Analysis: Looking beyond QBs for Notre Dame's biggest spring questions

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The benevolent distraction for Brian VanGorder is that the DeShone Kizer-Malik Zaire quarterback-apalooza on the other side of the ball is the shiny object of 2016 Notre Dame spring football for the media to fawn over, dissect and overthink.

Not that it isn’t intriguing, given the appropriate context.

The bigger questions, the ones that will affect the 2016 bottom line more profoundly than who ultimately surfaces at the top of the QB depth chart sprout from the disparity in VanGorder’s vision for ND’s defense and how it’s actually played out on the field in his two seasons as Notre Dame’s, seemingly autocratic, defensive coordinator.

The answers, for better or for worse, start to unfold Wednesday, when the Irish stage the first of 15 spring practices — and in actual spring weather, no less. The culmination is the annual Blue-Gold Game, set for 12:30 p.m., on April 16 in still-renovating Notre Dame Stadium.

The VanGorder Era numbers suggest that the defense is due for a renovation, too.

The most troubling of those figures center on rushing defense, where, since ND’s historically strong 2012 defense delivered the Irish to the BCS National Championship Game, Notre Dame has ranked no higher than 70th in that category.

That’s the first and only time that’s happened over a three-year stretch in Irish football history, that is since the NCAA began tracking statistical rankings in 1946. The Irish were 11th in 2012.

More relevant, no national champion that has been crowned, since the Irish won their most recent one in 1988, finished with a rush defense ranking lower than Miami’s No. 40 standing in 2001.

Those Hurricanes, in fact, are one of only five titlists in that 38-year span ranked lower than 20th against the run. Meanwhile, three of the past five national champs have ranked first in that pivotal metric.

Which brings us to the top of the list of questions Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly must answer during his seventh run of 15 spring practice sessions in South Bend:

How does the defense evolve?

Kelly publicly doubled down on VanGorder during his National Signing Day press conference in early February, spewing equal part superlatives and theories for why those superlatives regarding VanGorder are not easily apparent from the outside looking in.

“Look, we made a pretty substantial change in defensive philosophy — from a 3-4, two-gapping defense that played Cover 2, to a 4-3, attacking defense that played Cover 1,” Kelly said. “That's a huge change, and it requires a bit of a transition.”

That would suggest that the massive roster turnover, on defense anyway, is an advantageous turn of events, even if it comes with an infusion of inexperience.

Privately, it’s doubtful Kelly would have made such a forceful endorsement of VanGorder if he didn’t think his defensive coordinator was open to tweaking his philosophy, including listening to more voices in meetings other than his own booming one.

A voice that shouldn’t be absent from that equation this offseason/spring, though, is Kelly’s.

Normally, preoccupied with the offense by his own design, Kelly does have a history on defense and a very successful one in fact, involving VanGorder.

In 1989, then-Grand Valley State head coach Tom Beck elevated grad assistant Kelly to the role of defensive coordinator, with VanGorder serving as Kelly’s linebackers coach. The two jumped way out of the box in terms of conventional defensive X’s and O’s and were immediately impactful.

The NCAA Division II program went from yielding 23.4 points a game in a 7-4 season before the collaboration, to 15.1 ppg in an unbeaten regular season that ended 11-1 with a playoff loss in 1989.

The next year was even better at 13.5 ppg. Grand Valley State didn’t better it until Kelly’s final year as head coach (2003), and then just slightly (13.3) in a national championship season that launched Kelly into the FBS ranks.

In 1991, Kelly was promoted to head coach at GVSU, when Beck got a call from Lou Holtz at Notre Dame to serve as running backs coach for the Irish. Kelly’s first hire was to promote VanGorder to defensive coordinator to fill his old slot.

So much about college football has changed since then, but there are three defensive principles Holtz (still serving as an analyst on SiriusXM radio) stresses as musts in any of today’s schemes — 3-4, 4-3 or something more exotic.

Those are being able to generate a pass rush with your defensive line when needed, being able to tackle in space, and being able to play man defense a lot and play it well.

That the Irish defense has achieved perhaps 1 ½ of those objectives, at best, the past two years shows up in as unimpressive national standings in categories such as turnovers gained (109th in 2015) and sacks (75th).

And while ND’s third-down defense improved significantly, 79th to 32nd (35.1 percent) last season, teams cashed in on fourth down at a 64 percent rate (14-of-22), better than only 12 of the 127 FBS schools.

And their third-down defense regressed when the Irish needed it to be its best, allowing a 60 percent rate (18-of-30) over their final two games, against Stanford and Ohio State.

It could be argued that injuries forced the Irish to play in base defense rather than specialty packages way more often than desired, theoretically skewing the numbers from where they could have been. But what happened to the “next man in” mantra that worked so well on the other side of the ball?

To read Kelly’s bleary lines late last season and between them, both the problem and solution start in the back end of the Irish defense.

Which brings us to spring question No. 2:

Is Max Redfield poised to ascend?

