Notre Dame football’s VanGorder delivering his message

ANALYSIS

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The voice persistently reverberates over everything but the occasional Brian Kelly eruption, once the stretching/skipping part of Notre Dame football practice has concluded.

New Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder never actually yells. It’s just a relentless, high-decibel sales pitch that refuses to bypass even the most mundane and intricate detail. It’s laced with short, repetitive instructions. Repetitive instructions. Repetitive instruc-tions.

The point is to make his new philosophy second nature to the Irish players, two seasons removed from a historic defensive run and several months removed from puzzling regression, and to simplify in one sense and to convolute in another.

His one season, in 2013, spent with New York Jets head coach and defensive visionary Rex Ryan transformed a coach with a track record that already included way more stretches of success than hiccups. And that is where ND plots to be complicated, with sub packages and pressures from the Ryan experience that are theoretically unpredictable to opposing offensive coordinators.

And no, VanGorder has not yet uttered the words, “decided schematic advantage.”

The simplicity is in the approach with his own players. Don’t put them in position to have to do a trigonometry problem before they make a tackle. Get the best athletes on the field, even if they are young.

Then maybe the defense will eventually play as loud as VanGorder’s unamplified words?

A third of the way through Notre Dame’s 15 spring practices, this is where most of the “maybes” reside — in this person and philosophy Brian Kelly, ND’s fifth-year head coach, trusts implicitly as he himself is immersed in a semi-makeover on the offensive side of the ball.

The cursory narratives of spring figure to fixate on repatriated quarterback Everett Golson on offense and the frequency to which the Irish defense lines up in a 4-3 front. And at this point, it’s been almost exclusive 4-3 rather than ND’s base 3-4 of the past four seasons, at least during the media windows. And Saturday that window was open for an entire practice for the first and presumably last time this spring.

Future Irish middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, fellow June arrival tight end Nic Weishar and former Irish outside linebacker Prince Shembo were among the observers on hand in the Loftus Center, packed with attendees from the weekend Notre Dame coaching clinic.

“Right now we’re working on a lot more of our third-down packages., our third-down stuff, which is going to be more (4-3),” Kelly explained, noting the Irish lined up in the 4-3 primarily on third downs last season under a different regime.

“We’re just spending more time on personnel packaging, because we want to see who those guys are going to be that are going to give us a pass rush. So we’re not doing a lot of first- and second-down defenses. But there’s going to be (3-4) and (4-3). It’s just what we’ve been working on right now.”

Whether the 3-4 alignments actually comes to pass, the more important themes are how VanGorder will integrate missing pieces (notably injured linebackers Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell and recovering nose guard Tony Springmann) and a gaggle of newcomers in August, whether this defense will find the leadership that seemed to be lacking in 2013 and whether players who largely embraced former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will now buy into the loud, old school, almost distant approach.

How these questions resolve themselves will greatly impact ND’s bottom line in the fall. Not that there aren’t more questions than answers at this point all over the field, which Kelly was quick to acknowledge Saturday after practice.

If you’re looking for lightly penciled-in No. 1s at this juncture, they lined up this way Saturday:

On offense, Golson was at QB with Tarean Folston at running back, Ben Koyack at tight end and Corey Robinson, C.J. Prosise and Chris Brown at wide receivers. The offensive line, from left tackle to right tackle, was Ronnie Stanley, Steve Elmer, Matt Hegarty, Conor Hanratty and Mike McGlinchey.

On defense, Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara were at ends, though freshman Andrew Trumbetti received some first-team reps. Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day were on the interior defensive line. Jaylon Smith, Luke Schmidt and Kendall Moore were the No. 1 line-backers, but spring surprise John Turner was popping up in sub packages. The No 1 DBs were Max Redfield and Austin Collinsworth at safety, Cole Luke and KeiVarae Russell at cornerback, with Matthias Farley subbing in on nickel situations.

