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VanGorder using spring to rebuild defensive philosophy

Brian Van Gorder

Brian Van Gorder


Brian VanGorder was made available to the local media after practice, his first public comments after his introductory press conference in January. While we’ll dig into some of his comments as we try and piece together what the Irish defense will look like next season, VanGorder’s statement of the obvious to Jack Nolan at basically encapsulates this unit’s spring objective:

“We’ll be different,” VanGorder said. “But the expectations will be the same.”

Different has been obvious. The four man fronts, the man coverage, the aggressive, give nothing approach.

But as VanGorder is tasked with getting a young but talented defense up to speed, any thought that a routine spring practice was on tap for a defense that needed to find answers after a disappointing 2013 season was left behind from the minute VanGorder took charge.

Wednesday, VanGorder gave his first progress report on the status of that work. While he was too smart to give away much of anything, he did talk about some of the progress he saw and some of his idealogical goals for the defense.

Most prominent is the philosophical change on point prevention. For Diaco, it was forcing a quarterback and offense to march down the field without giving up the big play. For VanGorder, it’s the opposite. Every snap will be contested.

“I think my mindset, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive,” VanGorder said. “It starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach. Can we hold up out there?”

If you’re looking for the first question of the spring, you’ve got to think that’s the one that most desperately needs answering. As VanGorder heads through these 15 practices, evaluating his personnel and deciding if he can play that type of aggressive, attacking defense is the million dollar question... and the one that’ll determine whether the Irish are mediocre or very good in 2014.

Until the past four seasons, the aggression works from the back of the defense to the front. Diaco’s defense was defined by its ability to have defensive linemen defend two-gaps with a three man front. VanGorder’s defense is built to create pressure and collisions with the quarterback. But to do that, you need to be able to handle a variety of offenses and spread personnel. To do that, you need a secondary that can hold up.

“The more skill and wide receiver types, the more your ability to match up becomes critical,” VanGorder said. “Any time (opponents) can create a wide receiver matchup on a linebacker, they probably like that. That makes sense to all of us.”

Those struggles last year likely explain why James Onwualu and John Turner are now practicing with the defense, jumbo sized skill players that can move down a level and play both in the box and in coverage. VanGorder talked about the sub-packages that have been so often discussed thus far this spring and why they’re important.

“If you have a linebacker that has special traits out there on cover downs, you figure out the coverages you want to use with him. If you have enough corners, you get them out there to match up.”

That’s certainly the intent of the spring. While we’ll need to see if Jarron Jones can anchor the interior of the defensive line and Romeo Okwara can grow into a defensive end, right now the priority is getting the defense up to speed on a system that will be noticeably different when the Irish take the field against Rice.

“That first year is difficult. New techniques. New language. It takes time,” VanGorder told Jack Nolan of “It’s fairly dramatic for the players and it will look different to the fans.”