Notre Dame defense exploring new options

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

The sometimes-confusing, always-animal-friendly “Cat” and “Dog” linebacker monikers that have been part of the Notre Dame defense the past four years faded into oblivion on Monday.

The concepts behind them and the way those positions were utilized also appear to be on the way out, or at least significantly modified, if ND’s first practice of the (so-called) spring was any indication.

The pressing question, though, is where is this all headed? Specifically, is Notre Dame recruiting to and evolving toward being more of a 4-3 front than a 3-4 with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder now presiding?

Recruits in both the incoming freshman class and the 2015 pool of targets are starting to get that impression. And at no time during the 30-minute media window Monday morning at the Loftus Center did the Irish defensive front align in its heretofore base 3-4 look. Nor did it do so when the defensive line was doing drillwork separate from the rest of the team.

Former Cat (outside) linebackers Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara set up at ends, with the first unit. One of last year’s starting ends — Sheldon Day — and Louis Nix’s heir apparent at nose guard — Jarron Jones — played inside.

The second unit showed Anthony Rabasa and Isaac Rochell on the edge, with Chase Hounshell and Justin Utupo inside. Utupo played end in 2013. Hounshell played both on the edge and inside the last time he was at full heath, which was the 2011 season.

“I think it really depends on who we’re playing,” said ND coach Brian Kelly, whose defenses over the past couple of seasons have been trending closer to 50-50 4-3 vs. 3-4. “It’s really going to be week to week.

“It’s going to be similar to what New England (NFL’s Patriots) is doing. One week they might be all four-down the entire game and then the next week they’ll be in three-down. The way we’re going to play it, it’s going to be easy for us to get in and out of three-down. So it’s really going to be more game-plan structured than it has been in the past.”

And for now, there’s plenty of growing pains apparently that go along with that and the rest of the defensive tweaks.

“Defensively, you can sense that the expectations are not going to be within the grasp of any player on the defensive side of the ball with coach VanGorder,” Kelly said. “He’s coaching, and you love that, because there’s a lot going on defensively and high expectations for everybody on the defensive side of the ball.”

Tall tale

The tallest player on the Notre Dame roster, 6-foot-8 sophomore-to-be Mike McGlinchey, found his way to the top of the depth chart Monday, with admittedly 14 more spring practices and a whole summer to morph the pecking order at many positions, including his.

But the fact that the 300-pounder lined up as the starting right tackle in the first drills of spring speak to the impression the Philadelphian made while redshirting last fall and the high ceiling the Irish coaches project for him moving forward.

Last year’s starting right tackle, junior Ronnie Stanley, lined up at left tackle. Sophomore Steve Elmer, who played tackle and guard last year as a true freshman part-time starter, was at left guard, with fifth-year senior Christian Lombard back at right guard after October back surgery cut short his 2013 season. Matt Hegarty filled in for incumbent starting center Nick Martin, whose contact will be limited this spring as he recovers from knee surgery.

“He’s got all the tools necessary to be a starter for us,” Kelly said of McGlinchey, a first cousin of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. “It’s just going to be time and place. When is the time and when does he get that opportunity?

“What we’ve seen is he’s a tough, physical kid (and) mentally tough.”

And apparently versatile too. With senior Ben Koyack being the only one of ND’s five tight ends who has played at least one snap of college football, Kelly is open to using a tackle as the second tight end when the Irish want to go to power formations. And McGlinchey, who started his career at William Penn Charter School as a tight end, just might be a candidate.

“He’s a guy, running around, who is as athletic as some of the tight ends in the country,” Kelly said. “So he’s a guy who could easily throw a second jersey on and line up at tight end.”

Looking out for No. 1

Sophomore-to-be Greg Bryant made a strong first impression Monday after an injury-diluted freshman season.

He wore the No. 1 jersey last season but never rose higher than No. 4 on the running back depth chart before a knee condition generated a medical redshirt year.

“I think he’s probably what we’ve always thought about him,” Kelly said of the 5-10, 204-pounder and one of only two five-star running back prospects ND has recruited in the Rivals.com Era (2002-present).

“Just his workouts, top of the line in everything that he does. I know our guys don’t like to tackle him. He’s physical. He’s got all the tools to be a premier running back. And you add him to the mix with Cam (McDaniel) and Tarean (Folston), we feel really fortunate to have three great running backs.”

Spring break?

An extremely late Easter (April 20) and having to work around spring break helped create a quirky spring football calendar this year.

Kelly conceivably could have jammed all 15 practices in between St. Patrick’s Day and the Blue-Gold Game on April 12, but he opted instead to hold two practices, Monday and Wednesday of this week, and then not again until March 19.

The Irish and all other ND students are off next week for spring break. But are the Irish players really off?

“I'm OK with them leaving,” Kelly said. “But they also know, we don't have a lot of guys that, if you look across the board, (who can) say, ‘That's my position and nobody can beat me out.’ Last year maybe we had it, and the year before.

“But they know that they better be ready to come back, ready to go. That's one of the things that you've got to do when you trust your team, that they understand how important it is for them to get some time away, but be ready to go when they come back, as well.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder works with the defensive unit during the opening day of spring football practice on Monday, Mar. 3, 2014, at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)