Notre Dame set for clash with former Irish DC Jon Tenuta
SOUTH BEND — Perhaps the most unlikely evolution in Jon Tenuta’s career as a football coach would be media darling.
Or perhaps dialing up blitzes in moderation.
Either way, the P.R.-unconscious, pressure-happy, defensive mind-gone-stale out of Notre Dame football’s past, is back in its present. And enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
The second-ever meeting between the ninth-ranked Irish (1-0) and Virginia (0-1), and the first at the Cavaliers’ Scott Stadium (3:30 p.m. EDT; ABC-TV), will feature the third and final defensive coordinator of the Charlie Weis Era of ND football now at the controls of Virginia’s defensive joystick.
Notre Dame will be looking to break a five-game losing streak in true road games that started with a 28-21 loss at Pitt on Nov. 9, 2013.
“They've got an answer for everything that you're doing offensively,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered of Tenuta and defensive cohort Mike Archer, Virginia’s associate head coach/linebackers.
Never were the answers less palatable to Tenuta’s schematic antics than in 2009, when ND’s defense finished 89th nationally in sacks, 48th in tackles for loss, 89th in rushing defense, 82nd in pass-efficiency defense, 86th in total defense and 63rd in scoring defense.
That ended up being the undoing for Weis, purged after that season two weeks before Kelly was hired, despite producing the nation’s eighth-most prolific offense.
Tenuta’s 2009 numbers are easily the worst stats attached to the 58-year-old Upper Arlington, Ohio, native’s résumé in the 2000s. He was hired by Weis to join the Irish staff in 2008, a year after his Georgia Tech defense led the nation in sacks and included a No. 20 total defense rank among its glimmering accomplishments.
In fact, in Tenuta’s six seasons at Tech (2002-07), the Yellow Jackets never ranked below 27th in scoring defense and only once dipped below that threshold in total D. The common thread with different results was that Tenuta’s defense blitzed, by his estimation, 75 percent to 85 percent of the time.
He still does per those who follow Virginia football closely.
Virginia’s 2015, debut against UCLA freshman QB prodigy Josh Rosen, may have brought some ND flashbacks. The Cavs recorded just one sack for one yard in the 34-16 road loss to the Bruins.
The small sample size national rankings following the Cavs’ opener have them 70th in run defense, 110th in pass-efficiency defense, 103rd in total defense and 89th in scoring defense heading into a game in which Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire put up the second-highest pass-completion rate in school history (86.4) and directed the Irish offense to 527 total yards and 38 points.
“He has a long résumé of different defensive schemes, and he certainly is not a bend-but-don't-break defensive coordinator,” Kelly said. “He likes to be controlling tempo, and he's aggressive. But all defensive coaches, all offensive coaches are going to be beholden to the players that they have and the personnel.”
Virginia, which landed Tenuta in 2013 after three seasons at N.C. State, did feature a strong defense in 2014 with the Cavs’ total defense ranking of 28th — Tenuta’s best since his pre-Notre Dame days.
Former Irish defensive line coach (2005-08) Jappy Oliver is Tenuta’s D-line coach at Virginia this year. Tenuta’s son, Zach, is a defensive grad assistant — just as Jon, a Virginia grad, was at the start of his career in 1981-82.
One other Notre Dame tie is Virginia offensive line coach Dave Borberly, who served in that capacity for the Irish in the final four years of the Bob Davie regime (1998-2001).
There have been few ND assistants, at least in the past few decades, that have had more contempt for dealing with the media than Tenuta. His meetings with them during his two years in South Bend were never smooth and occasionally contentious. And he volunteered during one that “I’ve got a damn good lawyer.”
He apparently has a good agent as well. Tenuta’s contract expiration (2017) exceeds that of current and embattled head coach Mike London’s by a year.
There were many who wondered when Kelly hired Brian VanGorder after the 2013 season to run his defense if the Irish were getting a reincarnation of Tenuta. And Kelly admitted Tuesday, “I think they both probably drink from the same well.”
But VanGorder’s pressures are more nuanced, more calculated and tend to come with fewer gambles attached to them.
Yet his world overlaps Tenuta’s enough to help Kelly give Zaire good schematic practice looks with the relentless blitzing being another rite of passage in the junior QB’s coming of age.
“Some offenses put it on the center to make those (protection) checks,” Kelly said. “We put a lot on the quarterback. So if they can't protect themselves, they can't get on the field. That's why it's so crucial that the quarterback understands the protection, first and foremost. Once they do, they can accelerate in the program.”
The reason why Kelly chooses the QB to map out the pressures rather than the center comes back to his own offense.
“They can see rotation. They can see things that are a little bit more difficult. In a spread offense, it's a lot more difficult for the center to see maybe a corner firing or a safety might be tipping it.
“If we were more of a pro style and we weren't as spread, you could put a lot more of that on the center, but because we're sideline to sideline, it makes it a little bit more difficult for the center to see that.”
There figures to be plenty to see and decipher Saturday afternoon at Scott Stadium.
No. 9 NOTRE DAME (1-0) vs. VIRGINIA (0-1)
WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (EDT)
WHERE: Scott Stadium; Charlottesville, Va.
RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
LINE: Notre Dame by 10.5