Drue Tranquill, Notre Dame defense look to reboot against Syracuse
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The surgical scars on each of Drue Tranquill’s knees remind the Notre Dame safety just how much of an “everything happens for a reason” kind of guy he is.
So does the burgeoning baseball career he nudged off his bucket list when chronic back pain wouldn’t allow him to swing a bat fluidly anymore.
It’s natural for the Irish junior then to try to look beyond the tumult, both that individually resulted in an in-game demotion four weeks ago at Texas and in the bigger-picture happenings that have him playing for a new defensive coordinator Saturday, when Notre Dame (1-3) tries to reboot its season against Syracuse (2-2) at Metlife Stadium.
Brian VanGorder, who coached in that very facility throughout 2013 as linebackers coach for the NFL’s New York Jets, was purged on Sunday, 30 games into his run as defensive coordinator at ND and hours after the Irish sunk to a program-low national standing in total defense of 103rd with a 38-35 upset loss to 20-point underdog Duke.
“Whenever there’s change, there are always opportunities for growth and opportunities not to grow,” said Tranquill, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Fort Wayne, Ind., product. “As change comes, we just have to accept it as it is.
“I don’t have a say in whether a coach gets dismissed or not. All I can do is come to work each and every day for whoever’s coaching me, whoever I’m playing with. And that’s how I approach it.”
Interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson is a welcome and familiar face for Tranquill, who has a previous bond with the ND alum, elevated Sunday from his behind-the-scenes role as defensive analyst.
Hudson was Purdue’s defensive coordinator when Tranquill was being recruited out of Carroll High School and the lead recruiter who eventually landed him in the Boilermakers’ 2014 recruiting class, albeit temporarily.
The Irish eventually flipped his commitment, but Hudson was a big reason why a change of heart was so conflicting.
“His energy and passion is just incredible,” Tranquill said. “Just creating an atmosphere of playing for each other and just family. It’s a relentless effort. He’s brought such a positive energy at a time that can seem really dark.”
Saturday’s matchup with the frenetic-paced Orange presents the potential for more darkness — or the start of a defensive recovery.
Averaging 86.3 offensive plays per game under first-year head coach Dino Babers — up roughly 24 plays from last season — Syracuse presents the very schematic challenge that exposed VanGorder midway through the 2014 season and eventually chased him in 2016.
That 2014 season, four games following the coordinator being given a game ball after a shutout of Michigan, North Carolina’s quick tempo gashed the Irish defense for 510 total yards on 84 plays in a 50-43 Irish escape and set a template for Irish opponents that VanGorder could never fully solve.
The good news for Notre Dame is its offense, averaging 0.4 points shy of a school-record pace (37.6), will face a Syracuse defense that actually has fared statistically worse than Notre Dame’s (111th at 466.8 yards a game). And the defense Babers left behind at his former school, Bowling Green, is dead last (128th) in the FBS at 558.3 yards per game.
“When you’ve got a tempo team, you’ve got to stop them on first and second down,” Tranquill said. “That’s going to slow their tempo down. They can’t gouge you for seven, eight on a run on first and second down, or they’re going to march right down the field for 15 plays and score a touchdown.
“Obviously, it’s physically taxing, and what an uptempo team does is they shrink your inventory. You can’t get to some of your calls and maybe have a lot of checks, because they’re just lining up and playing.”
Simplifying has been the theme in the days that followed VanGorder’s firing, but there hasn’t been so much an inventory shrinkage this week with Hudson and head coach Brian Kelly now redirecting the defense as it has been a matter of simplifying through other means.
“I think it means getting back to the fundamentals,” Tranquill said. “A lot of guys who are out there (have been) just so locked up and tight. They’re thinking about how they have to make this and that check.
“I think we want to pull out the talent that got guys here. We want to see the explosiveness. We want to see guys just out there playing free, making plays at the end of the route, making plays in open space. Just getting back to the basics of balling.”
Tranquill has been alternately balling and struggling through ND’s first four games, to the tune of 21 tackles, tied for fourth-best on the team. He had a career-high eight Saturday against Duke in a game Kelly called Tranquill’s best at ND, despite his playing time being limited to 39 plays due to cramping.
“You can either sulk with a ‘woe is me’ attitude or you can accept where you’re at and have a mindset to change it,” Tranquill said. “And that’s what we’re going to do, moving forward. And we know we’re going to turn this thing around and we know we’re going to be all right.”
And he is confident VanGorder will be all right as well.
“It’s a really hard situation, and it’s just real life,” Tranquill said. “Just this industry is really cutthroat, and a part of me really felt for him and a part of me realized he probably wants me to rally around the guys in the locker room.
“And he probably wants me out there giving my all each and every day, and not worrying about him, because it’s about Notre Dame. It’s about Notre Dame winning football games. So we just have to come in with a positive mentality and move forward.”