This is the last installment of a spring series focusing on the Notre Dame defense. If you missed the previous 3 articles here they are:
Investigating Notre Dame's Multiple Front Defense
Investigating Notre Dame's Multiple Front Defense, Part II
Stuck in No Man's Land: Mixing Gap Responsibilities with the 4-3 Defense
This series was born out of discussions between myself and Larz. We've been talking about moving Jaylon Smith around long before it became a real thing in spring practice or the 10-1 base defense was sprung on the world. We are most pleased with these developments.
One of the most curious aspects to Bob Diaco's defense and play-calling over the past two years is the limited use of a nickel package.
In 2010 the Irish had a nice rotation of defensive backs in Harrison Smith, Gary Gray, Robert Blanton, Zeke Motta, Darrin Walls, and Jamoris Slaughter. In 2011 the Irish lost Walls to graduation but retained the 5 other DB's to form a competent nickel package.
Starting in the early part of the 2012 season when outside linebacker Danny Spond was cleared to play and Jamoris Slaughter was lost for the season with a torn Achilles the Irish did not rely very much on a nickel package. This reluctance to use nickel carried right through the entire 2013 season as well. I was going to track the use of nickel packages in a few games last year but instead of spending those hours full of fun I think the player tackle totals tell a story our eyes have been able to see on the field anyway.
Top 6 Defensive Back Total Tackles
Top 5 Defensive Back Total Tackles
That's roughly a 25% drop in tackles which is coming almost entirely from a lack of a nickel corner over the past two years.
Another telling stat is that the primary nickel corner in 2010 Robert Blanton finished that season with 54 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. The primary nickel corners over the past two seasons (Elijah Shumate in '12 and Cole Luke in '13) have COMBINED for 26 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.
Why has the nickel corner been used so much less since 2012? We can point to a few reasons:
1) A lack of depth among the secondary
Remember back in 2012 when Notre Dame had to break in 2 new starting corners and then lost Jamoris Slaughter to injury after 3 games? The lack of numbers in recruiting and transfers from players like E.J. Banks really zapped the depth in the secondary heading into Diaco's 3rd season.
Conversely, the coaching staff had Blanton as a junior with 71 career tackles heading into 2010 and Jamoris Slaughter as a redshirt junior with 45 career tackles heading into 2011. There just wasn't an experienced third defensive back who could be counted on to take reps away from a linebacker in 2012-13.
2) Opponents style of play
This will likely change in the future as Notre Dame's traditional schedule morphs with the ACC agreement but even over the past 2 seasons the Irish have faced a lot of offenses who limit their 3 receiver and 4 receiver sets.
The NFL has clearly morphed into a pass-heavy league with 45% of all defensive snaps using a nickel package. The college game has opened up tremendously as well but the Irish don't face enough spread passing teams or dynamic third and fourth receivers to stay in nickel nearly half the time.
3) The talents of Danny Spond & Jaylon Smith
Diaco really trusted Spond in 2012 because of his smarts and run-stopping ability while Jaylon Smith was trusted in 2013 because of his freakish athletic ability and speed. We sure have heard a lot over the past 2 seasons that Notre Dame hasn't "needed" a nickel corner on the field.
However, with a new defensive coordinator in South Bend and the team devoting a lot of time in spring practice to nickel (and dime) packages it's time to explore why it's become such a focus for the program.
Let's take a look at play from last year to demonstrate the need for a competent nickel package.
This is from Purdue's first drive of the game. They are lining up for their 12th play of the series after they've slowly but surely kept the chains moving. So far, Quarterback Rob Henry is 5 of 6 for 48 yards without throwing the ball 5 yards past the line of scrimmage on any single throw. He's completed 3 screens, a quick out to the tight end, and a quick slant. Purdue has run the ball 5 times for 12 yards.
It is 3rd & 12 after a fumbled snap lost 3 yards on second down. The Boilermakers are in shotgun with 3 wide receivers on an obvious passing down. Notre Dame elects to stay in its base defense in terms of personnel while going with a 4-man front (Nix & Day stunt in the middle after the snap), outside linebacker Jaylon Smith shading out towards the slot receiver, both inside linebackers remain on the field, and both safeties pull up in a Cover-0 look.
The Irish forsake a clear opportunity to use a nickel package but they keep two linebackers weighing 245 and 253 pounds and Purdue goes right after them. Were we really that worried about Purdue picking up a first down on the ground? Sure, you can live with putting Grace on a running back coming out of the backfield on a standard down but is that the best option on 3rd & 12 in a key moment early in a road game?
If you don't have another option don't you have to make one?
The thing is Grace does a pretty good job recognizing the screen. Maybe not as quickly as Manti Te'o once did (who does?) but he picks it up very quickly for a redshirt sophomore without a lot of experience under his belt. Grace could have done a better job of getting underneath the block by the wide receiver yet he gets free anyway and has an opportunity to make a big tackle to force fourth down.
Here is Grace (blue arrow) and Fox (red arrow) both getting caught up with the opponent as the ball is in the air. Grace doesn't have a great angle but he's closed enough space that with some speed he can make a big stop. If not, Fox should be able to at least stop the touchdown. Unfortunately, neither can recover and both end up desperately diving to stop the ball carrier just a split second too late.
Purdue actually ran this same running back screen earlier in the drive for 17 yards. Unfortunately, this was not a kind series for Jarrett Grace. He really struggled making plays.
Here he gets blocked again by the crossing wide receiver and Grace can't get off the block quick enough to prevent the back from racing past the first down marker. To be fair, Grace sort of trips over a stumbling lineman (he's down on the 50-yard line) but he wouldn't have gotten there in time anyway.
