NOTRE DAME — After spending the better part of 23 years of pinballing around college and professional football, Brian VanGorder has landed in a familiar place with a familiar face.
From stints in NCAA Division II to the Southeastern Conference to NFL stops in Jacksonville, Fla., Atlanta and New York, VanGorder landed as Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator. The Jackson, Mich., native reunites with head coach Brian Kelly, who coached with VanGorder at Grand Valley State from 1989-91.
Kelly said the former New York Jets linebacker coach fit the bill of what he was looking for in a successor to Bob Diaco.
“The first thing is that he’s a great teacher,” Kelly said at VanGorder’s introductory press conference Tuesday, Jan. 14. “In order to bring together our defensive players, you need the ability to communicate and teach, and Brian is one of the very best teachers if not the best teacher I’ve ever been around.”
“I think the second thing that stands out is he understands player development,” Kelly continued. “Anyone that I want to be around on a day-to-day basis has to understand the important principles of player development and bringing them along and really understanding how important it is to get those traits out of our players.”
Though much of VanGorder’s early coaching experience came from college football, he’s spent seven of the last nine years in the NFL. He recognizes the college game has changed, especially offensively, which presents a defensive coordinator with a new set of challenges.
“I would say today that there’s more of the quarterback running game,” he said. “It’s more widespread. Then that kind of, you know, wildcat series started taking off and defensively we were trying to, you know, kind of catch up with some of that that was going on. And that’s kind of what you’re seeing more of, you know, that wildcat series, but now it’s a quarterback that can run the ball with the threat of the pass, and it’s changed the numbers. It’s changed the numbers in terms of how we see it as a defensive coach, and it naturally creates problems.”
VanGorder stayed away from diving into the X’s and O’s of his coaching style or future schemes, simply saying that the time for those discussions will come after he has a chance to evaluate current personnel.
“My experience tells me to always do a good job of evaluating the current players and then make decisions that best play to their strengths,” he said. “No matter what you run schematically, you want your players to have enthusiasm for what they’re doing and have their standards and expectations relative to what we do, whether it’s 4-3 or 3-4.
“When I put the film on, I like our players’ intensity. You could see in their body language their enthusiasm,” he said. “They’re all in and that’s an important thing as you build scheme. They have a commitment to excellence and they represent Notre Dame. That’s the way it should be.”
VanGorder did offer up a small nugget of his coaching philosophy.
“I’m built to stop the run,” VanGorder said. “If you look at my record, you’ll find our defenses have been solid against the run.”
The Jets finished third in the NFL in run defense this season, and Atlanta finished sixth against the run in 2011. VanGorder won the 2003 Broyles Award, which honors the nation’s top assistant in college football, for his work at Georgia. But his most recent stop in college football wasn’t as fruitful. With VanGorder at the helm of the defense, the 2012 Auburn Tigers finished last in the Southeastern Conference and 115th in total defense.
Though he’s flitted around a lot, VanGorder feels at home with a Notre Dame staff he already knows fairly well. Alongside Kelly, VanGorder crossed paths with interim offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock at Grand Valley State. He called strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo “one of my best friends in college.”
“What’s important to me now is the people that I work with that the culture is one that is comfortable, that is shares some of the things of who I am. The culture is right, the standards and expectations are in line, and the mission is clear, you know,” he said. “That’s really what I’m looking for, so the opportunity to be here with Brian (Kelly) and to be at Notre Dame just makes it all that much more special.”