Under Pressure: Where will the Irish find their pass rush?
Brian VanGorder’s media access has been limited to a small handful of interview opportunities. But that didn’t stop the Irish’s new defensive coordinator from uttering what amounts to a mission statement for his defense.
“My mindset, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being more aggressive,” VanGorder said. “It starts out (at cornerback). That’s where you start your decisions as a coach. Can we hold up out there? If you’ve got a corner that can press and take a guy out of a game, that’s a huge advantage. That makes sense to all of us. But you can’t just do it to do it.”
In what amounts to the most radical coaching change in the Kelly era, VanGorder’s defense is almost the inverse of Bob Diaco’s. And it also fits the personnel the Irish have, with KeiVarae Russell, Cody Riggs, Cole Luke, Matthias Farley and Devin Butler headlining one of the strongest positions on the roster.
But covering receivers is one thing. Getting after the quarterback is another. And if VanGorder’s defense is built around aggression and pressure, finding the players to provide that spark is as essential as the back end of the defense.
Heading into offseason conditioning, consider these five players crucial in providing the pass rush.
Career Sacks: 0.5
That Okwara was just thrown into a starting defensive end job tells you quite a bit about the depth chart after Stephon Tuitt decided to head to the NFL early. On paper, he looks the part of a 4-3 defensive end, and at 6-foot-4, 258-pounds he’s got the length and size to be dangerous.
But Okwara has spent more time backpedaling than rushing the passer in his career, and has been a utility replacement player for two seasons. There’s no more part time work for Okwara anymore. He’ll be counted on to beat offensive tackles and wreak havoc in the opponent’s backfield.
A productive spring ended with a nice performance in the Blue-Gold game. But the work has only just begun for Okwara.
Career Sacks: 1
It’s beginning to feel a little bit like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown with Williams, but Brian Kelly was cautiously optimistic about Williams heading into spring practice, where the now veteran defensive end desperately needs to lead this defense.
At 6-foot-5.5 and 271-pounds, Williams has an NFL body and athleticism. He just hasn’t shown any of the production after arriving in South Bend with a five-star ranking and immense expectations. Being stuck behind Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo didn’t help. But Williams’ job has been simplified this spring by VanGorder. Go get the quarterback and make plays.
We’ll see if he’s able to do that in his final fall playing for Notre Dame.
Career Sacks: 0
You’d be foolish to think that VanGorder wouldn’t utilize his best defensive weapon in the pass rush, especially after watching Smith’s brief cameo in the spring game. The team’s best athlete, Smith is already set to be the team’s best playmaker, and a shift to Will linebacker could make him even more productive.
The Irish haven’t been a very good blitzing football team the past few years. But VanGorder was incredibly successful with zone blitzes with the Atlanta Falcons and just spent a year with Rex Ryan, one of the NFL’s true mad scientists.
Expect him to utilized his most skilled pupil.
Career Sacks: 2.5
Let’s give Day a mulligan for 2013, when an early high ankle sprain ruined his efficiency early in the season. But Day will shift inside to defensive tackle in VanGorder’s new system, and should only come off the field when opponents call in the punt team.
Kelly has raved about Day’s ability and explosiveness since he early enrolled. Against Temple, Day was the team’s best defensive lineman. But after suffering the ankle injury against Purdue, it took almost until the season finale to get the Indianapolis native back to 100 percent.
The Irish’s best defensive lineman needs to get to the quarterback. Able to attack a gap and get up field, Day should be able to utilize a very elite skillset that makes him dangerous.
ANDREW TRUMBETTI (or FRESHMAN X)
Career Sacks: 0
You can forgive Trumbetti if this spring was a bit of culture shock. Instead of running track, throwing a shot put, and going to prom, the New Jersey native was tasked with learning an NFL defensive system in 15 practices.
The transition won’t be much easier for the freshmen defenders coming to campus this summer. But thanks to some tweaks in NCAA rules, the Irish coaching staff will be able to study film and implement playbook changes with their new players, which could help get a young pass rusher up to speed.
Freshman Aaron Lynch made an impact as a pass rusher. So did Prince Shembo. Does Jonathan Bonner have the best chance of coming in and contributing off the edge? Is it more likely to be lanky and explosive Jhonny Williams? Or perhaps the added bulk that Grant Blankenship brings to campus will help him get on the field.
Either way, at a position with this little depth, expect a freshman to get a shot.