The ninth of 14 storylines as we approach the 2014 football season...
Some folks loved Bob Diaco and were sad to see him leave, others were not a big fan and were ready to move on. Exactly what percentage of Irish fans exist in those two groups I'm not sure but I do believe a third group is the majority that liked Diaco a lot but realized a need for change, or at least aren't afraid to see him leave.
Bob Diaco was at Notre Dame for 4 years which, unless you were planning on a Bud Fosterian stay, was a somewhat lengthy run in the modern game of college football. Although I believed he'd stick around for another year or two and end up with a decent major conference head coaching position it appears Diaco was ready to get his shot at UConn.
Good luck this year, Bobby.
So now we're entering the era of Brian VanGorder. At first the word out of South Bend was that the defense wouldn't be changing that much. Then that turned into the system staying multiple but with more 40 fronts. Now, it looks like the accepted wisdom is that the Irish are a full-blown 4-3 defense that probably won't be using the 3-4 as much anymore.
Of course what makes football exciting is that we really don't know what we'll see until the games are played and even fall practice will leave plenty of questions on scheme, play-calling, and packages. More aggressiveness, more one-gapping, more man coverage, and more blitzing seem to be the order of the day.
But how much of these new things will we see? How much is the typical new coaching talking points? Let's take a look at each level of the defense and discuss some of the issues.
Brian VanGorder doesn't run a Dave Wannstedt-type of system where he'll be relying almost exclusively on his front four to get pressure. Yet, this system will put more pressure on the ends to wreak havoc. Although to be fair, I think Diaco let his ends loose (particularly Tuitt) a lot more than people remember. The big issue for Notre Dame at this position is a pair of veterans who are transitioning to a new position but one which suits their skill-set a lot better. As we mentioned in the most recent podcast it's possible we see a nice jump in wow factor from Ishaq and Okwara mainly because they will be more comfortable as rush ends. Still, there isn't great depth here and a few players need to step up.
I think we'll be pleasantly surprised by this unit depending on how players like Rochell, Matuska, and Springmann are used. If those big bodies are playing on the interior more than as jumbo ends then they will combine with Jones and Day to create a nice wall of meat and playmaking ability. There's also some positive summer buzz about freshman Daniel Cage and despite his New York City background I think Hayes might be able to contribute a little something in his first year too. Still can't afford an injury to the projected starters but that goes for just about any position on most teams, right?
So we have Jaylon on the weak-side and then a whole bucket full of candidates to play the strong-side. From a personnel standpoint the SAM linebacker spot should be the most intriguing of fall camp. Turner and Onwualu made big moves during the spring and offer speed on smaller frames. Does Councell win this job in fall camp, though? Does someone else emerge? Does a reliance on more nickel and dime packages take the pressure off of finding "the guy" at SAM? What is the coaching staff looking for out of this position on first and second down?
All eyes will be on Joe Schmidt. The new DC heaped plenty of praise upon the former walk-on especially in the all-important area of understanding the defense. Someone who will have to learn the defense is incoming star recruit Nyles Morgan. Who wins that battle? The history of the coaching staff suggests it will be the experience of Schmidt.
Diaco was able to walk into a solid situation at cornerback and Brian VanGorder does as well. There aren't so much major questions here as much as there is a wait to see how the pecking order is established below Russell and also who gets to take the primary nickel corner snaps.
Everything is pointing to a tandem of Collinsworth and Redfield for 2014. It remains to be seen if 5th-year transfer Cody Riggs will play a role as a regular safety. Since I think Collinsworth has limitations and Redfield is very unproven I would make the case this might be VanGorder's biggest challenge for a positional group.
It would appear VanGorder has his hands full with this defense although there is plenty of room for promise if a few things fall into place. I'm actually more bullish on the defensive line than most and I think the coaching change is really going to light a fire for a handful of players. Not that I expect someone like Ishaq to have an amazing year but at least he won't be wasting his time backpedaling with a slot receiver 20 yards down the field anymore.
I'm most concerned about the MIKE and SAM linebacker positions plus getting consistency out of the safety position. These are the spots that we absolutely must find answers to before the season begins. That should come in the form of not just putting starters in place (safety looks like we're already there) but also making it so these positions are productive and not holding us back.