Brian VanGorder defends 'likable and learnable' scheme

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Imagine that Niles Morgan brings a tool box to work. At first, the box is empty. Then Brian VanGorder drops in a hammer. Then a screwdriver. Then nails and a roll of measuring tape. Then a wrench. Then a flashlight. And on and on it goes.

As the box fills with tools, it gets heavier, more cumbersome, more difficult to carry. VanGorder reasons that each tool serves a specific purpose; they are solutions to problems one encounters on the job. But at what point does the box become too heavy for Morgan — or anyone else — to hold?

The tool box, in Morgan’s case, is Notre Dame’s defensive playbook. The tools are plays, packages, blitzes and checks.

In VanGorder’s two uneven seasons as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, his scheme has been called a lot of things — multiple, complex, dense, intricate. But considering the inexperience of his personnel and his admittedly middling results, does he now consider simplifying his playbook — discarding a couple of tools?

“I hear that sometimes, but I really don’t,” VanGorder said. “Our players that are dialed in to it all, it’s pretty consistent for them. Now, a player that comes here and plays in our defense, he’s going to put a lot of tools in his tool box. But it’s not just wild tools thrown from all over. It’s pretty consistent for the player.

“It’s likeable and it’s learnable. That’s how we approach it. We’ve got smart players.”

VanGorder stands behind a podium after Notre Dame’s sixth practice of the spring, and he also stands behind his scheme. He is the last of Notre Dame’s defensive coaches to arrive, and thus, the media throng descends — a huddle of cameras and recorders and a dozen pointed questions.

“Where does that misconception come from?” Vangorder is asked, referencing the theory that his defense might be overcomplicated, even for the caliber of player inhabiting the lockers at Notre Dame.

“I don’t know. I have no idea,” he replied with an exasperated sigh. “It’s because we have a large inventory, I guess. And we didn’t play really good defense, right? So if you have a large inventory and you don’t play really good defense, then that’s the assumption.”

The why may be in question, but the what is clear as day. Last season, despite a myriad of returning talent, VanGorder highlighted three areas where the Irish defense clearly struggled:

They struggled early in games.

They struggled in the red zone.

They struggled to prevent big plays.

Where they should have thrived, instead, they struggled.

More specifically, Notre Dame allowed a touchdown on its opponent’s opening drive five times last season, including all three of its losses. Explosive plays seeped into the opening sequences as well, as Clemson’s Deshaun Watson ripped off a 38-yard run on his first play from scrimmage, Navy’s Keenan Reynolds galloped 51 yards on the first play the following week, and a 37-yard pass from Cody Kessler to JuJu Smith-Schuster brought USC into the red zone the week after that.

Slow starts stung the Irish, who are still searching for solutions.

“We’re going to do some more things to start practice, some faster pace things to make sure they’re awake and ready,” VanGorder said. “I don’t want to say that was the problem. We just didn’t do a good job. I don’t have a good reason. There was some explosive play scenarios — an explosive play against Clemson to start the game, those kind of things. A leverage breakdown.

“There’s not a good explanation, but this is what I do know: the more we emphasize it, the more important it becomes. It’s got to be an emphasis, and then there’s got to be a method to it. Part of that will be, as we start practice, to do some things where they have to focus really quickly and get after it, not just a typical warm up session.”

Speaking of explosive plays, Notre Dame surrendered 30 plays of 30 yards or more last season, which ranked 85th nationally. Thirteen of those were running plays, which ranks 96th nationwide. Irish opponents also scored touchdowns on a bloated 65.9 percent of their red zone visits (95th).

The answer, per VanGorder? Better playing. Better coaching. Better studying. Better practicing.

No magic. No excuses. Just results.

“I just think that the combination of players playing better and coaches coaching better, that’s what’s got to happen,” VanGorder said. “Players have to play better, and coaches have to coach better. We’ve got to get it solved.”

On Wednesday, VanGorder insisted that he’s got the players — and the scheme — to do it. He raved about the improvement of Morgan, Notre Dame’s ascending middle linebacker, as well as senior strongside linebacker James Onwualu and freshmen Daelin Hayes and Devin Studstill. He pointed to the team’s improvement in forcing three-and-outs in 2015, as well as the bolstered depth this spring as opposed to years past.

He noted that Notre Dame’s nickel and speed packages were decimated last season, as nickelback Shaun Crawford and safety Drue Tranquill’s season-ending injuries rendered the defense less multiple and more exposed.

Even without a core of returning talent, VanGorder remains confident that his defense can make strides in 2016. The talent is there, as are the tools.

But can his players carry the load?

“If you don’t do well, you’re going to hear those different (critiques) that come out,” VanGorder said. “But within our room, we know the truth. We know what we have to do. Like I say, our stuff is likeable and learnable. It’s fun to play in our system.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder looks on during Notre Dame spring football practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN