During last week’s “mental edge” meeting, coach Brian Kelly told his team he was certain they were going to beat Syracuse, and the after it, they would pick defensive coordinator Greg Hudson to lead them in singing the Notre Dame Victory March in the MetLife Stadium locker room.
Both of Kelly’s predictions were right, as the Irish beat Syracuse, 50-33, and after the game Hudson — a 1990 graduate of Notre Dame — belted out what the school’s official website called a “ridiculously fast-paced” rendition of the famous fight song. It was the culmination of a difficult week in which players said Hudson, who took over for the fired Brian VanGorder on Sept. 25, pushed all the right buttons.
“I think he did a good job of taking his role and not doing too much,” defensive end and captain Isaac Rochell said. “He’s done a good job of balancing the idea that he’s new but he also has a lot of experience. And we just trust him, we trust the staff, we trust coach Kelly and we leaned on that.”
Hudson has 13 years of defensive coordinator experience — previously at Minnesota (2000-2004), East Carolina (2005-2009) and Purdue (2013-2015) — and also was Florida State’s linebackers coach from 2010-2012. But Notre Dame didn’t need VanGorder’s replacement to blow up the defense and present know-it-all solutions.
What this defense needed was a few tweaks to play an easier-to-understand scheme that could allow more players to get on the field. Kelly hoped that would inject some enthusiasm into his team, but more tangibly, he felt after Saturday’s game that the increase in players seeing the field — 21 made tackles against Syracuse’s first-team offense — would help plug some of the big-play leaks this defense had sprung due to poor, tired tackling.
So Hudson struck a positive balance between Kelly’s vision for the defense and his own extensive experience. It’s one that players embraced, which helped them buy into Hudson moving from an “upstairs” analyst role to the sidelines.
“The balance was he didn’t come in trying to change too much, he didn’t come in directing, demanding,” linebacker Nyles Morgan said. “He just came in and really made us not feel the pressure, but want to keep playing, want to keep fighting.”
Kelly said Sunday that 2016’s solutions will come from a “short-term approach,” sort of a spare tire to get the Irish from Point A to Point B (with Point B being a bowl game) before new tires can be fitted. The future of Hudson, and the rest of Notre Dame’s coaches who Kelly said are “on a very public interview,” remains to be seen beyond this season.
In that short-term view, though, Hudson brought the right mix to Notre Dame’s defense last week. It still gave up a bunch of points and ranks 100th in scoring defense (33.4 points per game) and 97th in yards per play (6.03). But it as a whole didn’t miss many tackles (the same can’t be said for Notre Dame’s punt coverage unit) and came up with a handful of big plays against Syracuse, especially in the second half.
The scheme had plenty to do with the positivity with which Notre Dame’s defense left New Jersey, but the immediate buy-in to Hudson certainly helped to an extent, too.
“He didn’t come in and try to take control, he really let it just kind of happen over time,” safety Drue Tranquill said. “He put a lot of power in the position coaches’ hands and put a lot of power in our hands as players and said you know what, let’s just come together as a family, let’s not put pressure on any single person. We’re going to play a lot of guys and so guys just felt comfortable.”