Here's another snap. This is the exact moment Grace has identified the play-action fake. Again, solid recognition. He's stopped his forward momentum and is in good position to follow the quarterback.
Henry bootleg's to his left and has some open field in front of him. Grace read this the whole way but couldn't turn to his right quick enough and now finds himself several yards behind Henry to the wide side of the field. He will have to take a good angle and use his speed to prevent a first down if Henry keeps the ball.
Henry stop his feet briefly and looks to make a pass. Grace doesn't bite and has an opportunity to close some ground on the quarterback.
Unfortunately, Henry tucks the ball and gets to the first down marker anyway. I'd also like to point out the hustle by Louis Nix on this play. A 340-pound nose guard is close enough to almost make a tackle on a quarterback bootleg.
Following a friendly spot for the Irish the very next play is a big 3rd & 1 near field goal territory. The Boilers hit their tight end on a quick out and Grace stumbles trying to make the tackle.
Here's a better angle. For some reason Grace takes a step up field with this right foot when the tight end caught the ball and was turning away from him. He wasn't going to make a stop anyway. It's almost like he gets fooled with a stop-and-go move but it's simply a clumsy misstep.
Obviously, Notre Dame isn't going to play nickel on every down but these are good examples of a player like Grace struggling in space. Even with his recognition abilities, smarts, and responsibilities as the Mike linebacker he's just not fast enough at his weight--heavier than both starting defensive ends at Michigan State by the way--to be an impact player against players in space. Therefore, even if he's (God willing) able to come back healthy he's not a good fit for the nickel package.
A major point of emphasis in all of this isn't only "getting lighter" in passing situations but also figuring out exactly where Jaylon Smith fits in with a nickel package. Jim Miesle has pointed out that Notre Dame's base defense with Jaylon on the field is effectively a nickel package, which is true to a point. It's been said that Smith can take away a whole side of the field by himself--a bit of a gross exaggeration for sure--but the flip side to that approach is opponents can simply run a play away from him.
And that's exactly what Purdue did on the above touchdown play. Grace and Fox play the middle of the field but can't make the tackle. Yet, who do you see come into the frame just as the Boilermaker running back crosses the goal line?
Jaylon Smith, running from all the way across the field helplessly unable to make a play on the ball.
This is a possible nickel package for 2014. My dart board guess is that incoming transfer Cody Riggs will wear No. 23, but I'm sure he'll be the nickel corner. Ideally it will be Cole Luke that develops as the second corner but of course Riggs could see some time there as well.
In a perfect world, it'll be Onwualu as the Will linebacker. He offers more speed than Grace, Schmidt, Moore, Deeb and all the other middle linebackers. Turner may be getting first crack here right now but I like Onwualu's physicality, plus he's more proven at this point. We'll also probably see a few bodies rotate at the weak-side defensive end spot in these packages. Trumbetti is the guy I really like there.
Obviously this moves Smith to the middle of the field. What's interesting is that Jaylon almost always came off the field when Notre Dame did go with a nickel package in 2013. It makes no sense to take your best cover linebacker and most athletic player off the field on passing downs.
Now, it's important to point out that Jaylon Smith was a true freshman starting in just the third game of his career against Purdue. The staff very well might not have trusted him to play more of a nickel corner role, to say nothing of moving inside and adding those responsibilities. Still, taking him off the field in passing situations and allowing teams to run plays away from him is something the coaching staff seems to be putting a stop to with their spring planning.
Moreover, as we head into 2014 Smith won't be a young pup anymore as he's the top returning tackler on the entire roster. In my mind these are the 3 keys for addressing more nickel packages this fall:
1) Secondary has depth & could be a strength
The depth just wasn't there the last two years but it will be in 2014. In fact, there's an insane amount of depth when you factor in 5th-year transfer Cody Riggs coming to South Bend from Gainesville. If the staff can get some things fixed at safety and some players start living up to their talent the secondary just might be the strength of the defense.
2) Make Jaylon Smith more of an impact player
This was originally written with the thought in mind that maybe it wouldn't be realistic for Jaylon to move inside with nickel packages but clearly Brian VanGorder is on board with moving his most athletic defender around.
Defensively, interesting to see Jaylon Smith lined up in the A gaps at linebacker, basically where Carlo or Fox were last year.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) March 19, 2014
Brian Kelly said that he’s trying to overload Jaylon Smith this spring, said he wants offenses to not know where he’s lining up every play.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) March 19, 2014
Kelly said there are several guys they are trying to find the right role for on defense. Worked a lot on sub packages today. #NotreDame— Andrew Owens (@BGI_AndrewOwens) March 19, 2014
Either way, Smith has to stay on the field when the nickel corner is used and you have to find some creative ways to let Jaylon use his athleticism and speed to attack the ball. The closer to the middle of the field he lines up the bigger threat he will be to the opponent.
3) More speed equals better blitzing
Let's be honest, the Diaco-led defenses were pretty bad at blitzing. This has been a defense that almost exclusively has relied upon a stout and intimidating defensive line to get pressure on the quarterback with minimal blitzing from other areas, especially the linebackers.
If the secondary is to become the strength of the defense then crafting some 4-2-5 packages and getting a lot less predictable with your blitzes has to be a huge focus moving forward. Many elite defenses, from LSU to TCU and South Carolina to Florida, spend a ton of time in nickel and are capable of remaining strong against the run while utilizing a ton of swarming speed.
So if the coaching staff isn't completely comfortable with their top 3 linebackers a 4-2-5 could be used extensively against the likes of Arizona State, Rice, Purdue, Florida State, and Louisville. It's also a good idea to try and build some nickel packages around the rising superstar Jaylon Smith and make him a more devastating playmaker. We may only have him for 2 more years.