NOTRE DAME — A new defensive coordinator with a new defensive scheme means a new approach to how Brian Kelly tackles spring football.
Typically at this point in the spring, he isn't evaluating his third-down defense.
"It’s usually a migraine headache day for the quarterbacks and the offense,” Notre Dame's head coach said. “Because we’re going to be using a lot of sub packages we wanted to be able to start to evaluate some of those players. That was today.”
Kelly said the focus this spring is to develop personnel rather than leadership. A good chunk of that focus falls on figuring out the defense.
With the loss of Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Kona Schwenke, Notre Dame's defensive strength and experience swings towards its back end. A loaded secondary gives Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder more opportunities to tinker around with speed packages. While coaches figure out how to place all the pieces at their disposal, a handful of players are floating between spots.
Jaylon Smith, a to-be sophomore who played a prominent role at outside linebacker last season, is one of those pieces. At practice, Wednesday, March 19, Smith drifted between his typical outside spot to a more pass-rush dominant inside position.
"We’re overloading him, quite frankly, with a number of different looks," Kelly said. “We don’t want offenses to know where he is. We’re going to play him in a number of different positions."
Matthias Farley, a safety-turned-cornerback, also had a new role in Wednesday's defense. The fifth-year senior made an impressive debut in 2012 but followed it up with a spotty 2013 campaign. On Wednesday, Farley rotated in as a nickel back in a sub package that figures to be utilized more often this season.
"I think we’ve talked about finding a position for him," Kelly said of Farley. "He’s a pretty good athlete. He’s got some size. He’s got some experience playing at the highest level. Quite frankly, I think we’re still really early in that process for a lot of guys."
As Farley and Smith get comfortable with their new responsibilities, players like Cole Luke, Jarron Jones and Ishaq Williams grow accustomed to their new duties in more familiar schemes. By the end of spring, the patchwork defense hopes to be smoother and ready to debut for the Blue-Gold scrimmage.
"We’ve got a lot of things going on," Kelly said. "I think really what’s most important is that we get a handle on our personnel and really develop those guys at their positions right now. We’ll spend some time in June, now that we have sometime with our guys, we’ll spend June as that opportunity to develop that leadership with our guys."