SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It wasn't a coincidence Notre Dame’s defense allowed 43 points per game without linebacker Joe Schmidt last November. Brian VanGorder’s defense lost the guy who understood it best, with Schmidt both the team’s leading tackler and defensive quarterback.
While his teammates struggled to grasp their own assignments in Year 1 of VanGorder’s scheme, Schmidt had a strong understanding of where he and his 10 teammates fit in the defense as well as why his defensive coordinator would make a certain call on a certain play. With Schmidt, the Irish had a solid defense; without him, it imploded. There were other factors involved — like the losses of Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones that left the interior of the defensive line thin — but without Schmidt’s ability and knowledge, Notre Dame’s defense quickly became combustible.
“It was definitely a learning experience for all of us, just seeing how we kind of switched everything up week to week,” Day said. “It wasn’t too much, but sometimes people just kind of worried about themselves and worried about their fits and didn’t understand the whole.”
We’ve heard plenty about how Notre Dame’s defense will be better off for its November struggles, and how so many young players who had experience during that dismal month will enter 2015 with a better understanding of VanGorder’s scheme. But more importantly, the stars of Notre Dame’s defense have a greater understanding of their roles, the roles of their teammates and why VanGorder will make a call in a given down and distance scenario.
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So in Year 2 under VanGorder, those players — who have the talent to power Notre Dame’s defense to be among the better groups in the nation — feel they can marry the kind of ability and knowledge that made Schmidt the team’s MVP in 2014. And that’s a reason to believe Notre Dame’s defense could be good enough to put together a legitimate playoff push.
“Last year, a lot of the times it was maybe you just do it because he said to do it or that’s what’s written on paper, this assignment,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “But now, guys have an understanding of why this needs to be done and in what situations should this be called and things like that. It’s not like he didn’t teach this to us last year, we just didn’t grasp it how we should have. But with any young defense there’s going to be those flaws.”
Notre Dame returns starters at 10 positions on its defense, with freshman Jerry Tillery the lone greenhorn (and he/Daniel Cage will only start because Jones suffered a season-ending MCL injury during preseason camp). Plenty of reserves have experience in VanGorder’s scheme, too, like defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, linebacker Nyles Morgan, cornerback Devin Butler and safety Drue Tranquill.
While Notre Dame players said they quickly bought into VanGorder’s scheme a year ago, there’s an added layer of trust that comes with a year of experience in the system. Day said that trust and knowledge allows members of the defense to play faster since they’re not worried about what the guys next to them are doing.
Players also have a better ability to anticipate what VanGorder will call in a specific down and distance situation. Anticipation was a trait this defense didn’t have last year — “Outside of the end of the game when we knew he’d call something that’d have us sit back, no, we couldn’t anticipate,” safety Elijah Shumate said — but it's an important one in understanding a scheme.
Even if anticipating what’ll be called sometimes means to expect the unexpected.
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“You never know with VanGorder,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “… Two years with the same defense we start to understand concepts more, and then we can kind of get a feel for what’s going on and what he might call. But he throws curveballs all the time.”
Notre Dame hopes to see its defensive results improve armed with this greater understanding/knowledge/trust. In 2014, the Irish allowed 5.6 yards per play (70th among FBS teams) and 185 plays of 10 or more yards (83rd). Opponents reached the red zone 50 times (80th) and scored 35 touchdowns (116th).
Of those 50 opponent red zone possessions, 26 came in five November games, with opponents scoring 20 touchdowns on them. VanGorder’s defense can’t afford to have the same problems, not only in the red zone but all over the field.
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But now that players can anticipate their defensive coordinator and know why he’s calling a certain play, there’s a belief those same season-ruining problems won’t crop up again.
“Kids today are smart,” defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said. “They don’t just run into a wall just to run into a wall, they want to know how is this going to be helpful. I think the fact they’re understanding why this call is being made and how helpful it can be to our success helps them buy into it and execute and do a better job with it.”