SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Notre Dame’s defense is loaded with talented, veteran players. Four of its five team captains came from this side of the ball. Only one regular starter was an underclassman, and that’s only because Jarron Jones suffered an injury during preseason camp that wiped out the entire regular season. Former four- and five-star recruits are all over the field.
This is a group that, on paper, seemed to have the potential to be one of the better defenses in the country. The expectation in Year 2 of Brian VanGorder’s scheme was that Notre Dame’s defense would be disruptive, pressuring the quarterback, racking up tackles for a loss and generating turnovers.
But instead, the 2015 Notre Dame defense has been defined by inconsistency. Explosive plays have been a glaring weakness. Forced turnovers were sparse. The team averaged fewer sacks per game than it did a year ago.
“I thought we’d be ahead (of where we are),” VanGorder said. “We have smart guys, great culture. We have a very good room. Our guys can do a lot. But we still have to achieve.”
Boom or bust
Consider this: Notre Dame’s defense generated the same number of three-and-outs (43) as it allowed scoring drives. At its best, players flew around the field, forced third-and-longs and stampeded into the backfield. It was apparent on numerous occasions this fall that Notre Dame had a talented crew of defensive players, one capable smothering opposing offenses.
But even when things would look promising, there was the threat of a spark igniting the powder keg and an opposing offense — even as one as turgid as Boston College — ripping off a 70- or 80-yard play. Notre Dame allowed 28 plays of 30 or more yards, 76th among FBS teams, but not in the same vicinity as other elite-level teams. Among playoff/New Year’s Six participants, only Houston — hardly an upper-echelon team — allowed more of such plays.
“You get a glimpse of how great you could be, and then you get a glimpse of the things (VanGorder) said — inconsistencies, all the flaws,” safety Elijah Shumate said. “It’s frustrating to us and we know it’s frustrating to the coaches.”
Nowhere was that boom-or-bust inconsistency more present than on passing downs — so those second-and-long or third-and-five-or-more situations in which a pass can be expected, and a team can theoretically get after a quarterback.
By Bill Connelly’s numbers, Notre Dame’s defense ranked 17th in passing down efficiency by 117th in passing down explosiveness. For the most part, Notre Dame was successful at keeping opponents from gaining successful yardage (so enough for a first down or a third-and-short), but when this defense failed, it did so spectacularly.
“That’s really what the season shows — for the most part they’ve been really good,” VanGorder said, “but there’s four or five or six plays a game that are hard to explain. We don’t like that, and these are young players. They’re all developing. They’re all involved in a process of developing. The process is different for all of them. We’ve just had some inconsistencies. That’s player and that’s coach responsibility. We’ve got to coach it better. Players have got to play it better consistently.”
Is scheme the problem?
When Notre Dame brought in VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco following the 2013 season, the public selling point was that an NFL-style defense would be implemented in South Bend.
VanGorder spent four seasons as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator and coached linebackers with the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets as well. The exotic blitzes, one-gap assignments for defensive lineman and press-man coverage for cornerbacks were supposed to put pressure on opposing offenses, with the admission that it would leave Notre Dame’s defense exposed to more big plays than it was under Diaco’s bend-don’t-break scheme.
In a sense, that’s exactly what happened this year. The three-and-outs were a product of that disruptive DNA, and so were the explosive plays.
The problem, though, was that the explosive plays outweighed the disruption. Had it not been for an outstanding offense led by DeShone Kizer, C.J. Prosise, Will Fuller and Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame wouldn’t have been able to win 10 games with a defense as mistake-prone as the one it fielded this fall.
But players declined to criticize VanGorder’s complex, aggressive scheme when asked why the defense was so inconsistent.
“The scheme has not been the problem,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “It’s the second year we’re in it, too, so guys are really starting to understand more of the concepts and understand the defense as a whole. It’s not a scheme thing.”
"Coach VanGorder puts us in the best position to be successful, and it’s our job to go out there and successfully get the job done,” Shumate added. “… It’ll be a lot to take in, but we’re used to it and we buy into the scheme and we know if we do it right, it works.”
