Bears' Emery believes VanGorder is tune with what Notre Dame football needs
The most vivid memory of Brian VanGorder in Phil Emery’s mental database still makes the Chicago Bears general manager laugh to the point he actually has trouble relating it.
It has to do with Elvis Presley and napping, and the years the two spent together as football teammates, roommates, close friends and dreamers.
They still dream, even bigger now, than they did at Wayne State University. Their realities are more expansive, more complex and more defining as well than back in the late 1970s. That’s when Emery would often come home to find VanGorder’s stereo blaring vintage Elvis tracks loud enough to wake the neighbors but somehow not enough to do so to VanGorder, slumbering a few feet away.
“He just loved Elvis — and John Wayne, too,” Emery recalled of Notre Dame football’s recently anointed defensive coordinator. “He had a bust of John Wayne on his dresser.”
His biggest passion, though, was football, and VanGorder was determined to chase greatness as a coach, even back then.
“I don’t think he was majoring in criminal justice because he wanted to be a policeman,” Emery said.
The two — Emery a college offensive guard and VanGorder a linebacker — reunited almost three decades later, with Emery helping VanGorder land a job as linebackers coach with rogue Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino in 2007. Petrino walked away from that job 13 games into his five-year, $24 million deal, with a 3-10 record and touching off a tsunami of resentment from his players and from fans.
That was the same season Falcons quarterback Michael Vick came under investigation for his involvement in a dog fighting operation, pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to 23 months in prison.
“Obviously, that was one of the strangest years in NFL history,” understated Emery, the Falcons’ director of college scouting from 2004-08.
Less than 24 hours after Petrino put a period on one of the shortest head coaching stints in modern NFL history by a non-interim coach, he signed a five-year deal to be the head coach at the University of Arkansas. That threw the future of assistants like VanGorder into uncertainty as the team played out its final three games without Petrino.
VanGorder then parachuted into South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier’s staff as the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator, a gig that lasted just over a month. Atlanta hired away Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mike Smith to replace Petrino, and Smith in turn poached VanGorder to be his own defensive coordinator.
The two had worked together in Jacksonville during the 2005 season.
The five years with the Falcons, four as the defensive coordinator, constitute the vagabond VanGorder’s longest coaching stint on a résumé that includes three previous overlapping seasons (at Grand Valley State) with the man who recently hired him again, Irish fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly.
VanGorder also reconnects at ND with another college teammate, Paul Longo, the Irish director of football strength and conditioning. Emery’s own professional past included a long stretch of strength-and-conditioning coaching before he took a leap of faith and a $10,000 pay cut to reinvent himself as an NFL scout.
The two years VanGorder and Emery spent together made an indelible impression on the latter.
“The first asset that you think of with him, that translates both in the NFL and what he’ll do at Notre Dame, is that he’s an incredible teacher,” Emery said.
That said, the timing of VanGorder’s arrival at Notre Dame couldn’t have been more synchronistic. Less than two years after ND’s defense produced historic numbers on the way to its national championship matchup with Alabama with a dominating front seven brimming with NFL talent, VanGorder inherits sort of a blank slate.
The most experienced of 2014’s defensive front seven will be a player who’s currently a freshman — outside linebacker Jaylon Smith — with his 13 starts. The only other defensive lineman or linebacker on the roster with more than one career start are sophomore end Sheldon Day, with eight, and junior linebacker Jarrett Grace (3), who’s still recovering from a broken leg.
VanGorder will also have to figure out how to generate a pass rush from a unit that finished 96th out of 123 FBS schools in 2013 in sacks — and that was with recent departees Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Prince Shembo in the mix. None of the returning Irish players recorded more than one sack last season.
Then there’s the tweaking of the scheme and teaching that Kelly and VanGorder both classify Bob Diaco’s successor as another 3-4 multiple guy, but the members of the 2014 recruiting class are getting the impression from VanGorder that the snaps spent in a 4-3 look in 2014 could blip past the 50 percent threshold.
“He’s an incredibly fundamentally sound football coach with a very demanding but positive style,” Emery offered. “He has a lot of competitive fire in him. He was our rally guy at Wayne State as our team captain on defense, and he really led the whole team. He has a passion for football unequaled by most people, but he translates that with high-end teaching skills and his ability to get the athlete to get the maximum out of his ability.”
Schematically, there appears to be a lot more variations, movement, pressures and surprises to VanGorder’s defense than what Diaco brought. VanGorder’s one season with New York Jets coach Rex Ryan added even more spice to that repertoire.
“His structure is complex, but he keeps it simple for the athletes.,” Emery said of VanGorder. “He keeps simple commands for them, so they can stage repetition and, over time, they can excel at what they’re doing.
“He’s very vocal on the field. You’ll hear him talk to the linebackers about their progression of their reads, much like a quarterback. He talks to them about training their eyes, and that’s what good teachers do. They overemphasize what we think of as fairly simple techniques, but they’re very complex when people are going full speed, especially on defense when you have to react to full-speed movements.”
VanGorder’s most immediate concerns are on the recruiting trail, where he helped pull defensive tackle Pete Mokwuah out of Rutgers’ class on Friday but lost previously committed outside linebacker Richard Yeargin from ND’s class hours later.
Reports are that another outside linebacker in the Irish class — Kolin Hill of Schertz, Texas — is being pursued by in-state Texas now at the 11th hour. National signing day is Feb. 5.
Whatever the material looks like when the poaching settles, Emery is confident VanGorder will make it better.
“It goes beyond Brian being my college roommate,” Emery said. “People are going to see Brian is a very, very good football coach. Our players in Atlanta had extreme respect and admiration for Brian. It’s very simple. He puts his players in a position to succeed, and they do.”