Analysis: Notre Dame defense continues to improve but also coaxes tough questions

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly needed a day like Saturday.

A day where the Notre Dame head coach’s biggest headache may have been how to avoid appearing to be running up the score on what was, at the time, the nation’s No. 6 team in total defense (now 10th).

That’s not to say his seventh and most confounding football team at ND has arrived at anything or anywhere of significance or permanence following its 44-6 dismissal of Army at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.

But even in the underwhelming context of dispatching a team that lost earlier this season by double digits to North Texas, the Irish (4-6) did something Saturday they’ve labored to do all season.

Exceed expectations.

And they did so in just about every way imaginable, not the least of which was outrushing (261-229) a triple-option team (not to mention the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense) for the first time since the 2012 opener with Navy in Dublin, Ireland. That’s a span of six such games in between.

Perhaps the most inspiring stat to bring home from Shamrock Series game No. 8 was zero new injuries — quite a departure from the last time Notre Dame faced a steady diet of blockers legally diving at its defensive players’ knees in back to back games, in 2013 (Air Force and Navy).

And there’s positive news on the injury front as it pertains to two key players who sat out Saturday’s game. The knee injury senior wide receiver Torii Hunter suffered in the 28-27 loss to Navy on Nov. 5 isn’t considered long term.

And nose guard Daniel Cage, who missed the past two games with concussion symptoms, had an encouraging meeting with specialist Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher on Friday, per Kelly.

“I think that second opinion … always is helpful,” Kelly said, “and I think he feels much better that there's nothing more there than him just feeling better each day.”

So what’s left to do with a sub-.500 record, a No. 42 rating in the latest Sagarin computer ratings — tucked between Arkansas and South Florida — and a healthy and developing roster?

Overachieve.

The Irish finish with the two most complete and balanced teams they’re faced all season, suddenly unranked Virginia Tech (7-3) and suddenly ranked USC (7-3 and No. 15 in the AP poll).

Carryover from one season to the next is generally overrated. ND’s best season, not only under Kelly, but in two decades (12-1 in 2012), followed a flat and futile, 28-14 road loss to Stanford to end the 2011 regular season and a bewildering, 18-14, come-from-ahead loss to Florida State in the Champ Sports Bowl a month later.

But in a year where perception and misperception have intermittently obscured and even mocked reality, beating two teams still very much in contention for their respective Power 5 conference titles would bring the kind of offseason currency that would help Kelly reinforce the buy-in from his players as he makes some very necessary, and perhaps difficult, offseason changes around them.

The following are the people and themes to keep an eye on in the two weeks ahead:

The Hudson/Elston influence

Since Kelly elected to truncate the Brian VanGorder experience on Sept. 25, four games into the season, the bottom line for the Notre Dame defense — specifically its national ranking in total defense — has climbed from 103rd (out of 128) to 39th.

That’s six spots higher than the No. 45 standing at the end of last season on a defense that featured All-American Jaylon Smith and fellow defensive standouts and NFL draft choices Sheldon Day and KeiVarae Russell, and 32 spots better than where the Irish finished under VanGorder in 2014.

The overriding impression that Kelly and the Irish players paint of interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson centers on his exuberance. Undersold is the pragmatic side and his pairing with linebackers coach/recruiting coordinator Mike Elston both in planning and in game day operations.

On Saturday, a week after a decided step back in an otherwise incremental evolution, the Irish defense took two steps forward.

“I think, first and foremost, a very detailed, organized plan, well-coached during the week of practice, a focus on the fundamentals, and in-game adjustments that have been followed through by the players,” Kelly said of his observations of Hudson and Elston.

“So I think just a coordinated effort that has seen this defense get better and better. I think the utilization of some more of the freshmen that have really matured … I think all of that has come together through really good preparation, great morale and, at the end of the day, kids executing the game plan.”

It’s the kind of tangible elixir you can sell to recruits.

But it also coaxes some tough questions for Kelly to ponder and answer. And it starts with this notion: Is the proper choice to stop the bleeding on defense — Hudson — also the same choice to eventually nudge Notre Dame to an elite level?

In the six weeks since VanGorder was purged, ND’s defense has taken on some of the characteristics of the scheme run at ND by his predecessor Bob Diaco. For Kelly, it’s safe, it’s comfortable and it’s working.

But when Diaco left after the 2013 season to become head coach at Connecticut, Kelly was convinced that for all its virtues, the scheme had a limited ceiling. And it showed up big time in the 2012 title game loss to Alabama.

There’s a happy medium between Diaco’s simplicity and VanGorder’s complexity. And if the right person to add those layers, to provide the vision, to be a dynamic evaluator and closer in recruiting is someone who currently doesn’t have an office at the Gug, is there a reconfiguration on the defensive staff that allows Hudson to stay on in some capacity and utilizes Elston in a more prominent role?

Personnel carousel I

The first career start of junior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner on Saturday, the shift of freshman cornerback Julian Love to safety, the sheer dominance of linebacker Greer Martini (9.2 tackles per game in five career games against triple-option offenses) and the weird, soap operatic existence of nose guard Jarron Jones the past couple of weeks all largely lose their relevance as ND’s shifts back to facing conventional offenses.

Really good conventional offenses, with elite quarterbacks in Jarod Evans of Virginia Tech and Sam Darnold of USC.

Where each of those teams have been vulnerable on offense is turning the ball over. Tech is 97th nationally in (fewest) turnovers lost, USC 70th. Pressure and pass rush, the biggest ongoing evolutionary challenges amid overall defensive improvement, will be in high demand against both teams.

So does that mean larger doses of freshman end Daelin Hayes, more blitzing, more putting those freshman corners in coverage with little or no safety help? At this juncture, it should.

Kelly has nothing to lose with a bold game plan. It was the difference in how the Irish approached Navy and Army. Granted, the Mids have better options in their triple-option, but the approach against Army was notably more aggressive — and effective.

Personnel carousel II

Virginia Tech’s pass defense is the best by far Notre Dame will see this season (12th nationally in pass-efficiency defense), and ND junior DeShone Kizer will be the third QB ranked among the top 25 in pass efficiency to test it.

The Hokies got to face No. 10 Mitch Trubisky of North Carolina in the same tentacle of Hurricane Matthew the Irish played in against N.C. State on Oct. 8.

Weather aside, one of the reasons the pass defense is so strong is because of the pressure the Hokies put on opposing offensive lines, both in the pass and run game. Virginia Tech ranks sixth nationally in tackles for loss.

All of which will test an up-and-down Notre Dame offensive line that added a new piece in grad senior Mark Harrell at right guard on Saturday — a promotion and not an injury-related move.

Oh brother

Grad senior Jarron Jones’ aversion to playing against the triple-option offenses of Navy and Army the past two games have led to an interesting phenomenon within his family.

Younger brother Jamir, a freshman outside linebacker, has actually racked up more tackles in each of the past two weeks than has his NFL prospect big brother.

On Saturday, Jarron collected two, while Jamir — playing mostly on special teams — garnered three.

“His physical traits are ones that we have been very impressed with,” Kelly said of 6-foot-3, 225-pounder who played a season of quarterback out of necessity in high school.

“We think he's going to come on quite quickly for us in the spring and over the summer, where he can be a very valuable player for us. He played very, very physical for us. Some big hits on our special teams, and I think he's just a young man that's going to continue to grow and be a big part of what we do.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly walks on the sidelines during the second half of the Shamrock Series game against Army, Saturday in San Antonio, Texas. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)