SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame didn’t blow up its defense when it fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on Sunday, but there will be a few changes to how this scheme operates going forward under Greg Hudson.
The first, and most noticeable, change, is actually one fans won’t see on Saturdays. Coach Brian Kelly has spent far more time with the Irish defense during practice and meetings this week — he has almost exclusively worked with the offense while at Notre Dame — in an effort to put his stamp on a group that’s allowed on average 41.3 points in its three games against power five opponents.
“You see him in a meeting, you’re like, ‘Aw snap,’” linebacker Nyles Morgan said. “It’s a new feel, but his inputs are very helpful. He knows what he’s talking about.”
Kelly won’t necessarily simplify the scheme itself, but he will train its focus in a more narrow manner. That means drawing from the same inventory that VanGorder & Co. installed during spring and preseason practice, but tailoring what’s used to help the bevy of underclassmen in this defense play smarter and faster.
“It’s going to take a style of defense that I'm much more accustomed to, the way I want to play defensively, and we'll pull from the library which we already have,” Kelly said.
Of course, nobody is giving away the exact plan of how Notre Dame will play on Saturday against Syracuse. But the ineffective 3-3-5 scheme Notre Dame deployed against Texas’ up-tempo offense won’t included in it, and part of Kelly’s goal is to simply get players lined up correctly. That would seem to indicate a lot more freshmen or sophomores could see the field, especially in the front seven — think Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, Jamir Jones, Asmar Bilal and others — which should help avoid over-taxing some of the team’s veterans.
And in the secondary, there will have to be more rotating of players, too, given Dino Babers’ Orange offense operates at ludicrous speed. The best way to successfully get guys like Jalen Elliott and Donte Vaughn on the field is to narrow the inventory and limit the checks they have to make, too.
“I think with the youth that we have on our team, a lot of guys don’t necessarily have a ton of game experience — that can be kind of critical,” safety Drue Tranquill said. “I remember back in my freshman year, and things were spinning for me and the game is really, really fast. So when you have a huge inventory on your plate, a lot of checks to make, that can cloud your vision a little bit. So definitely with a lot of young guys it’s definitely something we have to take into consideration.”
We’ll see exactly what the streamlined Irish defense looks like and who will play in it on Saturday (maybe it’ll include dropping defensive linemen into coverage with less frequency, a VanGorder staple that proved ineffective). As for Hudson, Kelly isn’t looking to him to necessarily make a major impact on how the defense looks.
The hope is that Hudson, who previously was a defensive analyst for Notre Dame and held defensive coordinator positions at East Carolina, Minnesota and Purdue, can help inject some energy and life into this moribund defense.
“He's always using different examples, different stories, a little bit of humor in his coaching,” linebacker James Onwualu said. “And an energy — there hasn't been a day he's been here that I've really seen him just walking around monotone. He's always got some energy and something to say.”
Whether that energy can actually make a tangible impact remains to be seen. But Notre Dame is in desperate need of answers on defense, and will face a Syracuse offense that’s good enough to be headache-inducing on Saturday.
So the Greg Hudson era begins at MetLife Stadium this weekend. The energy may be better and the scheme may be streamlined. But will the results change?
“Greg has been empowered to bring the energy, the enthusiasm, the passion, the morale, the camaraderie. I need those things from Greg,” Kelly said. ‘That's what I need. I want our kids to be excited when they step on that field against Syracuse. I'll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I'll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.
“But right now, we'll write the music and he'll be the lead singer.”