Fixing the Notre Dame Defense

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

An open letter to new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder

Coach VanGorder,

Welcome to One Foot Down. I know you've been on the job for a while now; however, we couldn't formally welcome you to the community until our vetting process had passed the initial stages. Now that you have gained the most basic level of clearance, feel free to spend some time perusing the site. Play your cards right and you might even get an opportunity to join the astute and reasoned OFD commentariat! But now that we've dispensed with the pleasantries, it's time to get down to business. Let's talk about what you need to do to get the Fighting Irish defense back to ELITE status.

Bob Diaco did a great job of building a solid foundation before he left. Under his watch, recruiting, player development, and basic skills such as tackling all improved. You inherit a defense that is for the most part fundamentally sound and disciplined. What the Irish need from you, Coach VanGorder, is to build upon this foundation. Maintain the fundamentals, but take more risks and play more aggressively. I know what you are thinking: we all watched the 2013 Michigan game and saw a defense that wasn't ready to play aggressively. Good point. Jon Tenuta taught us that you can't draw up a bunch of blitzes, wave a magic wand, sprinkle some pixie dust, and create an aggressive defense. Fortunately, Coach, you inherit two athletes that will help you play the aggressive style of defense that I (and many in the OFD community) covet.

Jaylon Smith

It was pretty obvious that the 2013 Irish linebacking corps wasn't great in space. This was particularly evident in pass coverage. The silver lining? There was one notable exception: freshman phenom Jaylon Smith. The uber-talented linebacker has the ability to cover large portions of the field, especially in pass coverage. Take a look at this clip and you'll see what I mean.


I urge you to take advantage of his freakish athleticism. Move him around, blitz him off the edge, blitz him up the middle, drop him in pass coverage. If you're feeling really crazy have him fake a blitz and drop into coverage. Whatever you do, please don't use him exclusively at the Dog position. It's too easy for other teams to avoid him by running or passing to the opposite side of the field. Move Jaylon Smith to the middle of the defense at least some of the time. This will allow him to make plays from sideline to sideline. 2012 (and by way of contrast, 2013) taught us that having a giant eraser (Manti Te'o) in the middle of the defense can hide a lot of weaknesses and allow you to take more risks. Jaylon Smith can be that eraser in 2014.

KeiVarae Russell

It's no secret that the Fighting Irish secondary struggled at times in man coverage last year. KeiVarae Russell was not immune to these struggles early in the season (click here if you want to see an example). The difference with Russell was that he improved significantly as the year progressed. By the latter half of the season he was Notre Dame's best defensive back and had turned into a shut down corner. This was clearly demonstrated in the Pinstripe Bowl where Russell did an outstanding job of defending 6'6" 220-pound receiver Brandon Coleman in one on one situations.

A player like Russell needs to be put on an island. Lock him up on one on one. No safety help. One man wolf pack. Just let him compete. Mano-a-mano. Two men enter - one man leaves. Steel cage death match....you get the point. There will be two key benefits to this approach. The first is that Russell will thrive with the added responsibility. He is the type of player that loves the challenge of going against the other team's best receiver and will elevate his game accordingly. The other is that leaving Russell on an island frees up a player. KVR doesn't need help over the top. You can use that extra defender elsewhere to gain a numeric advantage. We all know that to be more aggressive (at least in terms of blitzes) you need to find guys who can play man coverage. KeiVarae Russell is your starting point.

Well coach, we wish you nothing but luck and success this year. If you'd like more advice like this please feel free to send the Notre Dame jet to pick up the OFD staff. We would be happy to come to South Bend and share our expertise in a wide range of topics such as foraging, mauling, blind spots, miracle whip, chili and a whole host of other incredibly useful and interesting subjects. We look forward to visiting with you.

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