The Effect of a Change in AlignmentFrom 1986 through 2009, Notre Dame switched its front seven look on six occasions (1990, 1992, 1994, 1999, 2007, and 2009).
Though the loss of key personnel often played a large role, each new defense with the exception of 1992 (a year in which ND retained 20 of its top 24 contributing defenders) gave up more points than did the previous year's squads.
1989 to 1990: From No. 12 to No. 50. Player attrition played a major role, though the Irish D still boasted three ex 1st-Team All Americans, each of which earned that distinction again in '90, despite the unit's dramatic dip in performance.
1991 to 1992: From No. 53 to No. 20. The full change back to the 4-3 (illustrated above) was key, but perhaps not as important as the reality that the sterling recruiting classes of 1989 and 1990 were now upperclassmen.
1993 to 1994: The drop from No. 20 to No. 37 in points allowed can be traced to the loss of three program greats (Bryant Young, Jim Flanigan, and Jeff Burris) as well as four more defensive draft picks. In other words, Davie's scheme switch was less at fault than was Holtz's awkward offense that inexplicably placed lead-footed Ron Powlus in occasional option situations.
1998 to 1999: A dramatic fall from grace, as the '98 Irish (9-3) allowed just 19 points per game en route to the nation's 27th ranked scoring defense. The Davie-Mattison switch to the 4-3 look produced a porous defense that allowed a 50-season high 27.6 points per contest (topped only by the 1956 Irish D that allowed 28.9 points per game and the – you guessed it – 2007 unit that yielded 28.7, due partly to the bulk of short fields provided by the world's worst offense).
2006 to 2007: Blame it on the loss of two solid front four contributors and an astounding lack of depth, but the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 cost the Irish five points per game.
2008 to 2009: Another change and another case of regression, (No. 42 to No. 63). It's relevant that too many cooks likely spoiled this broth as much as the change of alignment or employment of the front seven personnel.
Taking their Cue from '92?Noting that the upperclassmen-to-be have some experience in the 3-4 scheme under the past regime, I asked coach Cooks about the change, and what he thought it might do for the current crop of Irish defenders
"Watching the little tape that I have, and following Notre Dame the last few years, the thing that's going to be good (over time) is to have some continuity. You can't be a 4-3 then go to a 3-4 then come back to a 4-3, because no one's getting better from the standpoint of fundamentals.
"Our plan is to be here for awhile," Cooks said of the new staff. "To implement this 3-4 defense, and (establish that) this is who we are. I think as the younger players continue to grow and feel comfortable in it, the defense is going to show what it's capable of."
Cooks' reference to continuity is relevant. The historical review above shows change (and inevitable player turnover) has traditionally hurt the Irish defense. But a closer look illustrates that one such scheme/alignment change resulted in drastic improvement.
Dramatic Improvement through Maturation: The 1991 Irish defense allowed a shocking 204 rushing yards over what amounted to a BCS bowl-winning season (the Sugar Bowl over Florida). The unit gave up 382 yards (73rd nationally) and almost 22 points (53rd nationally) per game vs. a challenging, but certainly more manageable schedule than those played in each of the previous five seasons dating back to 1986.
Enter Rick Minter and a scheme change for the 1992 campaign. More importantly, enter the junior year enrollment of defensive linemen Bryant Young, Jim Flanigan, Brian Hamilton and Oliver Gibson; of linebackers Anthony Peterson and Pete Bercich; and of defensive backs Jeff Burris, Tom Carter, John Covington, and Greg Lane.
Add to that senior and 5th year development of DE Karl McGill and Devon McDonald; LB Demetrius Dubose and Brian Ratigan; and the addition of DB-supreme, freshman Bobby Taylor.
That defense allowed nearly six fewer points per contest and 93 fewer rushing yards, an improvement from the 84th-ranked rush D of '91 to the NINTH rated unit of '92, vs. a (slightly) more difficult schedule.
Fast forward to 2010, the addition of Bob Diaco, a scheme change, the new defensive staff of Chuck Martin, Mike Elston, and Kerry Cooks, and more importantly, the following personnel from the recruiting classes of 2007 and 2008.
- Juniors-to-be Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, Sean Cwynar, and Hafis Williams (as well as still-unseen Brandon Newman) on the D-Line and senior Ian Williams (along with untested Emeka Nwankwo).
- Seniors-to-be Brian Smith and Kerry Neal at linebacker along with juniors Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, Anthony McDonald, and David Posluszny populating the second level of the 3-4.
- Seniors/5th-years Harrison Smith, Gary Gray, and Darrin Walls on the backline with juniors Robert Blanton, Jamoris Slaughter, and Dan McCarthy populating the secondary.
- As for an impact player the likes of Bobby Taylor? Manti Te'o has an additional year of experience vs. Taylor's freshman season of impact in '92. He has a long way to go to reach the former's level, but Taylor eased his way into the lineup by winning a starting job in the second half of his first season as well.
- Finally, the '10 squad will have three early enrollees in the secondary with promising sophomore S/LB Zeke Motta and Tyler Stockton ready to debut at NT as well.
Natural Progression: I'm not suggesting the defensive talent (13 future draft picks plus two other NFL veterans) that contributed in 1992 is comparable to the group in place today, but few Irish fans forecasted such dramatic defensive improvement or future personnel stardom at the dawn of the Minter era, either.
While the current scheme change will receive the bulk of off-season attention, it's the development and maturation of the personnel that will determine the success of the 3-4 in Year One.
"The biggest thing is starting to build relationships with our players," Cooks explained. Letting those guys get to know our personalities and who we are and from a coaching standpoint, really seeing what they're capable of doing.
"Once we (familiarize) our scheme and the different things that we're going to be able to do, the players will be better able to do what we ask of them."
An examination of personnel suggests that 2011 will likely be the high water mark for the Irish defense, at least since the sterling season of 2002. But as the '92 defense showed, arriving one year ahead of schedule isn't out of the question.