SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian VanGorder is in his eighth first year as a defensive coordinator, so he's pretty well-versed at getting to know a new group of players.
The former defensive coordinator at Grand Valley State, Central Florida, Central Michigan, Western Illinois, Georgia, Auburn and with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons quickly earned the respect and trust of his players not because of his extensive coaching background, but because he made an effort to get to know them as soon as he got on campus.
"It wasn't hey, I'm a new coach, I want you to come talk to me so I can learn your name," safety Matthias Farley said. "It was really genuine. He wanted to know about your family, where you're from."
Fifth-year senior captain Austin Collinsworth said he spent about an hour chatting with VanGorder in January and was quickly won over, too.
"I like this guy," Collinsworth recalled thinking. "I can play football for this guy."
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Having his players buy into him has been critical given VanGorder is implementing a different scheme than what was run under Bob Diaco, now UConn's head coach. Not only is Notre Dame going to run a base 4-3 defense, but VanGorder's scheme calls for more aggressive play.
For the front seven, two-gapping has been de-emphasized for beating the guy across you and getting into the backfield. Players will be flying in and out of sub packages and rushing the quarterback more. Expect more deflected passes and forced fumbles, too.
Diaco's disciplined, bend-but-don't-break scheme may not have worked with the inexperienced, smaller players filling out Notre Dame's defensive depth chart this year. In that sense, VanGorder's arrival came at the right time.
"The system that we were in was awesome. We won a lot of games with that system, we were 21-5 over the last two years," secondary coach Kerry Cooks said. "There was nothing wrong with the system and the philosophy that we had. The system right now allows these guys to be flexible and be more aggressive, which I think young kids by nature is part of their mentality."
It may have been easy no matter what for the younger players to buy into VanGorder's scheme, but for the guys with experience having a good, trusting relationship was key. A few veterans changed positions and roles under VanGorder: Sheldon Day moved from defensive end to defensive tackle, Jaylon Smith is playing inside-out instead of outside-in and Farley will see work at as a nickel back.
Farley said the relationship he has with VanGorder — which he said was built "overnight" — helped make the switch a lot smoother.
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"I think the trust came from him being him," Farley said. "I don't think it was anything that had to do with his previous career coaching. Right when he got here, everyone got behind him.
"He's a very easy person to get along with on and off the field and he makes his expectations very clear and his mission very clear. I think that's, when somebody does that and they're consistent with it day in and day out, they have the same approach, there's no wavering from it."
Still, even with players buying into his system VanGorder knows the Year 1 switchover to a new defense isn't always smooth. There are bound to be mistakes, but so long as the right foundation is in place, he's confident in his defense's chances of succeeding.
And at the least, the foundation in terms of a relationship with his players is in place.
"The first year is hard. It’s a hard transition," VanGorder said. "I’ve done it plenty of times. We go back and we all understand the fundamentals, they need to be in place for sure. There’s going to be a lot of growth throughout the season.
"I can’t wait to see the guys. The first game they go into it, they have new coordinators. We’ve all got a great challenge, we’ve all got to be on point and ready to adjust. Let’s see how we all handle that."