Time for defense to deliver

BY AL LESAR
ND Insider

Hard to pin the hopes of the Notre Dame football team on one guy.

But, in the immortal clichéd words of Bob Davie: It is what it is.

The Irish offense is good enough to compete for a national championship.

lþNo more excuses or apologies at quarterback.

lþTwo running backs who could break a long one at any time, and there’s a third who will get at least three yards every time.

lþA solid line with enough depth that Kelly could mix and match and go a couple different ways with a starting five.

lþEnough quality receivers to find some playmakers to emerge.

lþAnd tight ends who can block and catch.

In other words, the Irish should be able to put some points on the board.

And then ... there’s the defense.

The central figure of the Notre Dame defense — and the one responsible for the direction this season — is new coordinator Brian VanGorder.

Talk about walking into a tough situation.

Not only is he charged with putting together a unit capable of giving the offense a chance to win a game, but he’s doing it with so many critical pieces missing.

Complicating the situation is the memory of how effective the Notre Dame defense was two years ago when it carried the Irish through a 12-0 regular season before getting lost on the way to Miami.

Stars are few and far between this time around. Deficiencies are obvious.

But don’t think that’s going to lessen any expectations. This is a staff founded on the premise of player development, right?

Well guys, you’ve got your players. You’ve had five years to assemble them. Go ahead and develop.

The Notre Dame defense has two sure things: Linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive tackle Sheldon Day. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell is on the cusp of reaching that status, but not yet.

That’s a far cry from the number of standouts who were in place in 2012. That defense yielded just 106 rushing yards and 13 points a game — and that’s after Alabama ran wild and scored 42.

Last year’s defense, which gave up 366 total yards and 22 points a game, struggled despite having a couple future high NFL draft picks (linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, both of whom battled health issues) and several others (corner Bennett Jackson, lineman Kona Schwenke, and linebackers Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox) who will at least get some serious sniffs from The League.

On paper, as preseason camp begins, the defensive talent won’t match the level the Irish had last season, in what was considered a disappointment.

Can scheme help?

VanGorder has pledged to bring a more aggressive, dynamic approach to playing defense. All signs point to his base package being a 4-3, though elements of the 3-4 will be utilized. It will contain several situational packages fitting the talent to the task at hand.

That is, whatever talent happens to be available.

The front seven appears vulnerable, despite the presence of Smith and Day. Linebackers like Joe Schmidt (great guy and smart, but 6-foot, 230 pounds; he was a walk-on for a reason), converted safety John Turner at linebacker, seldom-used graduate student Kendall Moore, and injury-plagued Ben Councell could make fans appreciate Fox and Calabrese.

Linemen like Jarron Jones, Chase Hounshell, Romeo Okwara, Isaac Rochell and Ishaq Williams are all relatively unknown commodities.

When corner Cody Riggs — a one-year, graduate student rent-a-player from Florida — signed on, was that a signal of desperation? A program in its fifth year of development welcomed with open arms a one-and-done patch at a position pocked with youth.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly talks often about the athletic prowess of safety Max Redfield. That praise is regularly followed by qualifiers about the sophomore struggling with an understanding of the concepts. Will the light bulb finally come on?

Kelly was emphatic to say that his plan this year is to inject his offense with a steady dose of caffeine. With either Everett Golson or Malik Zaire at the controls, the Irish will forge an up-tempo, move-the-chains-quickly style.

Common sense begs the question: What’s the best way to help a defense that’s apt to struggle? Answer: Keep it off the field. Use a quality running game and effective passing attack to chew up yards and clock.

Notre Dame appears to have the horses on offense to dictate the tempo of the game. Choosing to turn those horses loose could invite more shootouts than shutouts.

The Irish schedule is formidable. Home games with Michigan, Stanford, Northwestern and Louisville. Road trips to Florida State, Arizona State and Southern Cal.

No time to be timid.

It would be difficult to visit Tallahassee, Tempe and LA without a stout defense.

Somewhere, somehow, VanGorder’s gotta come up with something that works.

It’s the difference between 8-4 and a shot at the playoffs.

Welcome to South Bend, coach.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is involved in the recruitment of Keisean Lucier-Smith. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