Notre Dame's defense set the standard two years ago, though if Brian VanGorder's crew gets back to that elite level it'll likely be accomplished by following a different path.
Through six spring practices, VanGorder is mainly evaluating the guys he has to work with. It's a feeling-out, getting-to-know-you process that's come along with plenty of mistakes as the first-year defensive coordinator installs his defense.
Drawing sweeping conclusions from a handful of spring practices can easily backfire. But there are a few things that've become clear this month: VanGorder's going to move Jaylon Smith inside and outside, KeiVarae Russell looks poised to become an excellent press-man cornerback, sub packages will focus on getting speed on the field and there's going to be a greater emphasis on aggression this fall.
Perhaps most notably, though, Notre Dame isn't definitively switching to a 4-3 defense, even if fewer plays have been run out of the 3-4 so far.
"It just so happens as you’re seeing in the early install is you’re seeing a lot of 4-3 look," VanGorder said. "But there’s 3-4 look out there too, and we’re mixing that in and trying to, again, evaluate and see what’s going to work best with the idea that we’ll carry multiple looks into a game. You have to be prepared to do that."
Whether Notre Dame runs more 4-3 or 3-4 will depend on the opponent on a week-to-week basis, so the best designation for the Irish look would be "multiple" at this point. It's not much of a change from the Bob Diaco Era.
What appears to be a coming change is that emphasis on aggression. Diaco's defenses lived (in 2012) and died (in 2013) by the bend-but-don't-break mantra, focusing on limiting big plays in exchange for taking few risks. The goal was to let opposing offenses make mistakes or at least be forced into passing downs and have to punt or kick a field goal.
With the caveat that it'll depend on having cornerbacks who can play press-man coverage, VanGorder's defense sounds a little bolder.
"I think my mindset, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive," he said.
But nothing is set in stone, certainly not in late March with a defensive coordinator who's only been on campus for a little more than two months. And this is a defense permeated by youth, featuring only a handful of seniors/graduate students.
That's made the learning curve steeper, though VanGorder — who's also served as the defensive coordinator at Georgia and Auburn — feels experienced enough to bring along guys like Smith, Jarron Jones and Cole Luke, among many others.
"I guess the thing that probably stands out here is our youth, we're so young," VanGorder said. "Really young in the front seven especially. Young players. Again, so we've got to speed the process up and bring them along. That's the objective."