Time for Notre Dame defensive execution to match its talent

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The venue, the grand stage, even one of the central characters tug David Pollack toward nostalgia, but the film keeps bringing him back to reality.

And what that reality might turn out to become, starting Saturday night in Clemson, S.C.

Specifically, film of Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame’s supercharged Swiss Army knife of a linebacker who somehow didn’t bubble to the top of the buildup for Saturday’s highest-stakes clash nationally, between No. 6 Notre Dame (4-0) and 12th-ranked host Clemson (3-0).

Blame the weather, still portending at the very least five inches of rain in the area and the real possibility of mudslides, flash floods and perhaps even some kind of alteration to the date and time (8 p.m.; ABC-TV) of the first football meeting between the two schools since 1979 and first on South Carolina soil since Joe Montana and the 1977 national champs visited.

For now Clemson officials are planning for the game to go on as scheduled.

Blame Twitter, with all the absurdity that was drawn from the hashtag “#savage” on Notre Dame star wide receiver Will Fuller’s Twitter account earlier this week.

Or the tired 12- vs. 13-game playoff debate manufactured by forcing the question and ignoring the context enveloping the answers. Or the Smokin’ Pig Restaurant, apparently, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s new favorite.

Or blame the hiccups by the Irish defense around Smith to date, amidst some impressive, even dominant, stretches.

“For me, it’s hard to find a better defensive player in college football than Jaylon Smith,” said Pollack, an ESPN analyst and part of the College GameDay crew on site Saturday, speaking of the gleam in an Irish unit that overall brings a No. 42 national standing in total defense into a game that Pollack is certain will redefine it for better or for worse.

“And I say that from the standpoint that if I were building the perfect linebacker to combat a spread offense, Jaylon is who I would start with. He can play inside. He can play outside. He can rush the passer. He can play man. He can do everything.

“Just an unbelievable skill set, an unbelievable talent. You talk about someone who can get up and go in a hurry, and get to top speed pretty fast. When you watch him on film, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is that fast forward?’ ”

Pollack is convinced Notre Dame’s national playoff profile will move fast forward if the Irish escape Death Valley with any kind of victory.

“In fact, there are enough things to test them in this game that will tell us if they can win a national title,” he said. “And I get the feeling they are a national title contender.

“They have a young quarterback, but they really don’t have inexperience anywhere else. And I’d rather have an inexperienced quarterback with a great line, great receivers and a great defense than I would a great quarterback with a lot of questions around him.

“And (the latter) is really what Clemson is. Deshaun Watson has to ball out every weekend against good competition for Clemson to win. He can’t have an OK game Saturday and expect to win. He’s got to run the ball. He’s got to throw it. He can’t make bad decisions. He can’t make mistakes.

“There’s nothing to fall back on. “

The great defense Pollack sees in Notre Dame is more projecting than its production to date, and Smith and his expanding role is where the lofty prognosis starts.

Running through that predicted ascending trajectory is the scheme and the buttons pushed by Notre Dame second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who will be making his second trip as an opposing coordinator into Memorial Stadium this weekend in his fourth game against Clemson overall.

The last time VanGorder coached in Death Valley, his Georgia Bulldogs dominated in a 30-0 statement victory win back in 2003. Away from Clemson, S.C., VanGorder and the Bulldogs beat the Tigers, 31-28, in 2002 in Athens, Ga.

Then in 2012, during VanGorder’s one season with Auburn, Clemson prevailed, 26-19, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in the season opener for both teams, as ND was starting its run to the national title game that season in Ireland.

Pollack, a three-time All-America defensive end at Georgia, was a big part of the 2003 drubbing. Clemson hasn’t been shut out in the 157 games since VanGorder orchestrated that one 12 years ago.

Personality-wise, Pollack says VanGorder hasn’t changed since those days, but his X’s and O’s have. His 17 games at Notre Dame have been too extreme — high highs and low lows — to call it a true evolution. But Pollack thinks that will be the overriding impression by season’s end.

“There’s too much talent, too much speed, too much athleticism — more than I’ve ever seen on a Notre Dame team since I’ve been an analyst,” Pollack said. “And VanGorder knows how to get the most out of it. It’s just a matter of time.”

In the immediate future, Pollack is confident the Irish front seven will be able to exploit a Clemson offensive line currently playing with zero returning starters from last season, now that veteran center Ryan Norton is sidelined with a knee injury.

That pressure may not result in sacks, but rather incomplete passes and perhaps turnovers if effective.

“Clemson’s offense is not your traditional kind of offense,” Pollack said. “You don’t get much of the 5-step, 7-step drop. The ball’s coming out fast, with a lot of tunnel screens and bubble screens. They attack the flanks of your defense a lot.

“I love their running back, Wayne Gallman, but I don’t think that offensive line is great. That’s the unit that has the most to prove to me.”

“On the other side, I think for Notre Dame, Clemson’s defense is dirty, now. It’s really good. It’s the best secondary Dabo Swinney’s had. Long lean athletic guys in the back end, rock solid.

“They’re really good in the defensive line, but they’re not deep, and that’s the part that we need to see from them. If they have to play so many snaps in the game and Notre Dame can make them have to stay on the field, it’ll be interesting to see what they’re made of.”

As far as what Notre Dame is made of, Pollack was one who in 2012 looked at the No. 1-ranked Irish team take on Alabama in the BCS Championship Game and saw the 42-14 mismatch coming.

“This Notre Dame team is more talented,” Pollack said. “And I want to say it’s not even close. If you ask me whether I’d want Manti Te’o or Jaylon Smith, I’d take Jaylon Smith. If you ask me if I’d take the secondary they have now or the one they had then, I’d easily take this one.

“That secondary, they did all they could to take duct tape and mask that secondary. They did have a great front seven with (Stephon) Tuitt and (Louis) Nix and those boys. They’d hit you in the mouth and make you earn it.

“That 2012 unit wasn’t overly complex, it was pretty vanilla. But they were so good in the front seven and so good at executing, they could get away with it. This team, especially this defense, needs to do more and can do more.

“And can be more. Late Saturday night, we’ll find out if I’m right.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (9) celebrates a big stop during the Notre Dame-Massachusetts NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN