The preseason narrative surrounding Notre Dame's defense a year ago was all about pressure. With Brian VanGorder bringing his aggressive 4-3 scheme to South Bend, the Irish were supposed to rack up sacks, quarterback hurries, deflected passes and forced fumbles.
Gone was Bob Diaco's bend-don't-break 3-4 scheme, with its two-gap principles and 10-yard cushions. But as it turned out, statistically VanGorder's Year 1 defense looked a lot like Diaco's groups.
SB Nation's Bill Connelly, in his excellent statistical preview/review of Notre Dame, offered this statistical nugget: Notre Dame's defensive footprint trended far more toward bend-don't-break in 2014 (73.7 percent, 22.4 percent above national average) than it did in 2013 under Diaco (48.6 percent, four percent above national average).
That certainly comes as a surprise. VanGorder still called for plenty of blitzes and deployed sub packages far more frequently than Diaco did. The problem was the attempted pressures often weren't effective.
Notre Dame totaled 26 sacks in 2014, five more than it had in 2013. There were more hurries last year -- 52, compared to 43 in 2013 -- but VanGorder's defense still averaged about one more QB pressure in 2014 than it did in 2013.
Up-tempo offenses like North Carolina and Arizona State gave Notre Dame's defense fits, and injuries to Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones sapped the front seven of talent and experience. In retrospect, with the two-deep littered with inexperienced, young players, VanGorder started his tenure in South Bend in a pretty difficult spot -- one made tougher with the suspensions of KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore.
Without the front seven generating a ton of pressure, a shaky secondary crumbled as the season wore on. Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth were hurt, while Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate were ineffective. It was a vicious cycle, one even solid seasons from guys like Isaac Rochell, Jaylon Smith and Cole Luke couldn't keep from continuing.
When you look at the individual stats of the players listed above -- Cole Luke with his 15 passes defensed, Matthias Farley with his 6.5 tackles for loss, etc. -- you get the impression of an aggressive Notre Dame secondary. It had potential, but it ranked an inexcusable 96th in Passing S&P+, 88th on passing downs. The complete lack of an effective blitz played a role, but ... 96th!
For perspective, here are the defenses that ranked 91st through 95th: Kentucky, UL-Lafayette, UConn, Kent State, Ohio. Notre Dame, with its four- and five-stars and play-makers, ranked below them. The Irish allowed a 60.3 percent completion rate (86th in the country) and allowed 43 completions of at least 20 yards (85th). Awful.
Here's where the good news begins, though: Luke and Russell are back and should one of the nation's better cornerback duos. Redfield and Shumate earned rave reviews from coaches during spring practice. Young players in the front seven like Andrew Trumbetti, Jay Hayes and Nyles Morgan gained valuable experience last year, no matter how bad the results looked. Notre Dame has more linebackers with starting experience than it knows what to do with between Schmidt, Smith, Morgan, Jarrett Grace and James Onwualu. The defensive line returns everyone but Justin Utupo from last year.
And adding to the positive vibes for a defense that didn't meet expectations last year: Players generally have a better feel for the scheme the second time around.
"Year 2 is always a lot better when you put the system in,” defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said earlier this year. “The first year everybody is kind of playing a bit tentative with a new system. They’ll all be better and we’ll all be better. I think we’re going places.”