It’s not just that the senior-to-be free safety arrived with a five-star tag, it’s that Kelly himself saw glimpses of vast potential as early as the middle of Redfield’s freshman season.

VanGorder is counting on several players to have quantum improvement seasons, with middle linebacker Nyles Morgan among them. But no player’s growth curve could so positively domino the rest of the unit as Redfield’s.

If he can play to Kelly’s vision for him, it makes the cornerbacks better. It also allows VanGorder to be more creative, effective and aggressive with his blitzes — as does the return of nickel Shaun Crawford after a year off with a torn ACL.

An aside to all this is whether another injury recoveree, safety Drue Tranquil is more valuable as a starting strong safety or as a player who can move his wide skill set around the defensive formation, as was the plan last year before he tore an ACL?

An ascending Redfield would make either option stronger.

The dueling reality is only cornerback Cole Luke (26) and defensive end Isaac Rochell (25) have more career starts on the 2016 Irish team than does Redfield (23). That he was suspended for projected start No. 24 in the Fiesta Bowl for being late to meetings hints at why most of the previous 23 haven’t been particularly memorable.

A subtle, but positive, sign for an attitude shift came in a short video clip that showed up on Twitter recently, giving fans a 2 ½-minute snippet of what Camp Kelly is all about.

The annual pre-spring, Hell Day workout was held outside in wintry conditions. And a guy who is vehemently attacking the challenge in the clip — in short sleeves, no less — is Redfield.

What will life after Jaylon Smith look like in the linebacking corps?

It may not be possible to know by the end of spring.

The player groomed to be All-American Smith’s successor, sophomore-to-be Te’von Coney, won’t be able to go through contact drills this spring after suffering a shoulder injury in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl and subsequently undergoing surgery.

In fact, with Greer Martini also out of contact for spring, the Irish have just four healthy scholarship linebackers for spring. Reinforcements, freshmen Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones, don’t arrive until June.

It’ll be interesting to see if Kelly/VanGorder would try to bolster those ranks with a position-switch experiment, say 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior-to-be Justin Brent, who is stuck at the bottom of a deep running back depth chart.

Junior-to-be Nyles Morgan and returning starter James Onwualu figure to get the bulk of work at middle and strongside linebacker, respectively.

A pair of versatile redshirted freshman may get looks at Smith’s vacated spot — Asmar Bilal, the scout team defensive player of the year, and Josh Barajas.

How does the offensive line competition play out?

On an offense replacing seven starters, the reconfiguring on the offensive line will have significant impact on the rest of the regenerating spots.

The offensive player with the most career starts anywhere on the offense — tackle Mike McGlinchey, with a modest 14 — is expected to move from right tackle to All-American Ronnie Stanley’s vacated left spot.

Junior-to-be Sam Mustipher and sophomore Tristen Hoge battle it out for Nick Martin’s old center spot, with the loser possibly entering the fray at right guard. Quenton Nelson at left guard figures to be the only member of the 2015 offensive line to start in his same spot in the 2016 opener at Texas.

Alex Bars figures to be the top option at right tackle but he certainly could play right guard. What it may very well come down to on the right side is whether Hunter Bivin is a better tackle than Colin McGovern/Mustipher/Hoge are at guard, with Bars sliding into the open spot.

There’s some very good material here, but chemistry may not come right away. The sooner it does, the better the quarterback lining up in shotgun behind center is going to look.

Is the goal with the quarterbacks to create depth-chart separation or find a way to play both?

If the objective is for a clear No. 1 to emerge, the small sample size for both players suggests Notre Dame is in a win-win situation.

DeShone Kizer, in 11 starts and two relief appearances fashioned a 150.0 pass-efficiency rating. That’s No. 2 in career passing efficiency all time at Notre Dame among QBs with 100 career completions or more. Kevin McDougal’s 156.7 tops the list.

Malik Zaire, in three career starts but with only 47 career completions, is actually higher than both Kizer and McDougal, at 162.4.

What that means in big-picture terms is no team has won a national title in the BCS/Playoff Eras with a pass-efficiency ranking lower than 37th (LSU in 2007). Notre Dame at No. 23 in 2015, marked the first time a Kelly-coached ND team has finished a season within that critical metric.

Both quarterbacks bring a strong run dimension as well. While Zaire is considered to be the more accomplished runner, Kizer evolved quickly into a strong short-yardage option and finished with 520 rushing yards — fourth-most for a single season in ND history — and 10 rushing TDs — a school record by a QB.

Both contenders spent their spring breaks working with private QB coaches (as did soon-to-be redshirting sophomore Brandon Wimbush).

The tiebreaker could very well come down to red-zone efficiency and turnovers. The best-case scenario is that the competition drives both to be better, and with QBs coach Mike Sanford on board that seems most likely.

The nightmare scenario is it turns toxic and divisive.

Stay tuned.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

The Irish defense and coordinator Brian VanGorder (center) could use some infusion from head coach Brian Kelly (far right) as Notre Dame spring football practice kicks off on Wednesday. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)