New Notre Dame DC Greg Hudson forged his coaching style in the batting cages

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Greg Hudson learned about football in the batting cages.

It was 1993, and Hudson — a former Irish linebacker on the football team and catcher on the baseball team — was in his first season as a graduate assistant offensive line coach at his alma mater.

This meant he was tough.

It also meant he was crazy.

“I knew he was a tough son of a (gun) because he was the o-line grad assistant for (former Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe) Moore, which pretty much puts you at the front of the (butt)-kicking line,” said Aaron Taylor, who was a unanimous first-team All-American offensive tackle in Hudson’s only season on the staff. “They can’t do anything right.

“But he’s a football guy. You don’t subject yourself willingly and go into coaching because you’re normal.”

So there he was, a football guy surrounded by football guys. A bunch of 300-plus pound behemoths wiggled baseball bats that must have looked like tooth picks, learning the fundamentals of one sport to drill home a point about the other.

“Joe Moore was masterful at simplifying the complex,” Taylor explained on Monday. “He approached the game of football the same way, starting from the time he was a high school coach and his dad told him to tell his offensive linemen to aim their pads the way that he aimed his bat when he did batting practice as a kid. It was repetitive, fundamental play.

“You want to get good at hitting balls? Get in the batting cage. We used to take batting practice, which Greg oversaw. Football’s a game of leverage, man.”

Leverage, in the batting cage, meant maintaining balance in your swing. It was the delicate marriage between balance and power, shifting your weight in the same motion again and again, chiseling away at your inconsistencies, methodically perfecting your technique.

On the line of scrimmage, the same tenets applied. Regardless of the sport or setting, Moore was teaching his players — and graduate assistants — how to properly deliver a blow.

“I think in today’s football, we’ve almost gotten too cute for ourselves,” said Taylor, who grew close with Hudson in his senior season and remains friends today. “At its essence, regardless of hurry-up, no huddle or spread, it’s still a game of blocking and tackling. That basis of fundamentals is what Greg learned from coach Moore on the offensive side.

“I think he’s used it to his benefit and the benefit of his players ever since.”

Hudson will be tasked with imparting those same fundamentals on Notre Dame’s struggling defense moving forward. On Sunday morning, head coach Brian Kelly announced that third-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had been fired and Hudson had been elevated from a defensive analyst position to lead the Irish defense for the remainder of the 2016 season.

This marks the fourth defensive coordinator gig for the 49-year-old Notre Dame grad, who filled the same role at Minnesota from 2002 to 2004, East Carolina from 2005 to 2009 and — with very minimal success — Purdue from 2013 to 2015.

The emphasis, for a defense suffocating under an avalanche of missed tackles and unfulfilled expectations, will be on simplifying the scheme and drilling down on the fundamentals.

“I think, at the end of the day, you can scheme and draw up all the fancy X’s and O’s that you want, but you can’t talk your way out of a fistfight,” Taylor said.

“I think what they’ll get with Greg is a simplified approach where what’s expected is to give everything you have to run to the football, whip the man’s (butt) in front of you and line up and do it again. It sounds like a simple recipe, but sometimes simple is the answer. That was Joe Moore’s belief, and that’s always been Greg Hudson’s.”

So, if Hudson has his way, the renovated 2016 Irish will have a strong fundamental foundation.

But, considering that Notre Dame amassed nine missed tackles in last weekend’s loss to Duke, how much of the season can be salvaged?

“If it was up to Greg, (tackling drills are) all they’d do for 24 periods, man,” Taylor said with a laugh. “That’s going to be his challenge, personally. ‘How do I get done what I know needs to get done in the allotted time that I have?’ That’s the challenge that most coaches have right now. But knowing what I know about Greg, he’ll figure it out.”

He’ll have to figure out, too, how to pull passion out of his players. That spark was severely lacking in the Duke loss last Saturday, as Kelly publicly lamented his team’s baffling emotional emptiness in the postgame press conference. As an analyst, Hudson previously had little tangible relationship with the Irish players.

Now he must earn their trust. He must identify their strengths and weaknesses.

He must relate, and in doing so, motivate.

“I thought Greg was the perfect fit to bring that energy level up to where I want to see it,” Kelly said in his weekly teleconference on Sunday. “Guys played hard (against Duke), but we lacked some of the energy and enthusiasm and fun, quite frankly, that you need to have when you're playing on defense.”

Added Taylor: “I’ve never seen a team that he coached that didn’t play their (butt) off for him, and I think that’s because innately he’s still as much a player as he is a coach from a mindset standpoint. That’s what I think allows him to be successful.”

To be sure, Hudson’s career hasn’t been a steady stream of success. He was fired as Purdue’s defensive coordinator following a 2-10 2015 season, in which the Boilermakers finished 112th nationally in scoring defense, 111th in total defense, 109th in rushing defense and 94th in sacks. He packed his things, hopped in his car and drove 120 miles northeast to his alma mater.

He started over, just as the Irish defense is starting over.

The only way to bounce back from a strikeout, after all, is to take another crack at the batting cages.

“I know how important it is for all of us to be meaningful parts of something in our lives, like Notre Dame,” Taylor said. “Greg had that as a player. It’s always been his dream to come back (to Notre Dame) and do that as a coach. One way or another, the stars have aligned and he’s gotten the opportunity that he’s secretly wanted in his heart for a long time.

“I think it’s beautiful the way things sometimes work out in unexpected ways.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Greg Hudson (left), here with Skip Holtz when the two former Notre Dame players were coaching at East Carolina, assumes deposed Brian VanGorder's role as Irish defensive coordinator. (AP File Photo/SARA D. DAVIS)