Notre Dame DC Brian VanGorder: Defense ahead of schedule

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian VanGorder can see the future of the Notre Dame defense every bit as vividly now as the cracks that Florida State exposed Saturday night in its 31-27 epic victory.

It’s a future that next season subtracts one starter, Florida transfer Cody Riggs, and one would-be starter, injured safety Austin Collinsworth — both grad school students — and presumably just one other two-deep player (backup lineman Justin Utupo), while adding depth, experience and talent in bunches.

“We’ve got a good work ethic,” the Irish first-year defensive coordinator said Tuesday before heading out on the road to recruit for the rest of the week during seventh-ranked Notre Dame’s second bye week of the season.

“And if we don’t mess that up, yeah, these guys are going to be good. They’re going to be really good.''

Already they have made quantum leaps from last season in rushing defense (70th nationally to 13th), scoring defense (27th to 17th) and sacks (96th to 77th), despite returning only two starters from 2013, one of whom — Jaylon Smith — is playing a markedly different position than under former coordinator Bob Diaco.

In 2015 they’ll add a burgeoning group of defensive recruits; impressive redshirt defensive linemen Jhonny Williams, Pete Mokwuah, Jay Hayes and Jonathan Bonner; and presumably Frozen Five survivors cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams.

Russell and Williams were projected starters in 2014 but are sitting out the season in the aftermath of Notre Dame’s protracted but now-completed academic fraud investigation.

“We’ve got to keep the focus on improving each individual,” VanGorder said with an eye toward moving ahead. “And then they’ve got to take that on themselves. They’ve got to be motivated themselves to get a lot better, and it’s easy to point out the flaws to encourage them to do so.”

VanGorder assesses his defense as being ahead of schedule overall, and there’s some irony in the biggest reason why.

For those who condemn Notre Dame’s high academic standards as archaic and what separates the Irish from being a consistent national title contender in this day and age, VanGorder offers that it’s the high intelligence that allows such a young defense to absorb so many and such complicated concepts that are a part of VanGorder’s NFL-esque scheme.

“Our mission is for you to prepare for us like we prepare for some of these offenses,” VanGorder said. “We want you to work. If you looked at our inventory going into a game, you would just be shocked at what these kids are doing. I mean it is impressive.

“I never anticipated or pictured that they’d be where they are, taking on so many multiple looks — and pressures and coverages. We don’t always do it from an execution standpoint the way we want it, but it’ll keep getting better.”

The future, the near future, resumes this weekend, when the Irish players report back to campus from fall break and get ready for Navy (3-4), a team that pushed them all the way through the fourth quarter before falling 38-34. The teams meet Nov. 1 in prime time (8 EDT, CBS-TV) at Landover, Md.

It’s been 10 years since VanGorder has faced a triple-option team, his first game after winning the 2003 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach.

VanGorder was coaching in the SEC at the time, under Georgia head coach Mark Richt. The Bulldogs opened the 2004 season with option-heavy Georgia Southern (a team he would serve as the head coach of 12 years later).

“I’ll never forget. We thought we had the game pretty much in hand, and we took our starters out,” VanGorder said. “And then I remember they ran the fullback for like a 50-yard run and ended up scoring.

“And we turned it over at like midfield, and then they ran the fullback for a touchdown. So we ended up putting our starters back in late in the fourth quarter. Everybody’s got to be detailed and it’s assignment football. And if you have a breakdown, it can be devastating.”

Georgia won, 48-28, and never allowed that many points in any game the remainder of a 10-2 season.

The future is still where Jaylon Smith’s best games figure to reside, though the 6-foot-3, 235-pound sophomore has been impressive enough moving from outside linebacker inside to the weakside position that he earned midseason All-America honors (second team) from both SI.com and Phil Steele.

“The involvement in flow reads and under-key reads have been a process that at times has been a little bit difficult for him,” VanGorder said of inside linebacker-type staples. “And he’s still learning it. His best football is way out ahead of him. He’s got tremendous physical traits. And he’s getting better and better with it.”

One of the reasons he continues to get better and better is senior middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, a former walk-on who retains a fifth-year option and is ND’s leader in tackles (57) and forced fumbles (2) seven games in.

“He gets us into all of our defensive fronts and coverages and all the checks, and he’s been tremendous,” VanGorder said. “Jaylon obviously trusts him. And they’ve got a great working relationship.”

Some saw Schmidt as a stop-gap until either former starter Jarrett Grace was healthy enough to compete, coming back from multiple fractures in his right leg suffered last October, or freshman Nyles Morgan was savvy enough to match his breathtaking athletic ability.

VanGorder offered that Grace hasn’t been healthy enough yet to make an impression, though he referred to him as a high character kid. Morgan remains a high-ceiling player but with plenty of growing pains.

“It’s a lot of defense, and it’s been difficult for him to learn it all, let alone communicate it all to everybody,” VanGorder said. “So he definitely has a real resilience about himself. I’m on him a lot, a lot of coaching pressure on him, and he holds up really well. He doesn’t flinch, and it’s going to happen, it’s going to come.”

Sometimes progress for the entire group isn’t linear, but more like two steps forward and one step back. And VanGorder can’t measure the future without examining some of the hiccups of the recent past, namely the 43 points and more than 500 yards in offense the Irish yielded to North Carolina on Oct. 11 and the 15-of-16 passing performance by quarterback Jameis Winston in the second half of the Florida State game.

“We knew at halftime that they’re national champions and 22 straight wins and such and we have a lot of respect for their quarterback,” said VanGorder, who said ND’s biggest flaws actually came in the red zone.

“We knew in the second half, that they were going to come after it, and it was important that we match that and affect that player in particular. There were times when we did that and he still made a play, so you just have to give Jameis a lot of credit.

“He’s a tremendous player, and at the same time our expectations are that we get that job done in that situation and we’ve got to be better.”

The North Carolina shortfalls VanGorder put on his own shoulders, for not simplifying the game plan and substitution patterns against a team that made expansive looks and rotating personnel difficult with its uptempo offense.

“That’s the enemy, that’s what defensive coaches don’t like,” he said of Carolina’s fast-break offensive approach. “It takes some of the football away from us, takes your inventory and shrinks it way down. But you got to win third down. We didn’t win third down that day.”

As the ND defense ascends, the speculation about VanGorder’s own coaching future ramps up. Is this reunion with head coach Brian Kelly nothing more than a stepping stone to a third shot at a head coaching position?

Reading between the lines, it doesn’t appear to be.

“Brian’s a high standard and expectation guy,” VanGorder said of Kelly. “He hires you and expects you to do your job and he trusts that you’re good enough to do so. So my working relationship with Brian couldn’t be better.

“Then the kids here are just so … I knew they’d be good kids, but I didn’t anticipate how much I’d really respect who they are and what they represent. So the people I’m working with and coaching these kids every day, it just couldn’t be better.”

"And Notre Dame, I still want to learn everything about Notre Dame, because I certainly appreciate its history and how it really represented football for a long, long time. Notre Dame was the headline. It was everything, long before the NFL was what people know it as today. I mean, Notre Dame carried football.

“So I’m really looking forward to diving into that, but it’s just been awesome. I can’t imagine missing this experience and, hopefully, can be a part of it for a long, long time.''

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder yells to players during the barn-burner with North Carolina earlier this month. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)