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Notre Dame defense embracing the challenges of new expectations

A faster, more aggressive defense is in store for 2014.

Posted on March 21, 2014 at 8:12 p.m.

NOTRE DAME — In a jarring moment of unfamiliarity, Jaylon Smith lined up in the center of the defense.

It came during practice Wednesday, March 19, when the lifelong outside linebacker moved inside for the first time in his career.

As part of Notre Dame's shifting scheme, head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are playing with pieces of the defense during the spring.

Smith is a cornerstone of such changes, scooting inside for certain packages and moving back outside for others. With a ceiling as high as Smith's, Kelly and VanGorder can afford to experiment with his talents.

"We're finding that out right now as to what he can do," Kelly said after practice. "We don't want offenses to know where he is. We're going to play him in a number of different positions. He can be inside, outside, we're moving him all over the place."

But rather than feeling out of place, lost or overwhelmed, the sophomore feels energized.

"I'm blessed with that opportunity. It's not going to do anything but help me in the long run," he said.

Another piece in VanGorder's plan is the swap from a 3-4 defense once dominated by Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix to a 4-3 defense with extra emphasis on the secondary.

Ishaq Williams, once an outside linebacker, swings up to become the fourth defensive end. Williams, a 2014 senior, said the biggest hurdle so far is nailing down consistency along the four-man front.

"We're definitely in the beginning stages of it," he said "Just trying to learn what I have to do and commit it to a routine."

Junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell accepts the additional responsibilities loaded on the secondary, which finally enters the spring as the most experienced unit on the defense.

Four practices into the spring, Russell can already see the major differences between a Bob Diaco-run defense and a VanGorder-run defense — namely, the emphasis on aggression.

With Diaco, Notre Dame focused on not giving up the big play, even if that meant playing more tentatively. As a result, the Irish locked down a respectable 15th-ranked pass defense in 2013, limiting opposing quarterbacks to an average of 198 yards per game.

On the other hand, the cautious defense only forced 17 turnovers and was also prone to getting caught sleeping over the middle.

With VanGorder, it's all aggression, all the time.

"He wants us to be up on every single route, every single route," Russell said. "Two-yard curl, he wants you on it. Even if you're 10 yards off. That's his mindset. Don't give them anything. Do not give them anything."

While Jarrett Grace, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox were frequently burned in underneath routes through the 2013 season, Smith lurking in the middle gives Notre Dame an immediate chance to force more turnovers. After all, Manti Te'o grabbed seven interceptions as an inside linebacker in 2012.

Inside, outside or a bit of both, Smith is ready to become an integral piece in the newly reformed defense.

"In terms of being challenged, it's something that I wanted," he said.


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