And it’s not like Notre Dame’s defense has a dearth of intelligent players. Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt has a brilliant mind for the game, and Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day are good bets to have lengthy NFL careers thanks to their marriage of top-quality physical and mental traits.
“Based on when I was in the NFL and some of the kids I drafted and took as free agents, we have some players that are ahead of the game right now in terms of football knowledge that I’m really proud of,” VanGorder said. “Their ability to communicate a lot of these things based on an intellectual level has been impressive. You just got keep working it.”
Doing too much
So if the scheme isn’t the problem, and if the players’ football I.Q. and pure talent isn’t an issue either, what is?
Shumate implied there’s been some selfishness trickling through the defense, one borne from a desire to try to do too much or do somebody else’s job.
“A lot of the players, they tend to go away from things and wander off,” Shumate said. “I feel like our team was a veteran team, so sometimes people get into their own zone. … You can’t wander off and do your own thing. A lot of us tend to do that quite a bit this year. When we play as a team and we play together, we’re a really good team.
“And (VanGorder) says that all the time, if we play and do our 1/11th, nobody can beat us. And that one person, you could have 10 players do the right thing and that one person do it wrong, and it can be a bad situation.”
That’s the problem — if one player overextends himself trying to make a highlight-reel play, it’ll mess up the entire defense.
“It’s hard to explain it, really,” cornerback Cole Luke said. “It’s kind of like you had to be in the game to understand it, but lack of focus, wanting to get antsy, to get a pick, looking at the quarterback and taking your eyes off your receiver. That’s pretty much how it happens.”
And it can happen anywhere, at any time. Notre Dame is one of four teams — Kansas State, Texas Tech and Wake Forest are the other — to allow at least three plays of 80 or more yards this season. Even with the caveat of a small sample size, that’s not a fluke.
Even if Notre Dame’s defense looks great the other 50 or 60 plays in a game, those 5-10 instances of a lack of focus or trying to do too much are why this group was largely unsuccessful this fall.
“If you compiled every game and you looked at explosive plays, they play a big part in a football game,” VanGorder said. “In losing, that’s usually the reference respective to, ‘Well, we were really good except for those five or six plays.’ Ultimately that’s not good defense.”
One last chance
A grin washed over Ohio State H-back and former quarterback Braxton Miller’s face when asked if he took note of Notre Dame’s propensity to allow big-chunk plays.
“Yeah,” Miller smiled. “That’s one of the things you look for on film.”
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Ohio State’s offense has plenty of explosive players, from quarterback J.T. Barrett to running back Ezekiel Elliott to H-backs Miller and Jalin Marshall. This is an offense that’s as good, if not better, than those of Clemson, Stanford and USC, and will be a stiff challenge for a defense eager to put its rocky regular season behind it.
“We have the potential to be the best defense in the country,” linebacker James Onwualu said. “Like (VanGorder) said, we showed those flashes, but just being focused and being ready for every single play would take those inconsistencies out.”
But figuring out how to achieve that much-needed consistency is easier said than done. Something is broken within this defense, whether it indeed is the scheme or players, for whatever reason, eschewing their keys and assignments and/or losing focus. Maybe it’s a combination of both.
VanGorder & Co. will have to figure out answers to those questions over the next few months. Notre Dame’s offense will lose plenty from its prolific 2015 group — Stanley is turning pro, while Fuller and Prosise have the option to as well — and may not be able to cover for as many mistakes next year. Ideally, of course, another double-digit-win season in 2016 would be more balanced between offensive and defensive contributions.
A good start on those efforts would be by winning a bowl game against a team with an excellent offense. Last year’s Music City Bowl, to an extent, ignited Notre Dame’s offense nine months later; perhaps a win over Ohio State could do the same for the Irish defense.
“It’s (been) really frustrating,” Rochell said. “We have one last chance to prove it. We want to play our best game, and we just want to beat Ohio State.”