Analysis: Questions left for Notre Dame to answer on the field

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s mustache has its own Facebook fan page with a modest 60 devotees.

Even though that bit of facial hair has evolved into a goatee.

And even though that hackneyed preseason point of discussion has been replaced by chatter of on-camera fist pumps and perhaps the most surprising unit in the country on either side of the ball when it comes to national statistics as college football races toward its halfway point.

“I think what I've been most pleased with is their ability to play very, very good run defense,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, whose 5-0, sixth-ranked Irish host a team with one of the worst defenses in the nation, North Carolina (2-3), on Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT, NBC-TV),

“In particular, the front seven has been put together almost in its entirety this year new, other than (defensive tackle) Sheldon Day. So I think that's probably been the most pleasing thing.”

By Kelly’s count, the Irish forced Stanford into 11 situations of third-and-7 or longer on Saturday. The Cardinal faced just eight such challenges in its first four games combined.

In the bigger picture, Notre Dame made quantum leaps in the national defensive rankings after smothering Stanford’s offense and the nation’s No. 15 passer, senior Kevin Hogan, Saturday in a 17-14 Irish victory.

ND moved up from 27th to ninth in the aforementioned run defense, 46 to 28 in pass-efficiency defense, 38th to 21st in total defense and from fourth to third in scoring defense. North Carolina, for comparison sake, is 92-103-117-121, respectively, in those defensive categories.

For as much as you hear some of the national talking heads screaming and ranting about this being the year in which offense overtakes defense in relevance, defense still matters when it comes to shaping national title contenders with staying power.

For the record, scoring and average yards per play are up in 2014, but less than a point per game (30.45 from 29.53) and by five one-hundreths of a yard per play (5.8 from 5.75) over 2013.

ND is trending just above those averages (31.4 and 5.9) coming out of a brawl with the then-nation’s leader in total defense and scoring defense and heading into a stretch of five games in which they’ll play no one among the top 35 in total defense.

And further for the record, only one of the 16 national champs during the BCS Era (1998-2013) was able to do so without a defensive until ranked in the top 25 in total defense.

That was Auburn in 2010 (60th), though the Tigers had the nation’s No. 9 rushing defense and were No. 1 offensively in passing-efficiency, two other common metrics in gauging what national champs look like statistically.

Ole Miss and Notre Dame are two surging playoff contenders that have strong defense numbers on their résumés. Mississippi State (84th total defense) and top-ranked Florida State (36th) do not, so it will be interesting to see if or when that comes back to bite those national title contenders.

The Seminoles (5-0), with the nation’s longest current win streak at 21 games, host the Irish — tied with Marshall and Arizona for the nation’s third-longest win streak at six — Oct. 18 in what was designated Monday as ABC’s prime time game (8 EDT) that week.

In the interim, here are the most burning questions and perhaps equally scintillating answers swirling around the Irish that don’t include the terms “Frozen Five,” “suspensions,” “reinstatement,” "lack of transparency,” or “our lawyers have advised us..."

And they start with VanGorder:

Will Notre Dame’s surprisingly strong defensive start pay off in the 2015 recruiting cycle?

The Irish did land a verbal commitment, and a very highly rated one, Saturday while flexing their defensive muscles. But it was an offensive lineman and a member of the 2016 class (Tommy Kraemer from Cincinnati, the class’ 20th–ranked national prospect overall per Rivals, 37th per 247Sports).

“I think it’s more of a long term thing,” said Steve Wiltfong, national director of recruiting for 247Sports, of the VanGorder effect.

“The 2016 class is the one that is more impressionable," Wiltfong said. "Remember, recruiting is about relationships, and so it’s not easy to swing a prospect just based on the way you’re playing.”

Especially when it comes to ND’s most glaring remaining need in the class.

“They’re still looking for the one thing they don’t have – someone who can bring it from the edge on a pass rush,” Wiltfong said. “ There’s still a lot of time, so if they keep winning, keep playing fast, keep looking exciting, and having young guys making plays, who knows where this could end up?”

Among the gaggle of official visitors last weekend was such a player, 6-foot-6, 220-pound defensive end Mekhi Brown from Columbus, Ga. He’s ranked as the No. 60 overall prospect in the 2015 class by Rivals, No. 38 by 247Sports.

But Brown has been verbally committed to Alabama for months, and Wiltfong believes it would be a tough flip, even though there are plenty of reports about Brown enjoying his ND visit.

“The Notre Dame staff won’t slow down at all when it comes to finding great pass-rushers,” Wiltfong said. “If there’s someone out there that can help them in this area and is a fit for the Irish, this coaching staff will find them.”

