As the season approaches for the Fighting Irish, fans have read and listened countless times to what the offense has to offer, but what does the defense have in store for the 2014-2015 season?
Last season, the Notre Dame defense was anchored by its front seven, which included three players who were selected in the 2014 NFL Draft; Stephon Tuitt, who racked up 50 tackles, 7.5 sacks and an interception, Prince Shembo, who also made his presence felt compiling 48 tackles and 5.5 sacks, and Louis Nix, who missed five games due to a torn meniscus. The Fighting Irish will also have to deal with the losses of Dan Fox and Carlos Calabrese, who led the team in tackles, and senior captain Bennet Jackson.
Two years ago, Notre Dame’s defense was able to carry the Irish to a national championship berth, so to say that the fans expect nothing but excellence from this year’s defense is an understatement. There will be plenty of changes on the defense this season with the loss of major contributors from a year ago, but new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder seems to have the answers to optimizing his personnel’s abilities.
VanGorder is taking Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense and replacing it with a high octane 4-3 defense that turns the spotlight onto the linebackers and secondary. In Diaco’s 3-4 scheme, the front seven carried the team defensively as it was relied on to apply consistent pressure on the quarterback and opposing rushing attacks. While VanGorder’s defense also relies on Notre Dame’s front seven, it also hands more of the responsibility to the secondary, who were previously taught to keep the ball in front of them. This time around, the secondary will have to learn to be aggressive with run support and man coverage. According to SB Nation, VanGorder is looking to make cover 1 and tampa 2 a staple in his new-look defense.
Now, the question is whether or not Notre Dame has the appropriate personnel to compliment this new scheme.
Some of the more notable returning players on defense include Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day, who are being looked as the leaders on the defensive line. In the new defense, Jones and Day’s duties will be simplified to attacking single gaps allowing the linebackers to hunt down running backs looking for an opening in the trenches. Speaking of linebackers, rising sophomore Jaylon Smith proved to be a solid outside linebacker last season as a true freshman tallying 67 tackles, which ranked third on the team and an interception. In addition to Smith, VanGorder will look to Jarrett Grace, former walk-on Joe Schmidt, and Nyles Morgan, who was an ESPN four-star recruit, to run his defense to perfection this season. Despite the complicated blitz packages, VanGorder has shown confidence in his line backing corp running multiple of these exotic plays during the spring game.
In the secondary, Notre Dame returns redshirt senior Austin Collinsworth, Max Redfield, KeiVarae Russell, Cole Luke, and Mathias Farley, who will make the transition from safety to nickel back. Brian Kelly also helped beef up the defensive backs with the addition of Florida transfer Cody Riggs. Once again, the defensive backs will play a huge role in the defense’s success this year as they will have to play more aggressively in both the pass and run defense.
As the off-season continues for college football, Notre Dame looks to revamp its defense to national championship form with VanGorder’s new defense. Despite the return of Everett Golson, the Fighting Irish seem to understand that they can’t rely on Golson to win games on his own (assuming he wins the starting quarterback position). Without the support of a solid defense, Notre Dame might not be able to live up to this year’s hype.