Notre Dame came within a couple of eyelashes of playing in the College Football Playoff last season. The Fighting Irish had one of those four coveted spots in their sights until mid-November, but they ultimately settled for a Fiesta Bowl bid.
Viewed through the lens of its offense, Brian Kelly’s team had every reason to believe it belonged in the CFP conversation. Kelly had a quarterback (DeShone Kizer) who could pass and throw the ball, a work horse running back (C.J. Prosise), a prolific receiver (Will Fuller), and a very good offensive line.
What Kelly didn’t have was a dominant defense. What he and his defensive coordinator had in 2015 was just average, even with stalwart Jaylon Smith on the field. They were typically bailed out by a very good offense.
If the Irish are going to take the next step into the CFP this season, they will have to have a much improved defense. Kelly knows it, and third-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder knows it as well.
There are a lot of numbers that could be regurgitated here, from rushing and passing yards per game and red zone percentages to third-down conversion rates, but the whole thing for the Fighting Irish starts up front.
Notre Dame managed just 25 sacks last year after totaling 26 in VanGorder’s first season on the job in 2014. The 1.92 sacks per game the Irish had last year ranked 75th among FBS schools (the NCAA doesn’t rank total sacks, just sacks per game).
By contrast, Alabama (53), Clemson (48) and Oklahoma (40) – three of the four CFP teams last season – each ranked in the top 6 in sacks. The fourth playoff team, Michigan State, came in 23rd with a total of 37 sacks.
VanGorder’s big problem during the first two seasons was that he lacked the personnel to match his scheme. VanGorder plays a man-to-man defense with blitz and “exotic” sub packages, whereas his predecessor, Bob Diaco (now UConn’s head coach), employed a zone/bend-but-don’t-break philosophy.
Through last year, most of the players VanGorder had were recruited during Diaco’s tenure, but the bulk of the defensive roster is young and inexperienced, having been recruited to suit VanGorder’s style.
The guys most responsible for getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be linemen Isaac Rochell, Jay Hayes and Daelin Hayes (no relation), Jerry Tillery and James Onwualu. That group accounted for just 5 of the team’s 25 sacks last year.
VanGorder and Kelly are counting on the return of nose guard Jarron Jones, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, to be a more disruptive force in the middle of the line as well. Middle linebacker Nyles Morgan is also an upgrade athletically at the position.
The Irish forced just 15 turnovers last year (10 interceptions and five recovered fumbles), a number that must improve as well.
Pressure from the point of attack would automatically improve those numbers, though, because forcing quarterbacks (especially inexperienced ones like those that Texas and Michigan State will have in games one and three) to make throws they don’t want to make naturally leads to more turnovers.
Notre Dame’s defense was dealt a blow last week when senior Max Redfield was thrown off the team after an off-campus arrest, but Drue Tranquill is back at the position after missing most of last season with a knee injury. A healthy Tranquill will go a long way for the Irish; they’ll rely on him to play all over the field in VanGorder’s exotic packages.
Shaun Crawford, another defensive back injured last year, gives the Irish one more player who should contribute greatly in sub packages. VanGorder is counting on the sophomore to play a pivotal role as the team’s nickel back.
Despite their lack of star power across the board, the Irish think the pieces are in place defensively. It’s now up to VanGorder to turn the pressure on and get it done.