Recovering players, those returning from academic exile, those transferring in and incoming freshmen will scramble that snapshot, as likely will simple improvement of backup players at certain positions.

And, as Kelly pointed out, only segments of the new schemes have been installed on both sides of the ball. On special teams, Kelly has yet to audition punt returners and kickoff return candidates in earnest.

“It’s hard for me to give you any definitive statements,” he admitted when trying to formulate a big picture anywhere on the field.

Through five practices, though, there are some absolutes amid the mirages, growing pains and uncertainty. Here’s a look at the most pertinent of them:

Greg Bryant is ascending.

The sophomore-to-be amassed seemingly more transfer rumors than rushing yards (14) in 2013, then ended up with a midseason knee injury that could have pushed the frustration to the point that the rumors became self-fulfilling prophecies.

Instead, adversity drove the former five-star prospect to become more driven, more committed. And Saturday, Kelly gave the 5-foot-10, 204-pounder some extended time with the first team offense to measure his progress. Bryant did not disappoint.

“Power, just power. That word,” Kelly said. “Tarean is smooth. Cam (McDaniel) is shifty and gutty, but you wouldn’t see him as a powerful back. This kid’s powerful. He brings that presence to our run game.”

And yet he brings speed to it as well, as evidenced by getting open on some deep passing routes on Saturday.

“He looked good today,” Kelly concluded.

Malik Zaire doesn’t believe he’s No. 2

When asked Friday what was his biggest fear, the sophomore-to-be professed not to have one. And he sold it pretty well in the rest of the interview as well as how he carried himself at quarterback on Saturday.

Kelly isn’t giving a great deal of effort anymore to trying to sell the concept that Golson might not be the starter come Aug. 30 against Rice, but he likes the fact that there is a competitive edge between the two, for the time being.

“Everett’s not going to sit down and teach (Zaire) the playbook, but they like each other,” Kelly said. “They get along very well, but it’s not a Tommy Rees (situation), where Tommy Rees would sit down and teach Everett the offense.

“These are two competitive kids. Malik wants to beat out Everett. But it’s a very positive kind of atmosphere.”

VanGorder is developing versatile players.

Even though Ishaq Williams now calls himself a defensive end and practices primarily with the defensive linemen, he and fellow end Romeo Okwara still spend some practice time working with the linebackers.

Same with safety James Onwualu, who plays linebacker (backup for now) in some of ND’s sub packages.

The thought behind this is that if ND faces a fastbreak offense, like its own, the Irish can adjust defensively to playing different packages even if they can’t substitute the ideal personnel.

“That’s why we’re moving some guys around a lot right now,” Kelly said.

ND’s most recent injured players face very different paths.

Kelly announced Friday that offensive guard Christian Lombard is out four to six weeks with a freak wrist injury (he fell during a drill and suffered the injury putting his hand down to break the fall) that required surgery. But Kelly envisions Lombard returning to No. 1 status as soon as he’s healthy.

Junior-to-be Will Mahone will likely be idled for the same amount of time with a fractured foot, but when he returns he faces a steep challenge to find playing time. The 5-11, 214-pounder has bounced between running back and wide receiver and hasn’t found much traction at either position.

In two seasons, he’s played in two statistic-less games as a reserve.

“He’s just got bad luck,” Kelly said of Mahone, who’s been slowed by injuries before. “But he’s coming back and he’s a great kid and he’s going to work hard.”

Corey Robinson won’t get lost in the crowd.

With all the young receivers vying to move up the depth chart, the one who garnered only a modest amount of recruiting hype coming out of high school continues to impress Kelly.

“He does exactly what I ask him to do all the time,” the coach said of the 6-4, 205-pound sophomore-to-be. “Now he may screw up the first time, but you coach him, and he does it right the second time. I love that kid. I mean he’s fun to coach.”

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder works with Joe Schmidt (38) and Austin Larkin (52) during Saturday's practice at Loftus Sports Center. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)