Notre Dame defensive talent quotient measures up, but tweaks could help

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — That Boston College alternately pushed around and smothered Notre Dame’s high-flying offense last November in Fenway Park has, 10 months later, contorted into an unlikely symbol of hope for the Irish.

That defense that held the Irish to a season-low 19 points, that finished as the nation’s leader in total defense and whose defensive coordinator — 61-year-old Don Brown — got poached by Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, had a grand total of zero five-star prospects on it.

In fact, in the five recruiting cycles that contributed to that BC defensive roster, there were only five four-star prospects and 47 rated three stars or below.

The nation’s No. 2 total defense, Wisconsin, had a similar modest talent quotient. In fact, 13 of the top 20 defenses nationally last season (and presumably Akron and Utah State, too — both uncharted by had fewer four- and five-star signees combined in their 2011-15 classes than did Notre Dame in the same time frame. And that group includes Michigan and national runner-up Clemson.

So scheme matters. Development matters. Coaching matters.

The opportunity in the Notre Dame football program’s defensive crisis, punctuated by the firing of third-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on Sunday, is to fix a problem that evidently had been gurgling out of plain sight for much longer than it took to reach rock bottom.

The wild card in a potential renaissance is the Irish talent base, which even with attrition and inexperience doesn’t compute to the No. 103 national ranking in total defense the Irish (1-3) will sport when they match up with Syracuse (2-2) Saturday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (Noon EDT; ESPN)

CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming looks at the Irish defensive roster and sees a talent base capable of showing marked improvement in the coming weeks under interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and head coach Brian Kelly’s redirected focus.

But Lemming also sees pockets of swings and misses, flimsy depth at certain positions and flawed approach when it came to VanGorder’s role in recruiting, which was minimal.

“The defensive line is where VanGorder’s lack of attention and involvement shows up the most,” Lemming said. “There aren’t enough difference-makers in that position group, and that falls on the shoulders of the defensive coordinator.

“When you look at the other powerhouses, you see defensive coordinators with names who go out there and get really involved in recruiting, both in the evaluation and in the actual work of forming relationships and bringing guys in.

“(Recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach) Mike Elston does an excellent job of recruiting. He landed (recent defensive line commit) Donovan Jeter. You hear kids mention his name all the time. But they needed VanGorder to be a part of that equation too, and he wasn’t. So the opportunity here is to fix that with the next guy.”

The good news, per Lemming, is that Notre Dame already has landed impact defensive players in both the 2017 and 2018 classes, with the realistic potential for more.

“I think Jeter and Darnell Ewell, out of Virginia, have the potential to impact the defensive line next year,” Lemming said. “But you need guys like that in abundance. That’s the next step when it comes to Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting.”

The model that Boston College, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa use is much different, but effective. Lemming said those schools are able to enjoy success on defense because of how much more time the coaches spend in the evaluation process, knowing they can’t beat the Michigans, Ohio States, Notre Dames out for the elite prospects.

“They also have to be really good at projecting,” Lemming said. “The powerhouse teams don’t have to do that as much. They can rely on talent, and talent can turn good coaches into great coaches.”

Even without Brown, Boston College has regenerated into a top 10 defense so far in 2016. The Eagles rank sixth. Five other members of last year’s top 10 are at least in the top 20 a third of the way through the season. So there are examples of both the talent-reliant (i.e. Alabama) and development-reliant templates having some sustainability.

“I’m not a coach, so I can’t tell you if VanGorder could coach up or develop players,” Lemming said. “But the way he dealt with recruiting is a lesson learned that could help Notre Dame in the future.

“Brian Kelly knows how to attract offensive players. There’s nothing wrong with the talent on that side of the ball. On defense, it seemed like the excuse always was that they were young. When you have 85 scholarships, that should never happen.

“Those young guys should be ready to step in when it’s their turn. Maybe they weren’t getting the opportunity to do so. (Freshmen) Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem are tremendous talents, and they’re not playing much. Maybe that changes starting Saturday.

“In the overall picture, it was time for a change. And Kelly has a chance to make sure it’s a good change.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame freshman defensive ends Julian Okwara (42) and Daelin Hayes (9) may get more playing time in the post-VanGorder Era. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

KICKOFF: Saturday at Noon EDT

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


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LINE: Notre Dame by 10