Spring Notebook: Defense

IrishEyes catches up with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco after Monday's practice.

Notre Dame moved into a new phase in its spring preparations Monday afternoon, donning full pads for the first time this spring at the LaBar Practice Complex.

Energetic Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco took time to speak with reporters following Monday's session, touching on subjects ranging from the early progress of a few notable defenders, to the inherent struggle of implementing a new style defensively.

The Minds are Willing; the Bodies are…Willing

Diaco was asked how his new troops are responding to the culture shock of a new, far more taxing practice format coupled with the mental strain of absorbing a new scheme and set of defensive keys.

"I'm well-pleased. The guys … it's a very intelligent group," Diaco began. "They do a very good job of bringing the information from the meetings out onto the field, which is really an art form. You think it'd be commonplace but that's a critical point and this is a good group with that. "They're really interested in being very good so they come out and give very good effort."

Diaco's observation of the team's interest level is relevant: it's a point driven home by then-running backs coach Tony Alford last season regarding the improvement of Armando Allen and the upperclassmen's attention to detail (Alford is now the team's wide receivers coach).

And though the team has the ability to understand what's presented to them in meetings and in the film room, its still a challenge to implement those teachings at full speed on the practice field.

"Obviously the reps threshold is just something that needs to be built," Diaco offered of the players' tendency to respond better early than late during sessions. "It's not that they're not trying really hard, (but) it's just a little bit different style at a little different pace and tempo and its going to take some adjustment.

"As it relates to the threshold of performance," Diaco continued while offering a chuckle, "It starts out really good, obviously, and as you get to the plays in the set in particular, or at the end of practice (the level of execution tapers) off a bit.

"But we'll get there as the volume continues to rise."

Forget What You Know

Though Diaco has been pleased with the effort and overall progress of his defensive unit, there have been more than a few noticeable bumps through three practices. Most notably, breaking old habits that contradict his defensive approach, or at least his method of installation.

"I would say there are styles of defense," Diaco noted of the scheme change before adding, "We do a lot of different things so you can't necessarily put in a box what we are or what we're going to be.

"What happens is there are particular pieces of our defense (for example) where we're not ‘upfield.' Where a year ago, we were a very up-the-field defense, a very vertical defense (but) right now, we're not at that phase, so we need players to defeat blocks, to stay at the line of scrimmage.

"Getting them to not be vertical (or up-the-field) because it really doesn't fit structurally for some of the calls we have is one of the challenges right now. So you're trying to get them to be at the line of scrimmage (to the point) where we can have a ‘no crease defense.'"

(In other words, Diaco's retraining his front seven to maintain gap responsibility across the board. Though up-field pressure is part of the new scheme, its not included in this installation phase of his defense).

Eager to explain the team's current dilemma, Diaco then expanded on his method.

"There's really no difference between horizontal separation and vertical separation. (Running) Backs on this team, and at this level can all make plays, whether the hole presents itself horizontally (on the perimeter) or vertically (inside the tackles), they can still get through it and go. So we all need to make sure that we all fit together at the same level (along the line of scrimmage). We're trying to work through that right now."

It's Early, But...

At first hesitant to react to a three-practice body of work, Diaco nonetheless offered a handful of early observations of his defensive troops.

"I'm not displeased with anyone…and there are guys in particular that really are showing nice aptitude out here to do the job," Diaco started before taking a moment to run down a few notables by position:

"Kerry Neal's (OLB) doing a very nice job. (Anthony) McDonald's (ILB) doing a nice job; Steven Paskorz has gone from O to D and he's doing a really nice job with his transition (from FB to ILB) – I know he originally started as a ‘backer. I'm well-pleased with him.

"And you have other players on the D-Line: Ethan Johnson has really shown an aptitude for our early installation and the ability to do those jobs well; along with Kapron (Lewis-Moore).

The next name Diaco added is familiar to Irish football mavens and one with which the casual fan might finally become familiar next fall.

"Hafis Williams (redshirt-junior DE) has shown another level of athleticism that I wasn't sure he had – that type of fluidity and flexibility in his hips."

"And on the back end, there are guys all over: Jamoris (Slaughter) and Harrison (Smith); we saw (Smith) out here making some nice cracks. I went in wondering ‘Is he a decelerator or accelerator; is he a high-contact player? Well it looks to me like he's a high-contact player. I'm pleased."

The Prototype?

Diaco was asked specifically about senior-to-be Brian Smith's transition back to an outside linebacker role in the team's new 3-4 scheme – a position for which he was recruited prior to the 2007 season.

"Brian's attentive, he's built nicely for the structure that we play. He really looks like the profile (outside linebacker) player out there. He's just working through (the scheme change), too. He's in competition with the other players, so everyone's trying to do what they can do (to earn a spot).

"(But) Brian in particular has transitioned well out there. It really fits with his skill set anyway. He's built for the jobs we've been asking him to do right now."

Always on the Radar: No post-practice interview session would be complete without a query regarding sophomore-to-be Manti Te'o.

A fan favorite since National Signing Day 2009, and a media curiosity since he stepped on campus, Te'o has proven eager to learn and to improve – for two separate coaching staffs.

"There's not any particular step that I'm looking for," Diaco answered directly of the requisite Manti supposition that he must take the proverbial next step. "I'm treating him just like I met him three practices ago, so I don't have a body of work that I know about him where I can say he needs to take a ‘certain step.'

"But he's right on track."

And off-topic: Credit Te'o for displaying none of the airs bestowed upon him by the media horde.

Of Note: Senior OLB Kerry Neal was one piece of equipment shy of a full uniform at the close of practice Monday – his right foot was missing a cleated shoe. In its place was what appeared to be a boot for his foot (or an extremely oversized wrap/tape job), which suggests Neal's injury must have occurred during yesterday's practice, the season's first in full pads.

At first blush I'd assume its not serious (Diaco reference Neal and not the injury) but IrishEyes will attempt to update Neal's condition following Wednesday's practice session. The Irish are off today.

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