Notre Dame defense looks to ascend, evolve under VanGorder

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the midst of a mind-blowing cultural cornucopia of experiences in the Republic of South Africa last spring, Jaylon Smith had a stray, roguish idea that advanced as far as the serious, talking stage.

Shark diving. In cages. A specialty of South Africa’s picture postcard city of Capetown.

“I don’t think (coach Brian) Kelly would have allowed that to happen,” the Notre Dame junior linebacker reasoned of why the discussion between him and a handful of Irish football teammates didn’t lead to an actual outing.

A little more than two months later and roughly 8,500 miles removed from the near-death experience (from Kelly, not the sharks), Smith continues to swim in deep, dangerous waters, though metaphorically this time.

Alongside him for the ride is Notre Dame second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose facial hair and fist pumps are not nearly the national obsession now that they were early last season, when the Irish defense first grossly overachieved before its dramatic late-season regression.

The biggest leap of both logic and faith in plopping the Irish into the 2015 College Football playoff conversation is that a defense that finished statistically in the 70s and 80s nationally last season in virtually every relevant category will be elite in 2015, or at least on the cusp of being so.

Smith, whose football IQ and versatility show signs of running stride for stride now with his freakish athletic skill set, is the guarantor that it will happen.

“I’m extremely convinced, based on the way that we’re playing and the way that we’re built,” said the junior preseason All-American, magazine cover man and early mock draft darling.

It’s VanGorder’s job to push all the right buttons for the defense to evolve and match a vision he knew privately wasn’t likely to fall into place until year 2.

“Even after we shut out Michigan, he told us we weren’t ready,” Smith said of VanGorder. “He always alerted us that we were far from where we needed to be.”

The message hasn’t changed now, even though the defense that takes the field against offensively challenged Texas on Sept. 5 has health, depth, cohesiveness, resilience and some bells and whistles that the 2014 iteration was lacking.

“We felt like if we could solidify the back end of our defense to start, getting (suspended star cornerback) KeiVarae Russell back, solidifying the safety position, add (recovered linebacker and 2014 MVP) Joe Schmidt back into the mix … we felt really good about where we could be defensively,” head coach Brian Kelly said.

Add to that a speed and coverage piece in electric freshman nickelback Shaun Crawford, versatility in recovered safety Drue Tranquill — who brings linebacker and pass-rush skills, and Smith’s expanded role and comfortability in moving around the defensive formation.

“I really love to pass rush,” he said excitedly.

Little wonder. On consecutive plays in pass-rush drill Tuesday in practice, in which he first faced high-ceiling, 6-8 right tackle Mike McGlinchey and then perhaps the best offensive tackle in America in senior Ronnie Stanley, Smith found a way to beat each of them.

The defense as a whole, playing in its nickel package, decidedly had the better of it against both starting quarterback Malik Zaire and aspiring No. 2 DeShone Kizer, in a series of two-minute drills near that end of practice. That included a pick-six deflection for an interception by ascending safety Max Redfield of Zaire.

“A young player, especially in the college game, he’s going through so many things emotionally, maturity-wise,” VanGorder said of the big challenge of Redfield and the rest of last season’s defense beyond a freak string of injuries. “The first year is (about) surviving, kind of robotic learning ‘my’ position. Not really getting the big picture of football.”

And yet that alone doesn’t solve the three most fragile areas of last year’s defense that eventually became shortfalls — dealing with option offenses (it doubles this season with Georgia Tech joining Navy on the schedule), being able to generate a pass rush with the front four when occasion calls for it, and dealing with fast-tempo offenses.

“I don’t think I did a very good job in that scenario,” VanGorder said, speaking specifically to the uptempo offensive schemes like the one that ironically fast-tracked Kelly’s arrival as head coach at Notre Dame.

“But I think we’ve evolved.”

He has to. That’s what being a coordinator on the college level is all about in this era where schematic one-upmanship comes in faster, more dramatic bursts and cycles.

Kelly offers that the defensive terminology has been simplified, the communication improved and both will help address the tempo issues. In just observing practice, it appears ND’s base defense is much more capable of being proficient on third down, and its nickel package versatile enough to handle first and second downs if the wrong package gets caught on the field.

In preparing for Georgia Tech’s and Navy’s option offenses, the Irish have made it a year-round prep, sprinkling doses of it throughout spring and throughout training camp, so it won’t be culture shock and cramming on game week.

Kelly also noted former Irish assistant coach Bob Elliott, now a non-coaching part of the Irish staff, has done extensive recon work at researching ways to best prep for option offenses.

The four-man pass rush, meanwhile, appears improved, but not nearly enough by VanGorder’s standards. He’s pushing ends Isaac Rochell, Andrew Trumbetti and Romeo Okwara to find another level.

Overall, the players themselves offered that they feel more comfortable making suggestions in meetings, and that could be part of the transformation process.

“I think they’re overrating that,” VanGorder deadpanned. “But I enjoy that, players that are thinking.”

That Smith, among others, think a seismic statistical makeover is possible has some merit.

Clemson, ND’s opponent on Oct. 3, for instance ranked 71st in total defense in 2011, the year before current coordinator Brent Venables arrived. In his first season, the improvement was subtle to the bottom line (63rd in total defense) and actually regressed against the pass, to 82nd.

But in year two of his regime, Clemson fashioned the No. 25 total defense, and last season, year three, they topped the nation in total defense and were sixth in sacks.

So why not dive in and dream?

Smith, who maintains regular contact with former Irish All-America linebacker Manti Te’o, listens intently to Te’o’s advice about how chemistry and intangibles must be blended with the supposedly new-and-improved X’s and O’s.

“We all hold each other accountable,” he said. “That’s the beauty, not only of the defense, but the entire team.

“It’s a family here. At the end of the day, if you don’t win, it doesn’t matter how great you are. At Notre Dame, the legacy is how successful can you be as a whole. It isn’t about the one.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder Saturday, August 15, 2015, at the Notre Dame football practice at Labar Practice Complex. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