SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two and a half years ago, the hiring of Brian VanGorder was billed as the natural next step to take for Notre Dame's defense after the departure of Bob Diaco and his bend-don’t-break scheme.
Notre Dame’s recruiting was picking up steam entering Year 5 of the Brian Kelly era — its 2013 class was ranked by Rivals in the top five nationally — and with more athletic playmakers coming to campus, the hope was an aggressive, multiple defense stuffed with sub packages and NFL tenets could bring the Irish consistent success.
On Sunday, Kelly fired VanGorder following 30 games of inconsistent, largely ineffective defense. Looking back on what was expected of this defense — and the results that followed — it’s clear to see why that decision was made.
“We have a great base, and we have now developed what we consider a demeanor on our defense and an expectation, and now we're going to take it to the next level defensively,” Kelly said prior to spring practice in 2014, “and Brian is going to be able to take our defense to that next level.”
When Kelly hired VanGorder in January of 2014, he pointed to a few things. First, he said VanGorder was “one of the very best teachers, if not the best teacher, that I’ve ever been around.” Second, he said VanGorder “understands player development.” Third, he pointed to VanGorder’s reams of experience, like his winning of the Broyles Award while Georgia’s defensive coordinator and his four seasons of experience as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator, too. And fourth, Kelly pointed to VanGorder being an enjoyable person to be around who’s “the right fit for me and my staff.”
Above all else, VanGorder’s defense was supposed to be fun — as in, it’s one that allows players to make plays, whereas Diaco’s defenses heavily relied on two-gapping, playing off coverage and waiting for an opposing offense to make a mistake. Diaco’s defense was a college defense; VanGorder’s was an NFL one.
There was little questioning the immediate buy-in to VanGorder's scheme. Nose guard Jarron Jones, now a fifth-year graduate student, explained back in April 2014 what the defense set out to do:
“You're part of a new defense and you're playing more to your advantage and showing off being more aggressive instead of being more disciplined," Jones said. "You're the attacker, you're not the one having to read the attacker."
So when Kelly fired VanGorder on Sunday, and pointed to a lack of “energy and enthusiasm and fun,” it represented one of the bigger shortcomings of this defense. And outside of a handful of games in 2014 and 2015, Notre Dame’s defense wasn’t the attacker — it was being attacked.
“The whole philosophy is that we don't want the offense to dictate how we play defense,” former defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said in April of 2014.
In four seasons under Diaco, Notre Dame’s defense averaged 26.3 sacks, 51.5 passes defended, 67.8 tackles for a loss and 19.8 turnovers per season — which comes out to 2 sacks, 4 passes defended, 5.2 tackles for a loss and 1.5 turnovers per game.
Over VanGorder’s 30 contests, Notre Dame’s per-game averages: 1.7 sacks, 3.7 passes defended, 3.9 tackles for a loss and 1.4 turnovers. Statistically, in no relevant aggressive area was Notre Dame’s defense better under VanGorder than it was under Diaco.
“You're gonna have some big plays but you're gonna make a lot of big plays too," Cooks said of VanGorder’s defensive expectations two years ago, "so it's a little give and take there."
Notre Dame indeed allowed more big plays under VanGorder: In total, 13 plays of 60 or more yards (0.43/game) and 64 of 30 or more yards (2.1/game). In Diaco’s four-year tenure, Notre Dame only allowed five total plays of 60 or more yards — as many as the Irish have allowed in 2016 alone — and 55 plays of 30 or more yards (1.1/game).
This isn’t to say Diaco’s defense was perfect and Notre Dame needs to go running back to something similar to it — the Irish defense ranked 48th in S&P+ in 2013 and was gouged by Michigan and Oklahoma that year. But that was far and away the worst year Notre Dame’s defense had under Diaco (in S&P+, it ranked 10th in 2010, 11th in 2011 and 8th in 2012). Notre Dame’s best year under VanGorder was 2015’s 35th-ranked defense by S&P+ — that group was stocked with captains, upperclassmen and NFL talent — and he was fired with Notre Dame sitting at No. 78 in defensive S&P+ in 2016.
A common critique of VanGorder’s system was that it was too difficult and that it threw far too much at student-athletes also balancing classwork. Players pushed back on that notion last week, as did Kelly during his teleconference on Sunday. But something had to be behind all the poor fits and blown coverages, right?
“There's not too much defense,” Kelly said. “There's probably too much analysis maybe, and we're going to streamline it and we're going to keep it fundamentally sound, certainly and we're going to allow our kids to play fast and free, and have some fun at it.”
But whatever the reasons for why this defense didn’t work, the over-arching fact of the matter was that Brian VanGorder’s defenses didn’t work. They set out to create havoc back in 2014 and fell entirely short of that goal.
Said VanGorder in March of 2014: “I think my mindset is to, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive and it starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach.”
Notre Dame, outside of a few games that look like outliers on a troubling trend line, rarely controlled a game with its defense under VanGorder. It’ll have to hope Greg Hudson, or the next guy who comes into that role, can at least accomplish that.
Otherwise, those three losses in which Notre Dame scored at least 28 points could only be the beginning in what may wind up being a disastrous year in South Bend.