Notre Dame has finally officialized what had been reported as far back as 2013. Former Georgia and Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will take over the same role with the Fighting Irish for the 2014 season.
This is VanGorder's eighth different stop since 2000, spending one season each with Auburn, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New York Jets.
His best years, however, came in Athens from 2001-2004 when he helped Georgia to 42 wins in four seasons and the 2002 SEC Championship. He received the Broyles Award in 2003 as the nation's top assistant coach.
"The first thing I wanted was a great teacher," Kelly said. "When you're talking about the ability to bring together our defensive players, you need the ability to communicate and teach. Brian’s one of the best teachers that I’ve ever been around."
VanGorder, 54, and Kelly spent three seasons together at Grand Valley State from 1989-1991, the last of which was Kelly's first year as a college head coach.
Other stops for VanGorder prior to his stint at Georgia include Wayne State (his alma mater), UCF, Central Michigan and Western Illinois.
"We’re at the University of Notre Dame," Kelly said. "We’re playing for championships. Brian has that experience as a defensive coordinator in the SEC and he’s also sharpened the iron in the NFL."
VanGorder expects his familiarity with Kelly, albeit two decades old, to make the transition a smooth one.
"My first college experience with Brian, we went 11-0," VanGorder recalled. "It involved a lot of success. Watching how our careers have kind of gone, I’ve really enjoyed watching Brian. The one thing I really look forward to are the already-established expectations and then enthusiasm that he’s brought to Notre Dame."
The Notre Dame defense is expected to use multiple fronts, playing both 4-3 and 3-4 alignments.
Earlier on Tuesday on Bill King's SiriusXM radio show, On Campus, Kelly noted (subscription required) that the Irish ran 48 percent of their defensive snaps out of a four-man front, with many coming in nickel situations.
VanGorder stressed the need to evaluate personnel before defining a scheme.
"My experience tells me to always do a good job evaluating the current talent and then make decisions that best play to their strengths," VanGorder said. "When I put the film on, I like our players' intensity. They’re all in. That’s the most important thing as you build scheme."
A complete switch to a 4-3 is unlikely in the near future. Notre Dame is expected to sign seven linebackers next month, so despite the lack of an interior presence up front, the Irish's personnel remains better-suited to a 3-4 base.
The Irish defense under Bob Diaco, now the head coach at Connecticut, rarely rushed more than four. That could change under VanGorder.
"I like to think of myself as a coach that likes pressure, but I want to find our strengths and play to those strengths," VanGorder said. "The tempo game has changed how we see defense. We’re defending 85 or 90 plays in a game."
With the recruiting dead period ending Wednesday, VanGorder can now hit the road with the other Irish assistants, as Notre Dame hopes to close strong before national signing day on Feb. 5. Diaco focused mostly on the Northeast in recruiting, but VanGorder said he and Kelly had not talked about those specifics going forward.
"I see recruiting as exciting, not as something negative," VanGorder said. "Notre Dame will be a special place to recruit."
With VanGorder's experience at all levels of coaching—from high school to the NFL—as well as their history together, Kelly expects not only on-field success but a good working relationship.
"I want to be around people that I enjoy being around," Kelly said. "When you put all his qualities together, this is an incredibly gifted teacher, educator and the new defensive coordinator at Notre Dame."
As a former Broyles Award winner who is replacing a fellow Broyles Award winner, expectations are high—something VanGorder embraces.
"I look forward to the many challenges as we develop schematically and build our philosophy," VanGorder said.
As Kelly analogized on Tuesday, "You're shopping down a different aisle" at Notre Dame.
After three short weeks of "shopping for some groceries," VanGorder will then have seven months to "cook the dinner" before the Irish open the 2014 season on Aug. 30 in Notre Dame Stadium against Rice.
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