SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- During Bob Diaco's four-year tenure as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, the Irish were consistently among the least aggressive defenses in college football. But that'll no longer be the case with Brian VanGorder bringing his brand of defense to South Bend.
Diaco's strategy worked wonders in 2012, in which Notre Dame had the nation's second-best scoring defense (12.8 points per game). It worked to a lesser extent in 2011 (20.7 PPG) and 2013 (22.4 PPG), but had some high-profile failures last fall.
One thing remained constant under Diaco: The Irish weren't going to try to force many turnovers. From 2010-2013, Notre Dame's defense forced eight, eight, eight and six fumbles in each of the four seasons; in the same timespan the defense defended 62, 49, 50 and 45 passes. The sack numbers in those four seasons show a spike in 2012: 26, 25, 33 and 21.
Thanks to Manti Te'o's terrific ball skills and an overpowering pass rush, Notre Dame's defense had its best year under Diaco in 2012. It's no coincidence that Notre Dame forced 23 turnovers that year, as opposed to 14 in 2011 and 17 in 2013. But all the numbers still fit with the passive bend-but-don't-break strategy.
Under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, expect more passes defended, more fumbles forced and more sacks. In other words, more aggression.
"The new system that were under right now is just something that we wanna challenge all routes, we want to be in attack mode," secondary coach Kerry Cooks said, noting that Diaco's defense was "awesome" and that the Irish had success under it. "The whole philosophy is that we don't want the offense to dictate how we play defense."
Players have already bought in to the new defensive approach, which defensive lineman Jarron Jones described as "much more simpler as well as more fun."
"You're part of a new defense and you're playing more to your advantage and showing off being more aggressive instead of being more disciplined," Jones continued. "You're the attacker, you're not the one having to read the attacker."
Added cornerback Cole Luke: "I feel like it really fits our defense with the players we have."
Part of the added aggression involves Irish cornerbacks playing more press coverage, which Cooks said is still a work in progress. The same can be said for the linebacker corps and defensive line.
But VanGorder's infused energy into the generally monotonous pace of spring practice, and for a young defense that lost plenty of talent to graduation and the NFL Draft that aggression may be just what the Irish need.
"It's not a bend-but-don't-break defense, you're gonna have some big plays but you're gonna make a lot of big plays too," Cooks said, "so it's a little give and take there."