Notre Dame

Why hasn't Notre Dame's defense lived up to the hype in 2015?


Why hasn't Notre Dame's defense lived up to the hype in 2015?

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.