Diagnosing the disconnect of Notre Dame's defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

PHILADELPHIA — Mike Goolsby knows what the numbers look like, but he can’t dismiss the eye test.

And the gut feeling that keeps confirming the latter.

The now 33-year-old medical sales rep was a five-star, consensus prep All-America linebacker in 1999 at Joliet (Ill.) Catholic High — yes, Rudy’s school — when current Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was a pre-schooler.

He survived rotting on Bob Davie’s bench for two years, a head coaching change and a serious shoulder injury and two broken collarbones to late-bloom into Notre Dame’s leading tackler five years later.

Goolsby is still a student of the game, drinking in the finer details of the current Notre Dame defense and convincing himself it’s a matter of when — and not if — the nation’s 50th-ranked unit in total defense evolves into something special.

He’s not the only one.

“They have not put the four quarters together that they’re capable of,” an upbeat Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday night. “I think that’s going to happen, I really do. I’m not just wishing.”

Perhaps as soon as Saturday night, when ninth-ranked Notre Dame (6-1) meets a 21st-ranked Temple squad (7-0) at Lincoln Financial Field that to this point is the team in this equation putting up similar numbers defensively so far to ND’s vaunted 2012 defense-driven team?

“Defense is always a work in progress,” Goolsby said. “The question is: Are the problems fixable? I think they’re giving up more points and yards than they’d like, but when I look at the defense, I believe it’s correctible. All of it.”

In fact, when posed with the choice of having the talent on the 2012 Irish defense that carried ND into the BCS National Championship Game and the current squad, Goolsby would rather have the current defensive personnel lineup.

“I watched the Texas game (a 38-3 Irish win on Sept. 5) with my dad,” Goolsby said. “And I made the remark to him, ‘We’re flying around out there. They look like missiles.’ It really jumps off the screen.

“The knock on them in years past has been overall team speed, and that was the big issue. And I don’t see that any longer being the case.”

And when given the choice of former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s scheme and the NFL brand current coordinator Brian VanGorder is trying to fit to the Irish personnel, it’s another resounding nod to the present.

“It’s not just the VanGorder scheme,” Goolsby said. “It’s also: Who would you want to play for? VanGorder, his demeanor really reflects his approach to defense as being aggressive. So for me, that’s what I would like to play for, getting after people. You‘ve got to make that offense react to you, as opposed to you reacting to them.

“When we were trying to play that weird 3-4 hybrid scheme under Bob Diaco, we didn’t have the 280- pound outside linebackers like they do in the NFL. We had a 350-pound nose (guard), which you need, but it never made sense to me. I think sometimes he was trying to overthink things.”

Yet the most perplexing part of the entire picture is that the 2012 team put up historic numbers, even when you factor in the 42-14 title game blowout loss to Alabama. And the 2015 numbers so far look like they belong to a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team.

Or a team that will eventually lose another game, because it’s not keeping up statistically with Notre Dame’s dynamic offense.

So if there’s greatness in the 2015 defense, why have there been more glimpses than sustained, consistent stretches of it?

There’s actually a little overlap between the two defenses from a personnel standpoint, although very little — and on the entire team for that matter.

Only current starting cornerback KeiVarae Russell and time-share free safety Matthias Farley were starters on either side of the ball in the 2012 championship game.

And only eight other current players even saw action in it — safeties Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti, linebackers Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace, defensive linemen Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day, offensive lineman Nick Martin and special-teamer Connor Cavalaris.

Some current players, like running back C.J. Prosise, were redshirting in 2012 (although he was a safety at the time). Some, such as offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and wide receiver Amir Carlisle, were taking medical redshirt seasons. Some, like wide receiver Chris Brown, simply weren’t given the opportunity to get off the bench in that game.

“I think in terms of overall athleticism and overall team speed, this team looks a little bit faster than that team does,” Goolsby said. “Specifically, Jaylon Smith. The kid is so freakish. I’m so curious to see what he runs when it comes to his 40 time at the (NFL) combine.

“When it comes to (2012 star) Manti Te’o or Jaylon Smith, you’re going to take Jaylon Smith every time. He’s the superior, more fluid athlete.”

Yet Smith is on a team, though, where the parts around him aren’t consistently greater together than they are apart, unlike in 2012.

Goolsby said the growing pains for this defense started with the scheme change in 2014, from Diaco’s read/react 3-4, to VanGorder’s complex 4-3.

There was a natural investment, he said, that had to be made in year one (2014) that has admittedly paid some dividends this season.

There are so many more starters who understand the scheme down to the nuances than last season, when the defense was so reliant on middle linebacker Joe Schmidt to direct traffic.

But Goolsby said players who are lagging in their learning curve can create some chop in the overall performance.

“When all 11 guys are on the same step, you can add more wrinkles in, which makes the defense better,” Goolsby said. “But if some are advanced and some aren’t, you have to pull back. The whole operation isn’t as smooth, and that’s one thing they’re running into.

“And I don’t buy that this defense is too difficult to learn for college players. Master? Maybe that’s not realistic across the board. It depends on the individual. But you can learn anything. It’s just a matter of if you set your mind to it and if you’re disciplined to do it.”

One of the key areas of separation between 2012 and 2015 thus far shows up in explosive plays by the opposing offenses.

In 2012, the Irish defense gave up 11 plays of 35 yards or more for the entire season, and only two of 50 or more, one of those being a running play.

In 2015, they’ve yielded 15 plays of 35 yards or more in just over half the amount of games (7 vs. 13). And seven of those have been running plays. And they’ve ceded six overall plays of 50 yards or more.

“Any time you see numbers like that involving big plays with a defense with this much talent, somebody’s making a mistake or a misstep,” Goolsby said. “Those are mental things. It’s not a lack of effort of a lack of athleticism.

“That’s especially true in the run game. You have a gap, and you get where you’re supposed to be. You plug up the holes, and the boat stops leaking. Done. Don’t overcomplicate it.

“The fact that Notre Dame is 83rd in rush defense is disappointing. Somebody’s jumping out of their gap. Somebody’s playing outside the framework of the defense. Sometimes it’s not my play to make, and I have to sit here so somebody else can do their job. If you go here, I go here. It’s supposed to fit together.

“That it’s not always doing that at this point really is completely fixable.”

But when and how?

Kelly reiterated Thursday he likes the way the front seven is playing and that the cornerback play has recently stepped up. The last piece is consistency at safety, where Farley and junior Max Redfield are sharing time, specifically at the free safety position.

“You look at (defensive assistants) Greg Mattison and D.J. Durkin over at the University of Michigan now,” Goolsby said. “I played for both of those guys (at Notre Dame). It ain’t rocket science. It’s get the ball, rally around the ball, create turnovers, play hard.

“What you can control is your effort. That, to me, when you talk about defense, it’s about accountability and effort. Look at Michigan play. Their athletes are not world beaters, believe me. But they’ve got a great defense, because they play their (butts) off.”

Michigan leads the nation in total defense and scoring defense.

“I’d rather have Notre Dame’s talent on defense in that picture, too,” Goolsby said. “And they do play hard. They just need to find the accountability piece. I think they will. You can see it coming. It’s just a matter of time.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder signals players from the sideline during the Notre Dame-Southern Cal football game on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

How the 2012 Notre Dame defense stacks up with the 2015 version, using national statistical rankings among the 127 FBS teams:    

                       2012     2015

Rush Defense     11     83

Pass-Efficiency Defense     16     49

Total Defense     7     50

Scoring Defense     2     39

Sacks     22     87

Tackles For Loss     78     48

Turnovers Gained     46     91

Third-Down Conv. Defense     35     13

Red Zone Defense     7     10