Notre Dame Football: Brian VanGorder Building Defense Around Jaylon Smith

Keith ArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterMarch 19, 2014

Sep 21, 2013; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell (6) and linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) tackle Michigan State Spartans wide receiver Aaron Burbridge (16) in the fourth quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 17-13. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame resumed spring practice Wednesday morning after two weeks off. With pads on and the first bits of 11-on-11 taking place, the pieces are coming together and the identity of the 2014 team begins to emerge. With changes at both coordinators and schemes being adjusted, it may take until the Blue-Gold game for Irish fans to truly get a feel for what's changed from a disappointing 2013.

But if we've learned anything in the Irish's three spring practice sessions, one thing is certain: Brian VanGorder's defense will be built around Jaylon Smith. 

That decision should come as no surprise. After entering South Bend, Indiana, as one of the nation's most highly touted recruits, Smith had an excellent freshman season. His 67 tackles were third on the team. His 6.5 tackles for loss were behind only Stephon Tuitt. Smith filled the stat sheet at the "Dog" outside linebacker position, a spot that in previous seasons made an impact, but rarely one on the stat sheet. 

Smith is the Irish's leading returning tackler.
Smith is the Irish's leading returning tackler.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

While Brian Kelly has done his best to say that the defense will still anchor out of the traditional 3-4 look that Bob Diaco implemented in 2010, it's becoming clear that things are changing with VanGorder. Once again, the Irish spent the majority of practice with a four-man defensive front. And VanGorder's early emphasis on sub-packages has taken a defense built on core principles and shaken it up. 

We've seen Matthias Farley move from safety to cornerback, likely spending time covering slot receivers. Forgotten safety John Turner is getting a chance to play closer to the line of scrimmage as well, capitalizing on his tweener size between safety and outside linebacker. James Onwualu spent time playing linebacker on passing downs, the former wide receiver jumping from the secondary to underneath coverage as he learns things on the fly. 

But nobody moved around like Smith. While the defense will substitute freely to utilize its emerging depth chart, one constant will be Smith. Irish head coach Brian Kelly talked about putting more on Smith's plate this spring. 

"We're finding that out right now as to what he can do," Kelly said after practice Wednesday. "We're overloading him quite frankly with a number of different looks.

"We don't want offenses to know where he is. We're going to play him in a number of different positions. He can be inside, outside, we're moving him all over the place."

Shifting Smith inside on passing downs will help solidify the middle of the field, while also allowing the ultra-athletic linebacker to run sideline to sideline. After getting picked on continually with Carlo Calabrese, and with Dan Fox sometimes overmatched in coverage, Smith and former walk-on Joe Schmidt bring athleticism to a coverage unit that badly needs it. 

That doesn't mean Smith will solely be used to drop and cover. But after watching Manti Te'o snatch seven interceptions by playing what amounted to shallow center field, it's hard not to wonder what Smith can do with his 4.4 speed and freakish athleticism. 

In 2012 and 2013, the Irish had too many standout players that needed to be on the field every down. That's not necessarily the case right now, with all three levels of the defense still in flux.

But while VanGorder will mix and match players with schemes that optimize a young and unproven unit, expect to see Jaylon Smith front and center in everything the Irish do. 


*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.