SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame’s defense has a different mindset.
Under former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, now the head coach at Connecticut, the Fighting Irish focused on keeping the play in front of them and not giving up big plays. Irish players say new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder wants to be more aggressive.
“Coach Diaco’s defense was bend-but-don’t break, play a little soft, let them catch the curl-ins that aren’t going to beat you, prevent big plays,” cornerback KeiVarae Russell said. “This year we’re going to change that bend-don’t-break to attack. A lot more man-to-man, a lot more aggressive mindset. I’m excited.”
Defense was a key for the Irish in 2012 when they posted their first undefeated regular season since winning the national championship in 1988, losing 42-14 to Alabama in the title game. The Irish finished second in the nation in points allowed at 12.8 points a game, and seventh in total defense, giving up 305 yards a game. The Irish defense was not nearly as strong this past season, allowing 22.4 points a game, finishing 27th in the nation, and was 31st in total defense at 366.2 yards a game.
VanGorder said he believes the key to defense is trying to take control by being aggressive, saying it starts with the play of the cornerbacks.
“That’s where you start your decisions as a coach. Can we hold up out there? If you have a corner that can press and take a guy out of a game, that’s huge,” he said.
That’s quite a change from the past few years, when the Irish depended on the front seven to make the big plays and the secondary was seen as the weak link. Russell said he can see that VanGorder is counting on the secondary, saying it the Irish have only been in zone defense a handful of times this spring. He said the Irish also are blitzing more.
“That’s how you create turnovers, break up a lot of passes and you have a lot of opportunities to be around the ball and pick it off,” he said.
VanGorder said it’s still early to speculate about who will be playing where or exactly what the defense will look like when the Irish open the season against Rice on Aug. 30. The Irish are moving some players around, switching John Turner from safety to linebacker, Matthias Farley from safety to cornberback and playing the nickel and moving outside linebacker Jaylon Smith to different positions to keep opponents guessing.
“We’re trying to get speed on the field,” VanGorder said.
Safety Austin Collinsworth said it’s been difficult trying to take in all the changes.
“It’s kind of like being in final exams for three weeks straight, that’s how this spring has been,” Collinsworth said. “It’s new terminology, new hand signals, new this, new that. Everything’s different.”
Collinsworth isn’t the only one struggling to take it all in.
“It’s just a new system,” said defensive end Ishaq Williams, who played linebacker last season. “It’s a whole different thinking process from the 3-4 so I’m trying to get used to it.”
While Williams alluded to the Irish switching away from a 3-4 defense, coach Brian Kelly and VanGorder say Notre Dame will continue to switch between the 3-4 and 4-3 base defenses as it did under Diaco. So far during the sessions open to the media, the Irish have been running almost all 4-3.
“We want to be multiple, so we want to keep building that way,” VanGorder said. “It just so happens that as you see the early install, you’re seeing a lot of a 4-3 look. But there’s 3-4 look out there, too. We’re mixing that in and trying to evaluate and see what works best for us.”
VanGorder said it is challenge trying to install a new defense in 15 spring practices.
“All of a sudden you’re getting out there and you’re behind in some things you’re getting from the offense and you’re coaching on the run and then you try to repair it through film and you hope it solves that issue,” he said. “It’s going to come up at times because I can’t cover everything we’re going to get from our offense.”
The key for the Irish is being able to cover everything they get from opposing offenses this fall.