depth on the defensive line and in the secondary...a unit replete with top-level college talent and future NFL stars and contributors alike.

Rick Minter coordinated that '93 defense. Bob Davie followed and parlayed his efforts into the Irish head coaching gig by ‘97. Davie was the architect with coordinating assistance from Greg Mattison ('97-'01); followed by Kent Baer ('02 through '04); another Minter stint in '05 and ‘06; Corwin Brown in '07; Brown and Jon Tenuta in '08, and of course, Tenuta this past season.

Each assistant failed to develop a consistent, year-to-year defensive effort over their collective tenures.

A time for change

Enter Bob Diaco, the former Iowa linebacker of the early 90s and, most recently, defensive coordinator at Virginia and last season with Brian Kelly in Cincinnati. Diaco, a Hayden Fry/Al Groh defensive disciple, is the latest coach charged with resurrecting defensive pride and performance in South Bend. He inherits the nation's 86th ranked total defense.

Diaco explained his defensive philosophy in the following statement issued by the University of Notre Dame Thursday night:

"It bases out of a 3-4. We've created a system where we go quickly from three down linemen to four down linemen and we can get that reduced player wherever we need it to be. That's part of the overall package.

"One great thing about basing out of a 3-4 is the element that the offense doesn't know where the fourth rusher will be coming from. A fourth rusher can come from the field. A fourth rusher can come from the boundary. A fourth rusher can come from the inside."

Educated (read: battle-worn) Irish fans will take a wait-and-see perspective. Educated Irish media members realize the above statement represents about 89 more descriptive words regarding the team's new defensive philosophy than offered by the previous regime, but I digress...

Notre Dame Defensive Rankings: 2009

  • Total Defense: 86
  • Rush Defense: 89
  • Pass Efficiency Defense: 82
  • Scoring Defense: 63
  • Total Sacks: 89th (20 total sacks)
  • Tackles for Loss: 68th

The hand he's been dealt

The Irish defense lost just one key component for last season, safety and leading tackler/playmaker Kyle McCarthy. It will also be without the services of versatile S/Nickel LB Sergio Brown as well as contributors Raeshon McNeil, Toryan Smith, John Ryan, Ray Herring and Scott Smith next season. Though immediate improvement is expected and necessary, Diaco and the defense will lose (arguably) just four of the unit's top 20-plus contributors after the 2010 season (Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Ian Williams, and presumed 5th-year CB Darrin Walls will have exhausted their eligibility at the conclusion of next year).

Though the acceptable time table for success at Notre Dame (has always been) somewhere between now and next September, Diaco's new troops have sufficient time to embrace and improve as the new regime takes root.

Diaco addressed the team's personnel and his level of familiarity with it in Thursday's University release:

"I've had a chance to read about the personnel, such as tangible traits. The standards: height, weight, speed, etc. I'm not too interested in people's opinion on those guys. I'm interested in meeting everyone and seeing everyone.

"I'm sure everybody has something they can contribute positively to the organization. I'm looking forward to getting involved a lot more and learning a lot more about each guy. I know they switched systems midstream through the Coach Weis era, so I'm sure there is personnel to fit whatever need there is."

From an outsider's (non-coach's) perspective, I feel the unit's talent level is (at least) solid. Of Notre Dame's 11-13 "best" returning defenders, I have conclusive video evidence of each making big plays, smart plays, and sound defensive plays.

It's up to Diaco and the defensive staff (not to mention Coach Kelly) to harness these occasional moments of brilliance/competency and form a consistent, confident group of playmakers and tacklers.

Familiarity, continuity…now get to work

As with most new hires, a mutual admiration society exists between teacher and pupil. Kelly trusts Diaco. Diaco believes Kelly is the best man for the job…any job.

"The biggest factor is Coach Kelly," Diaco stated through the athletics department release regarding his decision to join the Irish. "Coach Kelly is the reason why I left Virginia to go to Cincinnati. Coach Kelly is the best head football coach in the country. But in particular, as it pertains to being a defensive staffer for Coach Kelly, if you are a self-starter and you enjoy work and you enjoy having an opportunity to think outside the box and operate within his shared vision, but at the same time run on your own gas, there's not a better guy in the country to work for.

"Truth be told, I would have continued to work for Coach Kelly had he stayed or gone. It just so happens to be two perfect worlds right now that I'm at Notre Dame with Coach Kelly."

Kelly knows what he has in Diaco, especially after the latter entered a difficult situation in the Queen City last spring.

"Bob Diaco a bright and energetic coach who is truly one of the rising stars in this profession and I'm glad he'll serve as my defensive coordinator. He willingly entered a difficult situation last year when I asked him to join me at Cincinnati and guide a defense that had to replace 10 starters.

"Bob implemented an entirely new defense and was a major factor in us winning every game during the regular season," Kelly continued in the University-issued released on his new hires. "He has played for and learned under some fine defensive coaches and will be a great teacher for our guys. Bob will challenge our players and assistants in a positive way on a daily basis and I look forward to the impact he'll have on our defense."

Assembling the troops

"I love recruiting. I'm passionate about it," Diaco offered through the athletics department release. "Most predominately, I've recruited New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Florida. Early in my coaching career I was in Chicago and I know that area well. I've also recruited in Ohio, Michigan and Virginia based on where I was coaching at the time.

"Now, recruiting is recruiting. It doesn't really matter where you go. If you're asked the questions, you have the answers. If you say you're going to get the information to the coach or whomever, you promptly get the information to that individual. If you're diligent, detailed, consistent and forthright, it won't matter if you are recruiting in Connecticut or Texas or California. That's what people are looking for."

And if you're an avid reader of Notre Dame message boards, you know what else people are looking for…immediate results and a 2010 class that can help the Irish return to prominence in the coming years.

"Sounds like I'm going to hit the road and go recruiting," Diaco stated of his immediate plans. "I'll visit some committed players and get on the phone with some targeted prospects."

College football fans have officially entered "recruiting season." Soon to follow are off-season workouts and spring ball – the dawn of Brian Kelly's promised player development era at Notre Dame.

But the proof and the first meaningful tackle won't occur until next fall. Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator registered 334 career stops of his own at the college level – it's time to impart that knowledge to a hungry group of defenders that could use a refresher course on the game's most important fundamental skill.

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