SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Breaking in a new scheme with a thin, inexperienced depth chart proved to be too much weight for Notre Dame’s defense to bear last fall. When middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, its load-bearing wall, suffered a season-ending injury in early November, the entire structure came crashing down to the sound od allowing an average of 43 points in its final five regular season games.
Notre Dame’s defense enters the 2015 season with a much stronger base, both from a talent and depth standpoint. It's a strength of the team now and will not only manifest itself with linebacker Jaylon Smith moving inside and outside, but with cornerback KeiVarae Russell taking on a role guarding opposing slot receivers in Notre Dame’s nickel package.
Russell’s move inside was precipitated by two things: A season-ending knee injury to freshman Shaun Crawford (“He’ll be a future All-American, mark my words,” Russell said) and the emergence of junior Devin Butler as a reliable third cornerback during August practice.
“Devin Butler made that much more of a reality for us,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We didn't have the same evaluation of did he have incoming out of the spring that we would be able to do it. He has really developed himself to the point where we feel like we can put him out there and feel like we've got a strong unit. I would place most of that on did he have in.”
That Cole Luke developed into a lock-down cornerback last year certainly helps, too. If Notre Dame faces a team with a strong outside receiver and a tough slot matchup, it won’t lose anything moving Russell inside to guard the slot receiver. Instead, the defense will gain something it didn’t have last year: A nickel back who can play man-to-man coverage and who can’t necessarily be schemed out of a specific play.
“At nickel, it’s hard to avoid someone,” Russell said. “You could do it in man, but I’m still going to be around the ball. If the ball’s tipped up, I’m still going to have a chance to make a play. I’m always in the play, if it’s a run play, run fits, pass fits, whether I’m blitzing, I’m constantly making plays and causing havoc and you gotta think about okay, where (I’m) at, just like you gotta do with Jaylon Smith, he’s always moving around, what are you gonna do with him.
“So now if you got me and Jaylon, you got basically the two best players close to the damn ball.”
The goal in unleashing Russell and Smith — certainly the defense’s two most athletic players, though Schmidt and Sheldon Day are in the conversation for best player in the unit, too — is to generate more pressures and turnovers than VanGorder’s defense did in Year 1.
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Notre Dame’s defense generated 23 turnovers last year, a decent total (41st among FBS teams) but only totaled 26 sacks (70th among FBS teams). For VanGorder’s defense to reach its potential, it has to stop the run (opponents averaged 4.24 yards per carry last year, 60th), pressure the quarterback and force more turnovers.
Moving Russell to the nickel is a major piece of that puzzle, and it wouldn’t have happened without improved depth behind him.
“We would’ve have made the switch if we weren’t confident in Devin,” Russell said. “We have confidence in another player doing well, so you might as well put as many players on the field as you can who are doing well.”