Analysis: Deposing VanGorder is only the start of the makeover at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Purging defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder Sunday less than 24 hours after another signature loss is only the beginning of the changes Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly envisions on defense.

A defense he’ll now babysit for the balance of the season and into next spring, and one that heads to East Rutherford, N.J. this weekend to play Syracuse (2-2) on a statistical trajectory to finish the season tied with the woeful 1956 Irish (2-8) for the worst national standing in total defense (103rd) and scoring defense (101st) in school history.

In VanGorder’s 30th and final game with the Irish (1-3), ND fell 38-35 to 20-point underdog Duke on Saturday, repeating a disturbing defensive pattern that’s been as shockingly underachieving from an aesthetics standpoint and as it has been from a statistical one.

Perhaps the most seismic declaration Sunday is that not only is VanGorder’s replacement, 49-year-old former Irish linebacker Greg Hudson, wearing an interim tag, but so is everyone else on the staff — offensive assistants, too.

“Everybody's interviewing,” Kelly said during his weekly Sunday tele-review with the media. “Everybody on our staff for the rest of the season is on a very public interview. So everybody's got a chance to continue in their roles, and we'll all have that very public interview as we play each and every week.

“I'm under review, as well. I mean, we're all in this together — all the players, coaches, everybody. So players' jobs are on the line.”

Hudson was elevated from an analyst role, an NCAA loophole of sorts in which the ND seventh-year coach has been able to stash coaching talent such as Bob Elliott and Jeff Burris, to name a few, without them counting against the NCAA max of nine assistant coaches.

And Kelly’s not alone in that approach, with numerous Power 5 programs loading up on coaching resources through the analyst positions. The caveat is that there are limitations placed on the analysts in terms of doing actual hands-on coaching, recruiting or even watching film with players.

“Clearly they (the players) know who he is,” Kelly said of Hudson, who served as a graduate assistant at ND under Lou Holtz in 1993 and whose most recent position before returning to Notre Dame was defensive coordinator at Purdue (2013-15).

“He's respected by the players. But this will be a new relationship that he'll be building with the defensive players.”

Actually, they’ll be immersed in newness.

Kelly said several players will get auditions at new positions and that the Irish will test and use its depth in the defensive front seven as well.

“A number of defensive linemen have got to play. More linebackers have to play,” he said. “I think they are playing way too many plays. We've got guys on the field that have eaten up way too many reps, and we just have not put those guys in the game and they are going to play. You'll see them this weekend.”

Junior defensive end Jay Hayes is both a symbolic and pragmatic example of a player held back in the VanGorder system and whom Kelly promised would get an opportunity to show his talent moving forward.

Hayes excelled during the spring and again in August training camp, and was clearly ND’s best option at rush end. But VanGorder tended to get into a comfort zone with certain players — think Joe Schmidt at middle linebacker last year — and refused to venture out of it, to the detriment of the team.

To be fair to Schmidt, he played much of the 2015 season physically compromised by injuries. But VanGorder continually rolled him out there and left able-bodied Nyles Morgan to dilapidate, which to Morgan’s credit he did not.

That speaks nothing of the scheme in which they were placed. The heavily Rex Ryan-influenced NFL system VanGorder pledged to bring as Bob Diaco’s replacement not only fell short of delivering its advertised assets, ironically that’s where it was at its worst.

A system built on constant and unpredictable pressures produced its first sack of the season Saturday — by Morgan — as ND became the 128th and final team to record one in 2016.

The Irish rank 113th in tackles for loss, 88th in turnovers gained and 91st in third-down defense — all defensive categories that were supposed to benefit, not suffer, from the buttons VanGorder was pushing.

An in-season schematic overhaul isn’t realistic, but stagnating in a pool of mediocrity isn’t either, so look for incremental tweaks that complement the personnel shuffling.

“We're not going to go and pull the rug underneath the kids at this point in the season,” Kelly said. “So we want to keep terminology effectively the same, but you'll see some certain tweaks that I feel like are necessary and some things that I know that, as a group, we will collectively come to an agreement in our best interests.”

How much difference can the right coach make? Consider from 1956-63, one of the Dark Ages of Notre Dame football, the Irish concocted scoring defense rankings of 101, 85, 88, 82, 90 and 77.

In 1964, Ara Parseghian took over as head coach, and the Irish went from 77th in scoring defense to 11th in single season. Then to fourth in 1965, then to second to go along with a national championship in 1966.

Kelly’s sights for transformation are less big-picture and start with attitude. That, in his mind, is where improvement will take root.

“I need to see our guys play fast and free and loose, and I need to see excitement on the field,” he said. “I need to see guys playing the game like kids, and not so mechanical and robotic. They have to let it go and let it happen, and that means we have to tweak some things.

“They had some fourth-down stops (Saturday). They played hard. But playing hard is not enough. There has to be other intangibles as it relates to your defense, and we were missing some important ingredients. And that's why I made the change.

“And so what I'll be looking for in particular relative to these tweaks is these guys come at it with a clean slate, and I expect to see them play with a lot more passion and enthusiasm.”

Interestingly, the Sagarin computer rankings still considers Notre Dame, at No. 35, a better team than each of the teams that have handed it a loss — No. 39 Texas, No. 46 Michigan State and No. 59 Duke.

That ranking, Hudson’s touch and Kelly’s influence will all be severely tested in the coming weeks, starting with Syracuse and its 25th-ranked offense — 27 spots higher than Duke and 55 ahead of Michigan State, teams that combined for 74 points over the past two Saturdays at Notre Dame Stadium.

The Orange finished off VanGorder predecessor Bob Diaco, now in his third year as UConn’s head coach, with a 99-yard scoring drive Saturday to break a 24-24 tie and win 31-24 on the road. Maryland grad transfer Ambo Etta-Tawo had 12 receptions for a school-record 270 yards and two TDs in the Syracuse victory, and now he’ll get a shot at ND’s struggling secondary.

North Carolina State, sporting the nation’s No. 23 offense follows Syracuse, with Miami (Fla.) and the No. 18 offense two games later. In between ND will play arguably the strongest overall team on its schedule, seventh-ranked Stanford, though the Cardinal offense has been sputtering somewhat.

There won’t be any time or occasion any time soon, as far as Kelly is concerned, to ponder publicly what went wrong with VanGorder, a man who 13 seasons ago was honored as the nation’s top assistant coach with the Frank Broyles Award.

But football’s beauty and its inherent curveball is that the X’s and O’s evolve, and VanGorder’s past magic as a coordinator didn’t translate to today’s college offenses and players.

Kelly knew that Saturday evening when he publicly defended VanGorder and in the days leading up to the Duke loss. There was no sudden change of heart. He was simply waiting for the right time.

“Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there,” Kelly said. “He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame. He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn't working.

“There's not enough time to go into all of the details of it, but the fact remains that at the end of the day, I've got to find a way to get our defense to play at a higher level, and they certainly weren't.

“So making the change, in my estimation, was the best way to get everybody back to the point where we can look forward to putting this defense back in a position to succeed.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder takes the field during the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

Kickoff: Saturday at Noon EDT

Where: MetLife Stadium; East Rutherford, N.J.


Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 12