Looking into the past may help Notre Dame defense's future

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There are fleeting moments when Brian Kelly allows himself to go big picture with the Notre Dame defense.

How it may evolve in structure and philosophy beyond the short-term, tourniquet approach the seventh-year Notre Dame head football coach has adopted since firing coordinator Brian VanGorder on Sept. 25.

“But most of my time and focus and attention is on right now,” Kelly said during his weekly Tuesday press conference.

A peek into the past — both his own and that of Saturday’s home opponent, Miami (4-3) — may come in handy when it’s time for the long-term decisions shift to the front burner. The Irish are 2-5 going into the 26th-ever meeting between the two schools and only the fifth in which both are unranked.

The 30-game VanGorder experience, marked by extremes — some good, more bad — but an overall bottom line of mediocrity, is a reminder that whether Kelly rolls with interim coordinator Greg Hudson or an outside candidate in 2017, red flags on a résumé do matter.

VanGorder was Kelly’s very first defensive coordinator hire — or, more accurately, promotion — when the latter became a head coach for the first time in 1991 at Division II Grand Valley State. And VanGorder had a celebrated four-year run as defensive coordinator at Georgia (2001-04), winning the Broyles Award for best college assistant in 2003.

But in the nine seasons between his final one with the Bulldogs and his first with the Irish, in 2014, VanGorder spent just two years coaching in college. And both were statistical flops.

The first came as head coach of then FCS school Georgia Southern. VanGorder inherited an awful defense, and it remained subpar during that 2006 season with some modest improvement. The 2006 Eagles ranked 69th in rush defense in the FCS, 74th in pass-efficiency defense, 62nd in total and scoring defense, 106th in sacks and 94th in tackles for loss.

The second came as defensive coordinator at Auburn in 2012, another instance in which the season that preceded VanGorder was unimpressive on the defensive end of things, but this time the numbers were almost identically horrible: 97th in rush defense, 99th in pass-efficiency defense, 79th in total defense, 66th in scoring defense, 74th in sacks and 70th in tackles for loss.

But in this instance, the Tigers improved significantly on defense in five of the six categories under Ellis Johnson in 2013 after VanGorder was let go.

The defensive trends at both VanGorder college stops were consistent with what he produced in 2 1/3 seasons with the Irish, especially when it came to tepid pass rushes. In 2016, the numbers across the board were, in fact, much worse, and compiled against four offenses in which only one (Texas, at 34th) ranked higher than No. 84 of 128 nationally in total offense.

The Irish, meanwhile, have improved from 106th in total defense to 63rd in the three games since Kelly made the change.

In both of VanGorder’s pre-ND experiences, Georgia Southern in 2006 and Auburn in 2012, the team experienced historically bad seasons. Both of those teams finished with three wins (Ga. Southern 3-8, Auburn 3-9).

Georgia Southern was 8-4 the year before VanGorder’s arrival and 7-4 the year after. In fact, the Eagles have experienced just one losing season since 2006, that in 2009 (5-6). The 2006 bottom line was the program’s worst by anyone leading the team not named B.L. “Crook” Smith (2-8 in 1936 and 1941, 2-9 in 1937).

Auburn was 8-5 the year before VanGorder arrived and won an SEC title and played for the national championship the year after he left, with an overall record of 12-2.

The Tigers, who haven’t had a losing record post-VanGorder, lost more games with VanGorder leading the defense and Gene Chizik as the head coach than any Auburn team since going 0-10 under Earl M. Brown in 1950.

As far as Miami is concerned, the Hurricanes have largely transcended suspensions and injuries to concoct one of the nation’s most improved defenses.

Under first-year head coach Mark Richt — who once hired VanGorder himself, at Georgia — and guided by first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, the Hurricanes have improved 50 spots or more nationally over last season in rushing defense (101 to 51), scoring defense (77 to 12), sacks (70 to 17) and tackles for loss (105 to 1).

“They've allowed their personnel to be who they are,” Kelly assessed regarding the improvement. “Not to take anything away from the former staff, but I think they really have identified who they are and allowed each one of their players to be the kind of player that they were recruited to be, and just go play.

“You don't see a lot of fronts, a lot of coverages. They're going to let their athletic ability stand out. It's similar to our situation where in a few short weeks we (improved on) defense. You can make those jumps quickly. I think that they've been able to do it, because they've had very good players and they're letting them play.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, left, and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talk as fans chant "Fire VanGorder" during the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

WHO: Notre Dame (2-5) vs. Miami (4-3)

KICKOFF: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

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

LINE: Miami by 2 1/2