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VanGorder eyes defensive strengths and weaknesses

Brian VanGorder takes over the Notre Dame defense...So what does he have to work with?
Posted on Jan. 15, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

NOTRE DAME — Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator hasn’t laid out his defensive philosophy yet, but he likes what he sees so far on film.

“When I put the film on, I like our players’ intensity,” Brian VanGorder said. “You could see in their body language their enthusiasm. They’re all-in and that’s an important thing as you build scheme.”

VanGorder comes to Notre Dame on the heels of the team losing two of its best linemen in school history to the NFL draft and a trio of experienced linebackers to graduation.

While VanGorder still has some studying to do and thousands of reps to watch in spring ball, he has the experience to sew together what remains of the scattered defensive line and a young but talented secondary.

Here’s a snapshot of defense that VanGorder inherits this fall:

Defensive line

Leaving: Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Kona Schwenke, Tyler Stockton.

Returning: Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Jacob Matuska.

Incoming: Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner, Jhonathon Williams.

Easily the unit that suffers the biggest hit heading into the offseason with the loss of Nix and Tuitt to the NFL draft and Schwenke to graduation. Day will return as the only defensive lineman who has started more than one game.

When Nix and Schwenke went down with injuries, Jones emerged as a legitimate candidate for the now-vacant nose guard spot. Rochell also saw unexpected playing time and may be a front-runner for starting defensive end. Hayes, an incoming four-star defensive tackle, will likely also figure into the rotation.

Expect this unit to get a lot of spring and summer evaluation from VanGroder, who claims he is “built to stop the run.”

Linebacker

Leaving: Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, Prince Shembo.

Returning: Jaylon Smith, Jarrett Grace, Romeo Okwara, Ben Councell, Joe Schmidt, Kendall Moore, Dough Randolph, Michael Deeb.

Incoming: Nyles Morgan, Richard Yeargin III, Kolin Hill, Greer Martini, Nile Sykes.

Fox and Calabrese made a reliable, efficient duo in the middle of the field and Shembo had flashes of dominance, but Notre Dame’s best days at linebacker are still ahead. The Irish return Smith, Councell and a likely healed Grace. They’re also bringing in two four-star talents in Morgan and Yeargin.

Morgan recently chose the Irish over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, citing Notre Dame’s need for a middle linebacker and his ability to fill that role.

With VanGorder’s run-stopper mentality and NFL experience, expect to see a more aggressive defensive front.

Cornerback

Leaving: Lo Wood, Bennett Jackson.

Returning: KeiVarae Russell, Cole Luke, Devin Butler, Rashad Kinlaw, Jalen Brown.

Incoming: Nick Watkins.

Losing a tri-captain like Jackson will hurt from a leadership standpoint, but the departing senior’s play suffered a hit this year after an impressive junior outing. Jackson was frequently exploited in secondary mismatches, most recently in Notre Dame’s win over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. By the end of the year, Russell was the far better athlete.

Butler and Luke got enough playing time to compete for a starting job next season, and Russell was playing his best football yet at the end of the season. This unit isn’t exactly deep, with only one verbally committed recruit, but it is talented once Butler and Luke refine their game. Watkins, a four-star commit, may also factor into the rotation this season.

With amped-up pressure from the front seven, expect to see Russell, Luke and Butler juggling more man coverage next season.

Safety

Leaving: N/A.

Returning: Max Redfield, Austin Collinsworth, Matthias Farley, Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate, Eliar Hardy.

Incoming: Drue Tranquill.

If Collinsworth is granted a fifth year (which he should be), Notre Dame will retain all of its safeties for the 2014 season. As much as Farley and Shumate struggled with consistency last year, Redfield impressed in his freshman outings and Baratti is scheduled to return from a shoulder injury.

If Farley can improve his awareness and Shumate can polish his technique, this unit could be fairly deep.

Expect Redfield and Collinsworth to hold down the starting spots in the fall, with Baratti and Farley close behind.


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