Analysis: ND's new defensive focus leans to short-term fixes, not long-term vision

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As it turns out, it wasn’t meant to be an infomercial for recruits on Saturday, a pitch for what Notre Dame’s future on defense may someday look like, at least not schematically.

Once Brian Kelly pushed himself out of his longtime comfort zone of the offensive meeting room last Sunday, his hurriedly concocted vision was tempered by what he found reality to be on a defense that statistically was trending toward all-time historic infamy under recently deposed coordinator Brian VanGorder.

So Saturday’s first glance at the remodeled look, with head coach Kelly providing the blueprint and new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson putting it in motion with emotion, was designed to provide incremental improvement for this season, to create a best-case scenario for this season.

And, however that appeared from the outside looking in at ND’s semi-redemptive 50-33 dismissing of Syracuse in front of a smallish and subdued crowd at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., was mostly back-burner.

“It’s a long-term approach in the sense that we are getting a lot of young players some valuable experience,” Kelly qualified Sunday in his weekly tele-review.

But the way those young players line up next spring and fall, the way the buttons are pushed from the sidelines, what the philosophical soul of the next defensive scheme constitutes will be addressed once the season ends — triumphantly, mercifully or somewhere in between.

Notre Dame’s 2-3 record heading into Saturday’s high noon matchup at North Carolina State (3-1) suggests the Irish are playing for some sort of smaller-stage consolation prize, with the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl and Russell Athletic Bowl — both staged in Orlando — as the best mathematically possible options.

In those scenarios, ND’s TV appeal and ability to generate ticket sales do very much come into play, unlike the playoff berths and other New Year’s Six slots, all filled by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee and all purported to be purely merit-based.

In that light, maybe the Irish picked the right season for an off-year. In the games not involving Notre Dame, the five Irish opponents to date have combined for a shockingly modest victory list, with not one Power 5 win among them and four of the seven victims being FCS squads. Not exactly résumé builders.

The rundown? Colgate, UConn, North Carolina Central, UTEP, Furman, Cal Poly and Buffalo. N.C. State’s conquests to date — William & Mary, Old Dominion and Wake Forest, to go along with a loss at East Carolina — sort of fit the theme, though road tests at Clemson and Louisville immediately follow the Wolfpack’s date with the Irish.

Meanwhile, the latest Sagarin computer rankings paint this pessimistic version of ND’s projected postseason reality: As the nation’s No. 40 team, the Irish would be underdogs to four future opponents — 12. Stanford, 16. Miami, 21. Virginia Tech and 26. USC.

Which theoretically would leave them home for the holidays at 5-7.

Then again Notre Dame continues to be ranked ahead of the three teams it lost to — 47. Texas, 51. Michigan State and No. 74. Duke. So maybe the computer needs a larger sample size.

What the computer can’t take into account is the potential for improvement. Kelly and Hudson have built ND defense’s around some key departures from VanGorder’s philosophy:

• Finding strength in numbers. Kelly and Hudson rolled in lots of players Saturday, many of them completely foreign to high-leverage situations. And it’s something Kelly said the Irish will continue to do, moving forward.

Sophomore defensive tackle Elijah Taylor and freshman cornerback Troy Pride Jr., for instance, each made their collegiate debuts Saturday against Syracuse’s frenetic and fruitful offense.

Sophomore linebacker Asmar Bilal, sophomore safety Nicco Fertitta, junior defensive end Jay Hayes, freshman Donte Vaughn and freshman safety Jalen Elliott saw their most meaningful snaps of their careers to date.

Vaughn, in fact, was lined up — by design — against the nation’s leader in receiving yards most of the time. Grad senior Amba Etta-Tawo did get a 72-yard TD pass early, but finished below his high standards even with that — seven catches for 134 yards — for a player who came in averaging 10 and 176.5.

Big picture, the Irish didn’t get worn down by the Orange’s 88 offensive plays. In fact, the defense got stronger as the game went along. And though it was only by a few yards, ND held Syracuse under its season average for total offense in a game , something ND could not do in its losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

ND’s biggest statistical victory? Holding Syracuse to 3-of-15 (20 percent) on third down. Syracuse came in converting 48 percent and ND was 92nd in third-down defense at 42 percent allowed.

