SOUTH BEND, Ind.—With assistant coaches and a select group of players available to the media Tuesday at Notre Dame, I went out in search of clues, trying to unravel the mystery of Brian VanGorder's defense. After four years playing Bob Diaco's system, the Irish will unveil a defense that looks nothing like the one we've seen Notre Dame run during the Brian Kelly era.
But what exactly can we expect? Having already dug through the archives to check out VanGorder's Georgia defenses, I dipped my toes in the water in South Bend, trying to unlock the mystery behind a system that sounds like a marriage between Dr. Frankenstein and Bigfoot, all designed by a mad scientist named VanGorder.
Nobody would bite. With just 10 days before the Irish have the chance to spring a surprise on unsuspecting opponents, just about every coach or player made available kept things cloak and dagger.
Take middle linebacker Joe Schmidt. As bright and articulate as any player on the Irish, he must've said, "as you'll see against Rice" a half-dozen times. When pressed, this was the best the senior linebacker gave.
"We’re extremely multiple now in our schemes and how we are going to attack offenses," Schmidt said. "It’s a little bit different in that there’s some similarities with some defenses that we run. You guys will see soon against Rice, but there are some key differences, and we're a little bit more multiple than we’ve been in the past."
One thing that stood out in an otherwise bland quote was the word "attack." Diaco's defenses didn't attack. They relied on limiting big plays and forcing an offense to beat you with a 10- or 12-play drive. But the loss of key personnel like Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and inside linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese forced a reshuffling. Paired with a coaching change, things are going to be drastically different.
"The system that we were in was awesome. We won a lot of games with that system. I think we were 21-5 over the last two years," secondary coach Kerry Cooks said. "There was nothing wrong with the system and the philosophy that we had. But the system right now allows these guys to be flexible and be more aggressive, which I think young kids, by nature, it's part of their mentality."
The Irish defense likely wouldn't have been ready to take on VanGorder's system if it weren't for the seasons under Diaco. Taking over a unit that was a punchline under Charlie Weis, Diaco's system demanded operational excellence, with assignment-correct football key.
He also spent time rebuilding the psyche of his personnel, instilling a "B.I.A." (Best in America) chant on the practice field, something most Irish fans chuckled at until Diaco almost pulled it off in 2012, fielding the No. 2 scoring defense in the country.
VanGorder was a busy man on Tuesday, fielding questions from a throng of media, all trying to figure out how the former NFL assistant planned to develop a defense filled with teenagers. After spending the majority of the last decade working with professionals, VanGorder talked about the teaching aspect that he relishes at the college level.
"All these guys are so developmental in the game. For me, that’s a good thing in respects that I still like to coach from a developmental standpoint," VanGorder said. "It’s constant. It’s occurring on every play. You’ve just got to stay focused and stay on it and keep the standards and expectations on top of the players."
The entire defensive staff has spent the past six months teaching, prepping a defense that got significantly younger with the indefinite loss of KeiVarae Russell, Kendall Moore and Ishaq Williams and counts on freshmen and sophomores all across the two-deep.
Kelly plans to have freshman Andrew Trumbetti and sophomore Isaac Rochell starting at defensive end. Rochell is backed up by freshman Grant Blankenship while Trumbetti has junior Romeo Okwara behind him, though Okwara is playing defensive end for the first time.
Freshman Daniel Cage is in the two deep at defensive tackle. Sophomore James Onwualu is a starter at linebacker, one year removed from starting four games at wide receiver. Sophomores Max Redfield, Cole Luke and Devin Butler all will be counted on in the secondary, a ridiculously young group that needed to start at ground zero in the spring.
This personnel will drive VanGorder's defense. It'll also allow the depth of the roster—another dozen backups are expected to be key contributors in select personnel groupings—to add versatility to a unit that needs to accentuate the positives if it's going to be successful.
"I think that the fundamentals of the game are always critical. We want to start there," VanGorder said. "[But] going back to what the player does best and building the scheme, that allows us to feature that part. Sometimes, it also involves scheming to hide, maybe, a weakness. Fundamentals, effort, effort, effort and a defense that can constantly be changing based on the development of players and new players coming in."
We've seen countless practice videos showing corners playing tight man coverage after spending four seasons in a Cover 2 base. At practice Tuesday, we saw defensive tackle Sheldon Day dropping into coverage and rushing off the edge, while Trumbetti lined up at linebacker on a few snaps.
A sign of things to come? A smoke screen, like the vanilla packages we saw in the Blue-Gold game?
I guess we'll find out against Rice.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.