New-look Notre Dame defense will be Brian Kelly's creation
SOUTH BEND — The most tantalizing details of Notre Dame’s new-look defense entail position shifts and tweaks that won’t be revealed until Saturday at MetLife Stadium.
Some of which are targeted just for Saturday opponent Syracuse (2-2), its brilliantly spasmodic 25th-ranked offense nationally, and the nation’s leader in receiving yards — Maryland grad transfer Amba Etta-Tawo, who is averaging 10 catches and 176.5 yards per game.
Some of which are aimed at more long-term goals for the Irish (1-3).
The one aspect of the defensive makeover in which there’s absolutely no ambiguity is this is head coach Brian Kelly’s defense.
Not a watered-down, simplified version of recent deposed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s. Not the brainchild of new interim coordinator Greg Hudson.
For those who twisted Sunday’s purge into a scapegoat move, the fact that Kelly is putting his reputation on the chopping block — for better, for worse — seems to fly in the face of that.
Hudson, elevated Sunday from his behind-the-scenes defensive analyst position, will now stand on the sideline with Kelly. Meanwhile, linebackers coach Mike Elston — the only Irish defensive assistant that has been with Kelly since his arrival in South Bend — will be an important cog in the new gameday mechanics upstairs in the coaching box.
“Greg has been empowered to bring the energy, the enthusiasm, the passion, the morale, the camaraderie,” Kelly said Tuesday during a marathon weekly press conference replete with repeat questions. “I need those things from Greg.
“I'll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I'll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.
“But right now, we'll write the music and he'll be the lead singer. I don't know if that's a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He's going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he's learning everything as well.”
So what will the nation’s No. 103-ranked defense look like against the very breed of offense — spread and uber uptempo — that proved to be VanGorder’s undoing?
Fewer personnel packages, but more personnel involved from a depth standpoint, for starters.
Kelly attributed some of the sloppy tackling and missed assignments in the first four weeks of this season to overexposure.
“We've got some guys out there that are dog tired trying to do things and they got too many reps,” Kelly said. “We’ve got too many good players sitting behind them watching, and we've got to get them in the game and we've got to trust them and we've got to coach them and get them in the game. And that's on me.
“Jay Hayes had zero reps (against Duke). That can't happen. Asmar Bilal had zero. Greer (Martini) had 10. So you can see the disparity right there. It then becomes a one-dimensional football team, the haves and have-nots, and that does not do well with morale. That does not do well with ownership for everybody.
“We've got to build a better base there, and that starts with me making sure that that happens. I'm not saying everybody's got to play and we’ve all got to go have a big, group hug at the end of practice. It's merit based, too. But there are too many good football players that haven't been playing, in my estimation.”
The VanGorder resistance to playing more players was that certain ones didn’t know the system well enough to fit into his comfort zone. Kelly said the new system won’t have the same inherent impediments.
The wild card in all this is how the players will react to the changes. In 2010, some schematic changes and program adversity — including a 1-3 start — galvanized that team to a strong finish. In 2011, adversity fractured team chemistry.
“I don't know. We'll see today,” Kelly said of how this group is responding to system shock. “They're going to play, at the end of the day. I'm sure that there are personal feelings one way or the other, but in my experience they're pretty resilient.
“They'll be ready to practice today, and it will be up to me and the defensive staff to create the kind of environment that gets the things that I'm looking for out of them. That will be probably the bigger story than what their reaction to the change was.”