• Senior Cole Luke was moved to nickel when the Irish use defensive packages with extra defensive backs. Playing inside is not a skill set every cornerback has. Luke does have it, and combined with his high intelligence, per Kelly, it allows the Irish to be more multiple and more effective in those packages.

• The safeties are most affected by a stark change in coverage principles. In fact, Kelly said freshmen Elliott and Devin Studstill — and the freshman corners — were at an advantage, because they didn’t have the muscle memory of doing things the old way.

“Absolutely it was hard,” junior strong safety Drue Tranquill said. “We were taught to be so aggressive in BVG’s defense, and now we’re backing off more. So it’s real different, but I like it and we’re settling in.”

• The Irish are more varied and multiple in the looks they give up front. VanGorder’s defenses were primarily 4-3 looks, though he sat in a 3-4 against Texas virtually the entire game, even when Texas’ “18-wheeler” power package dictated otherwise.

With each passing week, Hudson will get a little more grip on the steering wheel of the defense, though Kelly said Sunday he won’t go back to being so offense-centric.

“I think I'd want to stay involved in really everything that we're doing,” he said. “Much more focused on much more of the big-picture items. We're still drilling down on some things defensively that require a little bit more of my attention than, say, conceptual things on the offensive side of the ball.

“My offensive concerns are still about detail and maybe some finer things within the game. But there's many more other things that I have to be involved with on the defense. So I would say if you're breaking up the day, a little bit more time on defense, but not losing sight of what's going on, on the offensive side.”

His trump card, in the meantime, is an offense that is on a school-record scoring pace — 39.8 points per game.

Junior DeShone Kizer moved up five spots to No. 9 nationally in passing efficiency (175.4). He’s now 13th in total offense (350.8), fourth in points responsible for (120), third in yards per attempt (10.38), fifth in yards per completion (16.49), sixth in TD passes (14) and third in rushing TDs by a QB (6).

But the long-term aim is for the offense to be a powerful complement for a burgeoning defense, not a crutch.

“Let's put these guys in a position to succeed this year, utilizing a lot of young players, gaining experience as we go, and being smart about utilizing our personnel,” Kelly said. “In other words, putting them in places to succeed.”

Personnel matters

Senior Tarean Folston playing bystander instead of running back Saturday against Syracuse was the result of an ankle injury the team’s fourth-leading rusher suffered late last week in practice.

“He worked hard to try to get back, but he just was not even close to being able to give us the kind of play necessary,” said Kelly, who is optimistic Folston will be able to practice this week and be available Saturday to play at N.C. State.

• Junior cornerback Nick Watkins' season is over, according to Kelly, following an X-ray Friday to determine bone growth in Watkins’ slow-to-heal left arm.

Watkins suffered a broken arm midway through spring practice, in early April, and the hope was that the one-time starter would be back in October to, at the very least, add depth to the cornerback position.

Instead he will seek a medical redshirt year and have two seasons of eligibility starting in 2017.

“He’s going to need additional surgery,” Kelly said.

• As Kelly was working his way to the most freshmen he’s ever used in a season in his seven years at Notre Dame — 13 — a strong possibility to add to the group early in the year was offensive lineman Tommy Kraemer.

Five games into the season, a redshirt year is much more probable now, according to Kelly, even with starting right guard Colin McGovern battling a high ankle sprain. Senior Hunter Bivin filled in Saturday.

“I think that there would have to be a slew of injuries for Tommy to be on the field,” Kelly said.


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Two of Notre Dame's up-and-coming defensive players, cornerback Donte Vaughn (35) and safety Jalen Elliott (21), chase down Syracuse wide receiver Ervin Philips (3) Saturday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

KICKOFF: Saturday at Noon EDT

WHERE: Carter-Finley Stadium; Raleigh, N.C.


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

LINE: Notre Dame by 3