Brian Kelly, before Sunday, hadn’t fired an assistant coach since coming to Notre Dame nearly seven years ago. But faced with a 1-3 record and an uncertain defensive future, Kelly came to the conclusion that a change at defensive coordinator was necessary to Notre Dame’s chances of turning around a season headed in the wrong direction.
And with that, Brian VanGorder is out. Greg Hudson, who previously was a defensive analyst and Purdue’s defensive coordinator from 2013-2015, is in. But what does Kelly want to see out of a defense that ranks at or near the bottom of the FBS level in so many defensive statistics and has been the main culprit in losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke?
The first step, Kelly said on his teleconference Sunday, is injecting something enjoyable into an Irish defense that VanGorder defended in August as “likable and learnable.”
“Guys played hard, but we lacked some of the energy and enthusiasm and fun, quite frankly, that you need to have when you're playing on defense,” Kelly said.
Maybe better energy will result in better tackling, a fundamental area that’s been a glaring problem for this defense in 2016. Kelly said last week his defensive players were “anxious,” which contributed to the the team’s tackling problem. Better coaching, of course, would help there as well.
But adding energy is sort of a nebulous, impossible-to-quantify concept. More concrete will be the tweaks to the defensive scheme and moving a few players into different positions to maximize their ability.
Kelly said the terminology of the defense will remain the same, which makes sense given the installation process for VanGorder’s scheme began back during spring practice. Changing the terminology, Kelly said, would “pull the rug underneath the kids at this point in the season.”
What there will be, Kelly said, is a different focus trained on parts of the defense that have been installed but maybe not utilized frequently.
“There's a lot,” Kelly said. “There's a very vast library that is easily tapped into from a different perspective, different terminology in terms of what has not been leaned on heavily in terms of fronts and coverages, but it's already installed.
“So there's a vast library. There's a lot there. I'm going to send around some of the things I believe our guys will feel comfortable with, and we'll go from there.”
Kelly dismissed the notion that VanGorder installed too much into his defensive scheme, but said he, Hudson and Irish coaches will “streamline” things to allow players to be fundamentally sound and play with that kind of speed and energy necessary.
Kelly said, too, that he and his coaching staff will meet Sunday to discuss personnel changes — both from getting certain guys on the field (like defensive end Jay Hayes, who Kelly specifically addressed) and getting others into better positions to make plays.
“We think that there might be some validity to moving around a couple of players,” Kelly said. “So that will be a conversation that I begin a little bit later this afternoon.”
It’s too early to tell what Notre Dame’s defense will look like on Saturday against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium, but what’s clear is that a turnaround is necessary — and it’s needed immediately. At 1-3, with three games left against teams ranked in the top 15 of S&P+ (home games against Stanford, Miami and Virginia Tech), Notre Dame doesn’t have much margin for error if it wants to reach a bowl game in 2016.
The defense has made plenty of errors so far, to the point where Kelly took a step he never had in South Bend. Streamlining things, getting that energy back, tweaking the scheme — whatever it is, Notre Dame needs solutions on defense.
Those solutions weren’t coming with VanGorder and now have to come with Hudson, as well as Kelly taking a more involved supervisor role in the defense.
“It starts with the coaches,” Kelly said. “I think it's got to be coach-led and they have got to start the fire. And then those players that have that intrinsic motivation, that fire within, they will come along with us. Those that don't, we're going to leave them along the side. But this is going to start with the coaches.”