SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian VanGorder understands why those outside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex have wondered if his complicated, NFL-style defense needs to be simplified.
The Irish defensive coordinator hasn’t seen his group succeed with much consistency since taking over two years ago. Players are expected to digest, learn and communicate a number of concepts and packages, and with mediocre-at-best results, there’ve been legitimate questions asked if the scheme is too complex for the college level.
But VanGorder doesn’t plan on dumbing things down entering his third season in South Bend.
“We didn’t play real good defense, right,” VanGorder said, “So if you got a large inventory and you don’t play real good defense then that (simplifying things) is the assumption. That would be the assumption.
“… So that’s just the way it goes. If you don’t do well, you’re gonna hear those different things that come out. But within our room we know the truth, what we gotta do. Our stuff is likable and learnable. It’s fun to play in our system.”
Notre Dame’s defense ranked 64th in average yards per play in 2015 (5.57) and 70th in 2014 (5.6). S&P+ rated the Irish defense 35th in 2015 and 43rd in 2014, which isn’t bad, but also didn’t meet expectations for a team that fashioned itself a playoff contender in both years.
There have been some extenuating circumstances over the last two years — namely, a plague-like rash of significant injuries to both critical stars and key depth guys — that’ve led to inexperienced players having to play more significant roles than they normally would.
Last year, injuries to Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill meant Notre Dame couldn’t deploy its nickel and speed packages. In 2014, the defensive line was hit so hard by injuries that guys like Chase Hounshell, Jacob Matuska, Grant Blankenship and Jay Hayes all had to play significant minutes (in 2015, Hounshell was moved to tight end, Matuska played in one game and Blankenship and Hayes redshirted).
VanGorder, who’s had defensive coordinator stints with the Atlanta Falcons and at Georgia and Auburn, knows that there isn’t much room for excuses at a high-profile football school like Notre Dame.
“Adjustments to some young personnel at times has been difficult,” VanGorder said. “I think that the youth of college football and the youth of these guys make it — it’s quite challenging because it doesn’t matter, we’re at Notre Dame. So we put a guy out there and it says ‘ND’ on him, the expectation is that he’s gonna go out and win and succeed.”
VanGorder said he and Irish coaches identified slow starts, explosive plays and red zone efficiency as critical areas in which the defense has to improve off of 2015. To this coaching staff’s credit, they circled facing up-tempo and option offenses as areas in which they struggled in 2014 and largely corrected those problems last fall.
But Notre Dame is without nearly all its best defensive players from last year (Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara and KeiVarae Russell are all gone). If this defense does improve, it’ll do so with a crop of players that are largely inexperienced.
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Dialing the difficulty of the defense back isn’t part of the plan to fix things, though. For VanGorder, turning his defense into a successful one will come simply from better work from everyone involved.
“Players gotta play better and coaches gotta coach better,” VanGorder said. “And we’ve gotta get it solved.”