Defense the real mystery for Notre Dame football this spring

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The pictures tweeted out of five-star linebacker prospect Justin Hilliard schmoozing with Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder over the weekend won’t likely approach the bandwidth spike Ev-erett Golson-apalooza will generate Monday morning.

That’s when, after the first Irish practice of the spring, the reinstated Notre Dame quarterback is scheduled to make his first public comments since resuming classes in mid-January.

And every syllable, every hand gesture, every ripple of new muscle added since his late-May suspension jolted a team coming off a national championship game appearance will be parsed and processed and projected onto the bigger picture.

Sizing up who Golson is post-suspension, though, is a process, not an event. Monday is just the first snapshot of what Irish coach Brian Kelly hopes will become an evolutionary journey.

But for all the silence, all the rumors, all the QB guru George Whitfield Jr., references sprinkled over the past 10 months, the great unknown for 2014 and beyond regarding ND football is not Everett Golson. It’s Brian VanGorder.

“Well, I think at first glance, the birds are going to line up the same way,” Kelly began when asked about Van-Gorder’s imprint on a defensive unit he inherits that not only hemorrhaged statistically in every category from the historic 2012 numbers, but in most instances didn’t measure up to the more modest 2010 or 2011 standards, either.

To that end, they may line up the same way, but they won’t play the same way; not in theory, not in practice.

VanGorder’s serendipitous one year spent with New York Jets head coach and defensive visionary Rex Ryan, as linebackers coach in 2013 after being purged at Auburn, is his trump card on a rich résumé that includes signifi-cant stretches in the college ranks and the pros.

The Ryan experience is also one reason Kelly said Friday he isn’t worried about where ND’s pass rush is going to come from — a pass rush that generated more tackles for loss than just 16 of 123 FBS teams in 2013.

And that was with Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, likely two months away from becoming ND’s first defensive linemen to be selected among the Top 40 picks of the NFL Draft since Renaldo Wynn went 21st in 1997, a few months after the curtain came down on the Lou Holtz Era.

“We’re going to be able to find ways to bring pressures that we have not been able to bring here before,” puffed Kelly, who also loses edge pass rusher Prince Shembo and whose returning personnel generated just three sacks last season.

It’s not just VanGorder’s charge, though, to maximize in the fall a front seven lacking both the experience and the pedigree of the 2012 squad, but to help replenish it with the kind of talent that’s part of the template of teams reaching the national title game.

So not only does he need to get junior nose guard Jarron Jones and burgeoning star outside linebacker Jaylon Smith and largely dormant standout-in-waiting Ishaq Williams to buy in, he has to sell players like Hilliard on his vi-sion and his reality as well.

Hilliard is a 6-foot-2, 225-pounder linebacker from Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High. It’s the same school that sent Notre Dame quarterback/wide receiver Luke Massa four years ago and tried to send current NFL standout linebacker Luke Kuechly before that, only to push him to Boston College with waves of indifference.

Rivals.com rates Hilliard the top linebacker prospect in the country, and he was the biggest name among the mostly Midwestern prospects who visited the ND campus for Junior Day on Saturday.

“I feel a lot better with Notre Dame from talking with coach VanGorder and meeting him after coach (Bob) Di-aco left,” Hilliard told IrishIllustrated.com’s Steve Hare. “I’ll probably come back up one more time for like a spring practice or something, just for a day, something like that, and just hang out here.”

Kelly has to walk a fine line with his rhetoric not to disparage former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, now the head coach at Connecticut. But the bottom line is, had Diaco stayed, his charge would have been to evolve — something the Irish defense clearly didn’t do in 2013.

The 2012 philosophy didn’t work with the 2013 personnel, a miscalculation that only mildly was corrected late in the season. The scheme was too passive, the chemistry too uncohesive, the dominant defensive voice on the field never really emerging.

It’s biggest tangible shortcomings came in the area of rush defense (the Irish were 70th nationally) and in takea-ways (103rd with 17). Teams can be elite overall without being great in the latter category. They just can’t be bad at it.

Of the 29 teams ranked 95th or lower in turnovers gained, only four had winning records. And you can make the case that all four — Notre Dame (9-4), Nebraska (9-4), Georgia (8-5) and Pitt (7-6) — were underachievers.

VanGorder, both short-term and long-term, is expected to be more aggressive schematically and more creative. That only makes him different at this point, not necessarily better.

And this spring, in particular, won’t likely provide enough information to form any concrete conclusions.

In normal years, spring practice, by its very nature is kind of a minefield of mirages for those on the outside look-ing in. In this cycle, it may be that way for those on the inside as well. There are too many key pieces missing at too many key spots to form a comprehensive impression.

Signs of progress will come in piecemeal fashion, like a pre-spring surge for former five-star prospect Ishaq Wil-liams, now up to 271 pounds on his 6-6 frame and in line to be a starter for the first time in his career.

“He’s a different guy than he’s ever been since I’ve been here,” Kelly said. “Now I’m not saying that’s going to translate into 12 sacks and he’s going to be an All-American, but he’s a different guy than at any time since I’ve been here.

“Listen, it’s (early March) and things can change. We have a thing called Tire War, where we really test the guys out competitively. And I’ve never seen him compete that way. He’s one athletic big dude.

“And we’ve been waiting and waiting, like y’all have been waiting, and I’m pretty excited right now, so we’ll see. It’s early. I’m going to be cautious, but I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Middle linebacker Jarrett Grace, still recovering from a broken leg suffered last October, is the most critical of the missing pieces this spring. But incoming freshman linebackers Nyles Morgan and Nile Sykes, freshman safety Drue Tranquill, recovering nose guard Tony Springmann and outside linebacker Ben Councell, and impending Florida transfer cornerback Cody Riggs could all shake up the depth chart in August.

And when it all shakes out, Kelly expects to see a defense that will complement Golson, instead of putting more pressure on him to carry ND’s fortunes in 2014.

“Brian is going to be able to take our defense to that next level,” Kelly said, “and I think that that’s what you’ll see in what coach VanGorder will bring to our defense.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (right) is confident new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will take the Irish defense to a new level. (AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND)

How the 2013 Notre Dame football team fared in the na-tional statistical rankings compared to both its 2010-12 incarnations and the nation’s national champion in 2013, Florida State, ND’s bowl opponent just two seasons ago.

                       ND13 ND12 ND11 ND 10 FSU

OFFENSE

Rushing              80      38      54       92     28

Passing               39      71      40       34     14

Total                   67      54      35       61      6

Scoring               74      78      49       67      2

Red Zone            77      70      88       49      1

Pass Efficiency     56      74      59       59      1

Sacks Allowed      2       28      36       38     88

DEFENSE

Rushing              70       11      47       50     18

Pass Efficiency    39       16      58       25       2

Total                  31        7       30       50       3

Scoring               27       2       24       23       1

Sacks By            96       22      59       54     30

Tackles/Loss      107      78      77       77      22

Red Zone           45        7       55       35      24

SP TEAMS

Kickoff Return     21       93      36       75       1

Punt Return         80      116     112    100     41

Net Punting         105      30     102      64     111

MISC.

Turnover Margin  61        27     118       51     3

Note: Rankings are out of 123 BCS teams in 2013, 120 in 2010-12.