Notre Dame’s Defensive Depth Woes Started In 2012 With Bob Diaco


The defense for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was the key to the 2012 BCS title run. Bob Diaco created a smothering defense that shut down opponents, until Alabama went up and down the field on them. So while it may be hard to believe that this year’s struggles on defense started then, let’s take a look how that’s possible.

The defense for this year’s team was one of the most injury-riddled teams in recent memory. Add to that the group of suspended players, including Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell, and the Irish had to reach deep into the depth chart this year. After middle linebacker and defensive captain Joe Schmidt went down in the Navy game, it only accelerated the defensive freefall. The Irish were forced to play freshmen that they never intended to play, and even remove redshirt status in one instance. The result of so many young and inexperienced players on the field? 1,945 yards and 178 points in the last four games.

If a program like Notre Dame wants to compete, they have to have the depth and “next man in” mentality

The struggles can’t be placed on just lack of numbers or lack of talent. The offense struggle to stay on the field due to turnover issues, but the recruiting numbers in Diaco’s time are leave a glaring deficiency.

The 2012 recruiting class was quite small at just 17 players, and only nine of those on defense. The issues started early, as cornerback Tee Shepard left school days before the first spring practice. When the 2012 season began, the roster was at 78 scholarship players. The NCAA-allowed maximum is 85. The lack of depth didn’t show then, but it’s become apparent now.

When the Irish square off with LSU in Tuesday’s Music City Bowl, only four players from the 2012 class will dress on defense. Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara, Elijah Shumate and John Turner. C.J. Prosise, a former safety from the class, moved to offense. Russell was suspended, and Nicky Baratti and Jarron Jones had season-ending injuries.

If a program like Notre Dame wants to compete, they have to have the depth and “next man in” mentality. Coach Brian Kelly used the philosophy, but the depth chart wasn’t agreeing with it. Teams like Alabama – and especially this year – Ohio State, have to have the top-tier players on the depth chart ready to go. Notre Dame was exposed on that level this season. While injuries and attrition contribute to the college game, as there are only so many options, and Diaco was responsible for his defense.

The 2013 class improved, with players like Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield. But the quantity still wasn’t there, as only 10 defensive players were signed. Two of the top-tier players from that class, Eddie Vanderdoes and Alex Anzalone never played for the Irish. Vanderdoes enrolled at UCLA, and Anzalone switched to Florida citing an inability to get in touch with coach Kelly. at the time, Kelly was interviewing for the Philadelphia Eagles job. Kelly returned. Anzalone did not.

The decisions of 18-year old kids can’t be placed squarely on the coaches. But the lack of depth in recruiting can. Upon the departure of Diaco to take the UConn job, the Irish put the emphasis on the defensive side of the ball for the 2014 class. New defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder added five signees after he took the job in January, including a pair of defensive tackles in the final weeks. The 2014 class included 13 recruits on defense.

The 2015 class contains 22 verbal commitments, 13 from the defensive side of the ball. Van Gorder is looking to build a defense around his system, and the aggressiveness in recruiting can only help. The Irish can land top talent, but now they will have to land more of it after being exposed this season for lack of depth.

Next: More Than Pride On The Line For Irish In Bowl Game