SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian VanGorder was respected by Notre Dame's defense from the moment he was hired, seeing as he brought an impressive list of credentials to South Bend. He's been a defensive coordinator and position coach in the NFL and had two stops as a defensive coordinator in the SEC.
That caché only would've gone so far if Notre Dame players didn't buy in to the defense VanGorder is implementing, though. But so far, players sound pretty pumped about the added aggression they've been allowed to play with this spring.
"You're the attacker, you're not the one having to read the attacker," nose guard Jarron Jones said. "I feel like that's more fun on my part because instead of watching out, trying to make sure the running back doesn't go into the gap I'm having to watch out for, I just defeat the person across from me with all I have and win my gap while I do it, as well as looking for the ball."
It's not like VanGorder isn't preaching any discipline, but whereas Bob Diaco's defense was predicated on preventing big plays, VanGorder's appears to more oriented toward the defense making big plays. The players have enjoyed that approach — both safety Max Redfield and cornerback Cole Luke echoed Jones in referring to the defense as being "fun" — though head coach Brian Kelly said it's only natural for the Irish to feel that way.
"I think there’s an energy there that coach VanGorder brings to the defense," Kelly said. "There’s a lot of excitement. There’s new teaching, new terminology. And look, who doesn’t like to blitz? Who doesn’t like to rip through the A-gap and not have to worry about holding on and can get into the backfield? I think there’s a lot of excitement with some of the schemes we’re running."
While Diaco was well-liked by players, Jones said VanGorder's presence "shook up" things, at least in the defensive line room. Having to impress someone they're not familiar with has helped add energy to spring practice, too.
"Even though Diaco was up there, we all pretty much got used to it — like, all right, OK, it's coach Diaco," Jones said. "But now it's like coach VanGorder, we're all on pins and needles, everyone's trying to impress coach VanGorder as well as get themselves better to where they can show they can contribute on the field."
Playing into the internal buzz about VanGorder's defense is that players aren't overwhelmed by it. While Redfield and the safeties might struggle the most to pick things up during the installment phase of spring, he said things are generally going well with installing the defense.
Defensive end Chase Hounshell agreed from his vantage point on the line of scrimmage.
"Coach VanGorder has done a great job not putting so much on our plate that we can't handle," Hounshell said. "He's been taking it real step by step, day by day, making sure we understand the plays and the schemes going in before we move on. I think he's done a great job with transitioning our defense."
And going back to VanGorder's background — that's certainly had an impact on how his defense has been received. That he's coached and succeeded at the top level of college football as well as the top level of football in general gives him a high level of respect.
Not only has he done it before, but he knows what it takes to develop a defense in the NFL.
"Obviously what he has, it works if you buy into it," Jones said. "That's what we're doing, we're buying in."