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OFD Films: Notre Dame Spring Game 2017. The Defense

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A breakdown of the new defensive system revealed in the 2017 spring football game. A little says a lot.

Notre Dame v Pittsburgh Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

To new beginnings...

While reviewing the tape of the spring game for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, I stopped about half-way through to collect my thoughts for a moment. Usually, at this point in a film breakdown I have a page or two of scribbled notes and thoughts about what I’ve seen. This time, I didn’t have much written down. It was mostly a bunch of loopy-loops and some stick men chasing each other.

Any sane person viewing this piece of paper would probably deduce me as mentally unstable and suffering from a extreme case of ADHD. Now, I can’t say I wouldn’t think the same thing- except I know the real reason for my lack of production. A good reason, in that Mike Elko’s defense isn’t anything to write home about. Its simplicity is its best quality.

OFD Film Room The wonderful @phillykelly

As noted in the series I wrote detailing the 4-2-5, it’s a defense designed to keep assignment responsibility low with a focus on effort and execution. Lets take a quick look at this past Saturday’s spring game in a broad spectrum. Realizing again, a spring game will only show you the tendencies you can expect to see in the fall- without revealing every nuance that will be in place once the real games start.

First, looking at the defensive front there are a couple of noticeable features. The DE play will be improved. Dealin Hayes is a monster and Jay Hayes has improved greatly. Both will wreck havoc this year from the outside end positions. The other component that was very constant was the design of the scheme on where the 4 down lineman (no matter the formation) aligned themselves from tackle to tackle. Meaning, the DE’s didn’t slide out to cover the outside shoulder of the TE when he was on the line of scrimmage.

This is sound fundamental football in that it allows the 6 gaps to be accounted for on all snaps along the line. In this scenario it allows the 2 LBs on the inside to be very active in pursuit and blitz assignments. All of this creates tremendous pressure on your offensive line to account for everyone in the front 6 of the 4-2-5. Elko utilizes this method to pressure the run game to look outside for room to maneuver, allowing for the back 5 in the defense to clean everything up. A good number of line calls in the spring game were designed to slant the DTs at an angle to create holes within the line, opening gaps in the blocking assignments upfront. This can be problematic at times if you guess wrong on the direction of your slant.

On the first touchdown run from Josh Adams, the inside guys angled too far left, creating a huge hole because the linebacker came in too close while hitting the hole. Nobody was left to cover on the cutback. This leads me to my concern on the front line.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame Spring Game Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Elko is designing these techniques because he has no choice.

Like I noted above, I think our defensive front will be improved. Especially on the outside. Its the group as a whole that worries me. As any defensive coach will tell you, if your having to bring pressure from other places, not able to rely solely on your front 4, it is a sign that your defensive front is going to be used for establishing your base, and not make plays.

Our interior is going to have to get better- especially against the run.

The drop off from the 1st unit to 2nd unit on the line is even more noticeable. Can they get better? Of course, but you are what you are, and they may never develop into that kind of front. The good news here is Notre Dame finally has a coach who recognizes this possibility and will maximize what talent he does have to get the best results possible. You can already see on certain plays where the instruction is being processed better by the players themselves.

Examples:

  • Motion is picked up immediately by the LBs and safety. They were very disciplined in shifting with the TEs and communicated with the other guys to read which was the strong side after the movement. This put them in better situations- not to be out flanked on the edge.
  • The DE’s were reading the OT’s first step off the snap to identify run or pass. On the plays I did chart, both Ends looked to gauge if the tackle stepped laterally and planted, or took a wide “gathering” step to the outside to set the edge of the pocket. This tells me these guys are being taught well and not get lost in the game.
  • This defense fits Drue Tranquill to perfection. He has the physicality to cover the run game, but possess enough burst to hit those aforementioned gaps to bring pressure.
  • Other than the 2 corners, the Notre Dame linebacker core is good, very good. This goes hand in hand with what I’m seeing from Elko and his base defense. The defensive front, on most occasions are acting like offensive lineman in reality, engaging the offensive line to open up holes for pursuit. The thing that stood out to me the most was the discipline in which they attacked the front without losing site of the running back. In the majority of snaps, if the back didn't flare immediately the ILB never lost vision of him. If the back did flare, the safety coming up picked up the running back while the inside backers tracked crossing routes or blitzed, whichever the call happened to be. The main focus here was the seamless transition in the shifting of responsibilities. This tells me that the players aren’t lost in the system and can play with more relaxed effort.
  • The LB’s dropped deeper into coverage than I expected. I think this was to give help to the deep safeties who are still struggling to cut off the deeper routes. The spacing in the second level of the secondary was good however, meaning that the coverage did a good job of reading the routes and adjusting to the receivers. This will lead to more turnovers in the fall and indicates again that the scheme being installed is making it easier for the defense to read and react.
  • The corners are special. Did a tremendous job technique wise against a very good wide receiver group. Would body up, especially on the outside guys to push them toward the sideline. Didn’t always work, but you could see the wide outs had to fight for several receptions while being tightly covered. You can see the developmental process here is definitely at work, on the receivers release, the corners immediately engaging the inside shoulder to get leverage.
  • The defensive backs on the whole are reading the hips of the receivers better, and watching their hips to gauge which route was developing and not focusing on head and arm movement like we have seen in the past.
  • I liked how, on every play, the defense was never outnumbered by the offensive front. Meaning that if a TE lined up on the line, the defense dropped another guy down to essentially run a 4-3. I believe, more than anything else, that this shows the instinctual nature of Mike Elko. He absolutely will not allow a formation to have him outnumbered at the point of attack. Pressure is the name of the game here, be it run or pass. Have people around the ball and not have the focus be on one guy to make the play. The design of a defense should always be to gather and pursue. Get as many people around the play as possible and you will limit big plays while creating turnovers.

All in all, it was about what I expected from the Notre Dame spring game. I still see some holes up front, and in the deep middle. But taking it all in as a whole, I like the progress. This Fighting Irish group is playing smarter football. A style of play that gives you a chance, and fits what you can do best. Not what you wish you could be.

Here’s a good story to relate to this thinking... In 1990, when I first got into coaching, I attended a coaching clinic at Auburn University. To get a perspective of the time back then Auburn was just coming off a run of dominance in the SEC, one built on defense and the running game. Pat Dye, the head coach then decided that he might need to go against his gut instinct and everything he knew to modernize the Auburn offense, thinking that they had become to predictable. So at the clinic he brought in Lavell Edwards, the famed BYU head coach and offensive genius to talk to his staff. They worked together for about a week and Edwards did his best to help install a pro style attack. At the end of the clinic Dye invited Edwards to talk to us as a group before we left. Dye stood up, bestowed all kinds of praise and admiration towards Lavell Edwards, thanking him for coming all the way from Utah. He stopped suddenly and looked over the room full of coaches, then back at Edwards and said:

I must admit that everything you taught to me and my staff was some of the most creative offensive stuff I’ve ever heard, and I appreciate it. But I still don’t understand a damn thing about the passing game and I’d rather punt on 3rd and 20 than throw the ball.”

In other words, be who you are. Play to your strengths. This year the Fighting Irish will score often, the defense just needs to be sound. The rest will take care of itself.