Injuries exposed recruiting missteps for Notre Dame's defense
The injuries never seemed to end. A considerable amount of newsprint was devoted to the weekly wounded Notre Dame defensive players.
After middle linebacker Joe Schmidt was lost for the season with an ankle injury suffered against Navy, the downward spiral accelerated. Notre Dame’s defensive depth was challenged to the extreme. Young players were asked to fill in and their weaknesses were exposed. Left in a vulnerable state, the Irish allowed 1,945 yards and 178 points in the final four games.
In the aftermath, it’s easy to point to rotten luck as the root of Notre Dame’s defensive failings. The academic suspensions and injury lists left the Irish to rely on 19 different starters, 11 of which made their first career defensive start in 2014.
But were those backup players unsuccessful because of a lack of experience or a lack of talent? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. However, a closer look at Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts in the past few years illuminates some clear holes.
The trouble reaches a peak in the 2012 recruiting class. The undersized class of 17 consisted of only nine defensive players by February’s signing day. The first departure from the class, cornerback Tee Shepard, happened before the calendar reached April. The early-enrolled Shepard left the school days before spring practice started.
By the time the 2012 season started, the Irish roster held only 78 scholarship players, seven short of the NCAA-allowed maximum. The deficit clearly didn’t hurt Notre Dame during its 12-1 run that season, but the small recruiting class has impacted Notre Dame’s current depth chart on defense. The natural roster attrition that occurs in college football is magnified with so few options.
When Notre Dame takes on LSU in Tuesday’s Music City Bowl, only four players from the 2012 Irish recruiting class will be dressed to play defense: defensive tackle Sheldon Day, defensive end Romeo Okwara, safety Elijah Shumate and linebacker John Turner.
Former safety C.J. Prosise switched to wide receiver as sophomore. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who was also recruited to play running back, missed the entire 2014 season because of an academic suspension. Safety Nicky Baratti (shoulder) and defensive tackle Jarron Jones (foot) were sidelined with season-ending injuries earlier this year.
The absence of those players are happenstance. But couldn’t the 2012 class have included more defensive players? The lack of depth this season indicates mistakes made by former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, said CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming.
“You have to fault him. He was the guy in charge,” Lemming said. “It comes down to the defensive coordinator to get this stuff done and make sure that the staff is doing everything possible to get impact players. If you have all nine coaches recruiting impact players, you're going to have a talented second team. The elite teams — the Alabamas, the USCs, the Ohio States of the world — always have someone ready.”
Diaco and Notre Dame did a better job with the 2013 class by landing highly-touted players like linebacker Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield. The quantity didn’t substantially increase though. The Irish signed 10 defensive players including defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, who eventually enrolled at UCLA instead of Notre Dame.
The quality of that class was severely impacted by the loss of Vanderdoes, a five-star recruit, and linebacker Alex Anzalone. The latter was set to enroll at Notre Dame in January 2013 but switched to Florida days before he was scheduled to be in South Bend. At the time, Anzalone expressed concern in not being able to get in touch with head coach Brian Kelly, who was reportedly interviewing with the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly stayed at Notre Dame, but Anzalone was already gone.
Positing blame on coaches for the decisions made by high school athletes can be foolish, but building options with other recruits lessens the impact of each individual decision. Notre Dame did not add another linebacker to the 2013 class after losing Anzalone and was left with Michael Deeb, who saw the field for the first time in his career against USC, as the only other inside linebacker in the class. Deeb’s next tackle for Notre Dame will be his first.
The Irish have yet to land a defensive lineman as talented as Vanderdoes in the subsequent cycles. The only other interior lineman to sign with Notre Dame in 2013 was Jacob Matuska, who was thrust into a prominent role in the final weeks of the season. Matuska recorded his first start and has tallied six tackles and one sack in six games of action.
Lemming indicated that Diaco may have lost command of Notre Dame’s defensive recruiting in his final year-plus with the program. Diaco left the Irish in December 2013 to become the head coach at UConn.
“Recruiting now has gone from part-time to full-time, 12 months a year. You never stop,” Lemming said. “It takes a toll on coaches and their families, but that's the nature of the beast and that's why these guys get paid so much more money than they did 20 years ago."
An emphasis on defensive recruiting in the 2014 class coincided with the departure of Diaco. The Irish added five commits from defensive players after Diaco received the UConn job. VanGorder, officially hired by Notre Dame in early January, helped the Irish land a pair of much-needed defensive tackles in the final weeks of the cycle. The signed class included 13 defensive recruits.
The Irish have been equally aggressive in the current 2015 recruiting cycle. Thirteen of Notre Dame’s 22 verbal commitments come from prospects on the defensive side of the ball. VanGorder will get the opportunity to build a defense with recruits that fit his scheme. If done right, the unit will be less vulnerable to roster shakeups in the future.
"The future of Notre Dame's defense is in the hands of Brian VanGorder,” Lemming said. “It's not just coaching, but it's recruiting. His name is on Notre Dame's defense. He has to go out there and get these players. He has to make sure that the other defensive coaches are recruiting impact players. You load up on impact players and injuries won't have as much of a factor anymore.”