Win matters most to improvement of Notre Dame's defense

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.  — The mistakes remain plentiful and the room for improvement is abundant.

But in the reconstruction project that is Notre Dame’s defense, the end result is all that matters for now.

“Our main thing is winning,” linebacker Nyles Morgan said after the 50-30 victory over Syracuse. “As long as we’re winning, we’re happy.”

There haven’t been many smiles on the defensive side of the ball for the Irish this season. And back in August, a game that included 33 points for the opposing team likely didn’t sound like one that would produce any grinning from players tasked with preventing points being from scored.

But so much has changed in one month for Notre Dame. A 1-3 start can do that.

“You look at us as a defense in September, and we were terrible,” said safety Drue Tranquill. “I’ll say that as one of our leaders. I wasn’t great. There were a lot of aspects of our defense that weren’t great. That could have created a really negative vibe, especially heading into this week.

“So for us to come in here and get a win on the road with a new (defensive coordinator), with all the things going on, it just speaks to the character of our team, the resiliency of our team. We’ll take this 24-hour rule and enjoy it. But we have a lot of things to learn, a lot of things to improve on as a defense and we’ll continue to do that.”

The new faces were everywhere for Notre Dame. Interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson led the unit from the sideline. Players he’s coached for less than a week were embracing him with hugs following the win.

“In general, when you’re 1-3, you’re going to go one of two ways,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “You’re going to rally around each other or you’re not. We rallied around each other, so it’s easier to get emotional about a guy like that stepping in.”

The rotation of defensive players went to new depths. Sophomore defensive tackle Elijah Taylor saw the field for the first time. Freshman cornerback Troy Pride made his Irish debut. At one point, four freshmen (cornerbacks Donte Vaughn and Pride and safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott) lined up as Notre Dame’s secondary.

“That’s kind of hard to imagine, but I knew we were going to play a lot of guys with their spread offense running a high tempo,” Tranquill said.

The substitutions were so frequent, both Tranquill and Morgan acknowledged it was hard to keep track of the personnel.

“Oh my gosh. It’s like, ‘Who’s out here with me?’” Tranquill said. “They’re bringing them in left and right, and I have to know who’s out there with me because sometimes I have to pay more attention to making sure guys know checks and certain stuff depending on who’s out there.”

But with the uncertainty came a forced faith in each other. There was no time to have the doubts that may have crept into the mindset in previous weeks.

“It just makes you really trust your teammates,” Morgan said. “Make sure that they know what they’re doing. Everybody has to be on the same page no matter who’s in there. We really stressed that coming in. At practice, we had guys lining up. Sometimes we didn’t know who was in, but we all had to know what the call was.”

Head coach Brian Kelly called on his players to play with more passion. It’s a part of the defensive identity the Irish are trying to rediscover.

“We’re just a group of guys who like playing football,” Rochell said. “That’s something we need to hang our hats on. And we need to play with energy. We did a good job of playing with energy. Practices have been energetic. We’re just learning to enjoy it.”

Winning makes everything a lot more enjoyable.

Even if the tackling needs to improve. Even if five offside penalties have to be eliminated. Even if 489 yards allowed are far too many.

The turnaround had to start somewhere.

“As a whole team, we can continue to grow,” Tranquill said. “Especially as a defense, and we’ll continue to do so. But with a lot of young guys, we were excited to go out there, get them experience, get a win and get back to playing Notre Dame football.”

tjames@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Syracuse’s Eric Dungey (2) moves by Notre Dame’s James Onwualu (17) and Isaac Rochell (90) during the Notre Dame-Syracuse NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN