Former Irish standouts weigh in on Notre Dame's next defensive coordinator
He dreamed of playing running back beyond his Humble (Texas) High School days.
Lou Holtz fell in love with the same skill set and projected Bertrand Berry as a high-ceiling defensive player. By the time he left Notre Dame after the 1996 season, Berry was a part defensive end, part outside linebacker and all in as the school’s single-season sacks leader.
Along the way, he learned how much really good assistant coaches can make a difference.
And now at age 41, and with Justin Tuck, Stephon Tuitt and Victor Abiamiri having nudged him and Mike Gann to No. 4 on the sacks list, Berry is hoping to see those same qualities in current Irish head football coach Brian Kelly’s next defensive coordinator.
Kelly told the Tribune on Dec. 4 that the process would move into a more active phase this week once the NCAA mandated dead period in recruiting kicked in on Monday.
“One of the things I look at is a guy who understands young men,” said Berry, now a sports radio talk show host and football analyst in Phoenix (Arizona Sports 98.7 FM) after a successful 13-year pro football run.
“More times than not, at a place like Notre Dame, you want to have the name guy and you want to have a guy who has the reputation, who has the résumé that says he’s a no-brainer.
“But you have to have a guy who can understand his personnel.”
For Berry, that was position coaches Kirk Doll and Charlie Strong. Yes, that Charlie Strong. He credits them with laying the foundation for an NFL career that included a Pro Bowl berth and the distinction of being the league’s sack leader in 2004.
Roughly 2,000 miles away, in Cincinnati, former Notre Dame linebacker Rocky Boiman (1998-2001) looks at his Notre Dame experience through a slightly different prism as well as the current situation with the Irish on defense.
Boiman, whose eight-year NFL career included a Super Bowl title with Indianapolis, sees a wealth of talent on the current Irish defensive roster. But it was diluted, he said, by a scheme, under ousted coordinator Brian VanGorder, that wasn’t the right fit.
Berry sees a dearth of fast-twitch athletes in pass-rushing roles that the Irish must address this offseason through recruiting and/or position switches.
What they both agree upon is the scheme — whether it be 3-4, 4-3 or a combination of both — must be simpler than the one VanGorder brought with him from the NFL and employed during his 30-game run that ended with an in-season firing on Sept. 25.
“When I watch some of the top-notch defenses, like Alabama, they don’t play a lot of different coverages,” Berry said. “They play one or two coverages, but they’ve got a lot of studs that just go and fly to the football. They just have a burning desire to get there.
“If guys get inundated with a lot of verbiage and a lot of checks, chances are it’s not going to translate as well, because you’re still talking about 18- to 21-year olds. You don’t want them thinking too much. You just let them go and react to what they see.”
“If you’re Notre Dame and you’ve got great players, why not run a scheme that’s aggressive and attacks and all that but allows the athleticism of the players to take over?” Boiman said. “That, first and foremost, is what Brian Kelly should be looking for.
“Can your coach get players to understand their job and their roles better than another coach can? That’s what makes great coaches vs. average coaches.”
Boiman, 36, came to Notre Dame from Cincinnati, where he was a high school safety, and ended up an outside linebacker during the Bob Davie regime.
Currently a sports/political radio talk show host (WLW 700 AM) in his home town and a college football analyst for ESPN, Boiman was lured to ND by then-area recruiter Urban Meyer, currently Ohio State’s head football coach.
“It’s funny, people ask me why Ohio State is so good,” Boiman said. “When that guy walks in your house, it’s over, it’s a done deal, because he has that charisma and the ability to recruit. To be fair, I grew up wanting to go to Notre Dame, so he didn’t have to sell me that hard.”
Once Boiman arrived, though, he found himself sometimes miscast in the scheme employed by Davie and then-coordinator Greg Mattison, having to take on offensive tackles as a down lineman in certain situations and sets, and never quite getting the handle on it.
“Greg Mattison, I thought, did a good job, taught me a lot about football, taught me a lot about aggressive defense,” Boiman said, “and I thought that was great.
“But most of my NFL career and all my successful years in the league, I was dropping into coverage. I always thought that was my strongpoint — coverage, and understanding that.”
In Boiman’s mind, the ability to teach should trump experience calling plays in Kelly’s search, even if he ends up hiring a first-time defensive coordinator who’s currently a position coach.
“If the guys can teach you the ins and outs of the defense, you didn’t have to think,” Boiman said. “You can react and be a player.
“I’d make sure I had a very charismatic guy, who could get out there and recruit. You want a guy who, when he’s talking, makes you want to sit up in your chair and lean in and start picking up and buying what he’s selling.”
On the day VanGorder was fired, Notre Dame (4-8) was on a trajectory defensively that would have tied the 2016 team for the worst rankings nationally in school history with the 2-8 1956 Irish squad that finished 103rd in total defense and 101st in scoring defense.
Over the final eight games, which did include an offense-suppressing game played in a hurricane but against offenses that were consistently more potent than the four the Irish faced under VanGorder, ND improved to 45th in total defense and 62nd in scoring defense (out of 128 teams in the FBS).
If you isolate to the numbers to only the final eight games, the Irish would have ranked 19th and 47th, respectively. That was under the collaborative leadership of linebackers coach Mike Elston, interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and Kelly.
If the Irish are going to take another step forward on that side of the ball, Berry said better evaluation and recruiting goes hand in hand with the hiring of the next coordinator.
It’s important, he said, not to overlook the multi-sport athletes in favor of those who whittled their focus down to football. Berry said being a standout discus thrower in track and field, and a basketball player helped him accelerate the pass-rush skill set once he was flipped to defense at Notre Dame.
“Without those other sports, I’m not the player that I was,” he said.
“You go out and get the guy you see the potential in and that can really go after it, really athletic — can run, can jump, can do all those things. And then bring them into the program and then you coach them up the best you can.
“The guys who are really receptive to coaching? They’ll thrive. And the guys that aren’t, it doesn’t work out.”
Looking for the athletes with high motors is part of improving both ND’s run defense — ranked in the 70s for the fourth year in a row — and a pass rush that ranks 118th nationally in sacks.
“They’re both desire,” he said. “They’re both want-to and determination. I think stopping the run has always been a mental attitude. You either want to do it or you don’t. You can tell very quickly the guys who don’t mind putting their nose in there, getting the ball carrier down.
“Just like with the pass rush. I mean, there is skill that is involved in it. But more times than not, the guys that are really successful and really do it for a long period of time, they just have a burning desire to get to the quarterback by any means necessary.
“If you work at it and continue to be relentless, those are the guys I’ve seen really take their game to another level. And those are the kind of players Notre Dame needs to be successful.”