Will Notre Dame’s running game find a lead back and develop the ability to take over games?

Kelly, presiding over the nation’s No. 78 rushing offense, at least is committed to both concepts.

Fifty yards separate leading rusher Greg Bryant (188) and No. 4 rusher, quarterback Everett Golson (138). Sophomore Bryant has the best yards-per-carry (4.8) among the leaders, but senior Cam McDaniel (3.6) is getting the most opportunities (48), including almost half the carries (15 of 32) against Stanford.

“I mean, you're balancing production versus promise,” Kelly said of his decision to use McDaniel far more than Bryant and fellow sophomore Tarean Folston in cold, wet and smash-mouth conditions against Stanford.

“Those kids have outstanding potential and promise, but what we were looking for in this kind of game was production, and we know what we're going to get from Cam," said Kelly. “We didn't think we were getting home runs. What we didn't want were minus runs. We didn't want the ball on the ground (fumble).

“Cam has been a pretty steady performer, and I have a tendency to kind of err toward going with the senior captain in these kinds of games.”

That doesn’t mean that pattern will repeat, especially when you consider what’s coming up on the schedule. Rice, to date, is the weakest run defense the Irish have faced at 58th. All four of the other past Irish opponents are in the top 50.

The Irish only face one top 50 run defense the rest of the way — No. 1 Louisville on Nov. 22 — the rest of the way and go against three (North Carolina, Navy and Arizona State) ranked below 90th.

“There are things we need to get better at, no question,” Kelly said of the running game. “I like where we're going. We're committed to what we're doing. At this point of the season, we rushed the ball more than we've thrown it.

“We're not going to go and abandon it, but we've got to find opportunities, find some ways to get big runs as well outside our normal offense.”

Beyond the VanGorder hire, what are some offseason moves that put Notre Dame in position to be challenging for a playoff spot five games into the season?

Moving Jaylon Smith from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, landing Florida transfer Cody Riggs, flipping Purdue commit Drue Tranquill are among the more obvious.

Among the more subtle but still significant were promoting wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock to offensive coordinator, hiring a dedicated quarterbacks coach in Matt LaFleur and keeping retired nose guard Tony Springmann on as a student assistant coach.

Springmann has helped raise the level of play of Notre Dame’s young-but-impacting defensive lineman on the field and helped ease the transition to life at ND off of it.

“Whatever I need, whenever I need him, he’s been there for me,” freshman defensive end Andrew Trumbetti said. “He’s been a great mentor.”

Speaking of mentors, for all the love private quarterback tutor George Whitfield Jr., has gotten for turning Golson’s 2013 season of exile into a transformative one, and deservedly so, LaFleur has taken the baton and continued to trigger the evolution of ND’s 2012 game manager into a difference-maker.

“Everett wants to learn this game from a coach's perspective, and so he's so inquisitive,” Kelly said. “Matt can have the time that I don't have to sit down with him and really pore through football tape and talk football, and Everett enjoys that relationship with Matt.

“I think that that has been really a missing ingredient that we've had in our program that now we've addressed. So Matt and Everett have that closeness of being able to sit and talk football, and then obviously that brings in other conversations outside of football.

“So he's been a very good piece to this development that we've had going on with Everett.”

Denbrock, meanwhile, has quietly battled back from a summer surgical procedure to address prostate cancer to help Kelly change direction with his offense.

“He's a guy that has experience being a BCS offensive line coach, tight end coach, he's coached the wide receivers,” Kelly said. "So he's got a great perspective of the whole offense. He knows exactly what I'm looking for. So we've got great dialogue during the game.

“I think his health is outstanding. I haven't seen him in better spirits in quite some time. So I think we're far away from the sickness he had. He's just such a great asset to me up in the box.”

And in the meeting room.

An improving, but still flawed, offensive line continues to be the focus, and it’s easy to see why.

Take a look at some of the preseason national playoff contenders whose hopes have been torpedoed, and you’ll see a common thread among many of them are offensive line issues.

UCLA is 123rd in sacks allowed after allowing 10 Saturday night in a loss to Utah. Oregon is 110th, Ohio State 95th, USC 95th, Clemson 88th, Stanford 78th and LSU 61st.

The Irish are at No. 54, after finishing second in 2013.

“Definitely progress was made (Saturday),” Kelly said in the second game since the line was realigned with positions swaps affecting four of the five spots.

“We're not there yet," Kelly said. "We're going to continue to work, continue to work with the same five guys and continue to work on building some continuity there.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6112

Defensive Coordinator Brian VanGorder watches as the team goes through drills Saturday, August 16, 2014, at Notre Dame football practice on campus in South Bend. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)