Notre Dame will lean on DT Sheldon Day against unknown Texas offense

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Coaches like to call it “defending against ghosts.”

And, rest assured, it can be quite spooky.

By nature, college football coaches are an insecure bunch. They have the confidence in their abilities, or they wouldn’t be where they are. For the most part, they trust their players.

But when they face an opponent with new personnel or an unknown scheme, it can be downright unnerving.

The coaching creed is: If it’s not on film, it didn’t happen.

Well ... There’s not much on film that will give any solid evidence as to what sort of offense Texas is going to run Saturday.

That’s gotta be driving Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder up a wall this week. Texas is a team in transition. Second-year head coach Charlie Strong has tossed out the Longhorns’ conventional offense that didn’t do much last season (ranked 110th, 337 yards and 21 points a game) in favor of a much more modern approach.

No huddle, fast tempo (remember how badly the Irish handled North Carolina’s uptempo assault last year?). Quarterback (likely Tyrone Swoopes, with Jerrod Heard also seeing time) involved in the run game. Spread tactics.

At least, that’s what VanGorder and the Irish defensive assistants think is going to happen.

The element of surprise is working in Texas’ favor.

And probably driving VanGorder crazy.

“We think (Texas is) going to an entirely new offense,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “We have no film other than a grainy ESPN/Longhorn Network game from the spring. That’s not much to go on.”

The trust factor with VanGorder’s own players is imperative. The challenge will be to prepare the Irish defenders well, then hope they are smart enough and talented enough to adapt on the fly to the specifics of the attack.

That’s where a guy like Sheldon Day comes in.

The 6-foot-2, 285-pound defensive lineman has been there and done that. He probably even has the t-shirt.

The senior, who could have easily left Notre Dame after last season and found a spot and a big paycheck in the NFL, has seen just about every variation of offense there is. That’s why he’s not fretting about what the Irish might see from Texas. That’s why he’s a leader and one of five team captains (four of whom are on defense).

“(VanGorder) is doing a great job breaking down film,” said Day. “He’s relaying the message to us. He tells us what he sees. We tell him what we see. It’s a breakdown between coaches and players.”

In other words, that’s a nice, roundabout way for Day to say he can’t really speak about the specifics the Irish are expecting from the Longhorn offense.

But, credit Day for being able to speak on it — answer a question politely — without really saying anything.

Among other things, that’s what leaders do. And this is a leader who is a captain for a second year.

“As (a junior), I don’t think (Day) knew how to lead,” said Kelly. “He was afraid, at times, to step on the seniors’ toes. He was hesitant at times to speak up.

“That’s not the case this year. He truly has control of the defensive line room. What’s impressed me the most is how he’s practiced. Every single day with energy; a desire to want to get better.”

“I went through a dramatic change (from last year), understanding my role; understanding my place,” Day said. “I understand how much I need this team and how much it needs me to be a great leader.”

His contributions went well beyond the 40 tackles and 7½ tackles for loss that he collected in 11 games.

“Going through my (knee) injury (that forced him to miss the Louisville and Southern Cal games) allowed me to step back away from the game and see how things fell into place,” Day said of his development last year. “I learned how much of a role I did play.”

His role this year is as the primary voice along the defensive line. While dictating the tone of the d-line’s meeting room, Day also has taken freshman Jerry Tillery — or, “Terry Jillery” as he’s called by the d-linemen — under his wing.

“The d-line respects me as a leader,” Day said. “When I say something, they definitely listen. If I voice my opinion, they understand where I’m coming from.

“‘Terry’ has been growing every day. It’s been special watching him understand the defense and know that he’s playing college football now and not high school football.”

Saturday’s plan is to move Day around along the line — inside with a bull rush; outside, attacking the quarterback from the edge. The Longhorns will have to figure out their own scheme to keep Day from causing havoc.

He may be the original Irish Ghostbuster.

Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day (91) looms large in Notre Dame’s plans for an improved pass rush. (SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)