By: Kyle Gibson

For those that aren’t savvy to the slew of nicknames and abbreviations used throughout the Irish football program BVG refers to Notre Dame’s Defensive Coordinator Brian VanGorder, the mustache and goatee laden fiery beast that roams the Irish sidelines with a call sheet dangling from his belt wielding fist pumps and chaotic hand signals. There’s a lot to like about the intensity and exotic NFL style attack that VanGorder brought to South Bend but now at the conclusion of his second year with the Fighting Irish it’s clear that some changes need to be made.

VanGorder’s tenure got off to a very exciting start and most of the fanbase fell in love immediately. Whether it was his look, his demeanor, the savage sideline celebrations, or the way his overly aggressive defense relentlessly got after opposing offenses, there was something for every type of fan to enjoy. After shutting out the Wolverines in their last scheduled match-up with the Irish we were ready to hand him the key to the city. The Irish were trudging through an undefeated first half of the season when we saw our first signs of weakness in the new defensive philosophy. North Carolina came to the house that Rock built and ran the Irish up and down the field with their up-tempo attack loaded with trickery scoring points at will. Things looked better the next week down in Tallahassee against the defending National Champs and a Heisman QB but after an extra week to prepare BVG’s defense had no answer for Navy’s triple option. Then the wheels came off as injuries completely decimated the defensive ranks. At the conclusion of a 7-5 regular season we gave VanGorder a pass and a wait-and-see grade. After all, UNC and Navy proved tricky for every defense and you can’t accurately evaluate a first year coordinator working with a skeleton crew of young back-ups.

Be that as it may, there were still a few obvious tweaks that needed to be made to the new BVG defense. First up was handling fast paced offenses that deprived VanGorder of frequent personnel rotations on the field and the multitude of sub-packages that were a centerpiece of his scheme. Next up was defending the triple option, especially with the two best triple-option programs coming to town the following season. That was so important that Brian Kelly made staff changes to research and develop a strategy that would be implemented all year long. Last but certainly not least was finding a way to be less susceptible to the big plays with particular emphasis on the back-end of the defense.

Going through that check-list now we can immediately scratch out the triple option. Kelly’s triple option task force proved to be an enormous success when the Irish shut down Georgia Tech and the best Navy team we’ve seen in decades. It’s tough to say that the up-tempo offense problem was solved since no team came in determined to keep their foot on the gas but the defensive substitutions did go much more smoothly. It didn’t seem like the defense ever got caught with their pants down with the wrong personnel on the field like they did so many times in 2014. When opponents were able to move down the field quickly, it was usually due to poor execution and missed assignments or those pesky trick plays. Which leads into the last item that has remained a huge problem, big plays and break downs in the secondary.

Outside of QB no position group had a bigger spotlight on it this past year than the safeties. Whether due to injuries, experimentation, or demotions the position looked like musical chairs in 2014 as the staff struggled to find a combination that worked. So much emphasis was put on improved communication as being the main catalyst for better safety play. Supposedly they had checked that box heading into this season, yet we saw so many of the same issues resulting in head scratching big plays. It’s not fair to put it entirely on the safeties as the CBs contributed to a lot of the struggles in the secondary as well but due to their position a lot revolves around the execution of the safeties.

The question is, why do the same mistakes keep being made? Say what you will about Max Redfield but even if you think he’s a bust considering his hype and ranking coming in, he’s still one hell of an athlete. There’s no lack of ability or athleticism in Notre Dame’s secondary so the headaches surely have to be due the mental aspect of the game. Even at a place where academics and intelligence are emphasized you will have players that take longer to grasp some concepts but we’re two years into this scheme now. No matter a players IQ in the classroom or on the football field, it should never take players this long in the same system under the same coach to execute what’s asked of them. And it’s not just Redfield or the secondary. Players all over the defense are struggling with their assignments. It just yields more catastrophic results in the back end because they’re the last line of defense and due to the fact that BVG’s attacking front lines leave the secondary so vulnerable.

If you ever pay attention to the Irish message boards you’d know that Joe Schmidt was one of the hottest topics every single week and not for good reasons. While most fans that spew negativity from their keyboards really have no clue what’s going on there was some justifiable truth into questioning Schmidt’s performance in a lot of games this season. He deserves a ton of credit for what he accomplished and when he was lost in 2014 it proved just how vital he was but the same reason Joe was such an important piece is exactly why BVG needs to make changes.

First off, Joe Schmidt played lights out and didn’t have a missed tackle against Ohio State and we should all love the kid. But in a lot of games this season the deficiencies in his game were exposed repeatedly and had detrimental effects yet how often did we see the very talented Nyles Morgan? There’s no question that Morgan is more gifted with athletic ability than Schmidt but since day one Joe has been one of, if not the only player to fully grasp BVG’s system. That’s why he never came off the field. Maybe in year one it was acceptable for players to struggle with the transition and really click with the new system but when you’re working through your second season and the majority of your defense is still lost or fumbling through their assignments, there’s a problem.

Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart is loaded with a slew of talented football players, most all of whom are now experienced and going into their third or fourth years with the program. There’s no reason this unit should be a liability. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great season, one that was only 4 points and few seconds away from being 12-0. The defense played very well at times but you had struggling offenses like Virginia, Temple, and Boston College take the Irish down to the wire. Yea I know teams always play Notre Dame hard, it’s their Super Bowl. But these were statistically some of the worst offenses in the country yet their QBs looked like Heisman dark horses against the Irish.

Crunching numbers and rankings is a headache so we’ll just summarize it as the Irish being well outside the top 25 in most every defense statistical category. You know who plays for the National Championship each year? Teams that are well inside the top 25 in those categories. So no, while the Irish weren’t terrible on defense this year, they do need to get better in order to compliment an offense that has made huge strides the past two years if this team is going to take the next step.

I’m not a coach and I don’t have the answers but I do know that this Notre Dame team has an abundance of athletes loaded with intangibles. I also know that VanGorder has put together some pretty solid game plans for the big games and I think he’s a good coach. There will be big shoes to fill next year but this staff has recruited well enough to reload and there’s some pretty impressive reinforcements joining the crew this off-season. The pieces and the heart are there for this group to be more successful but it’s up to the coaching staff to make this system work for the players instead of the other way around and I do believe that’s possible. There was a lot of progress made defensively last off-season  so that’s encouraging but the problems that haven’t gotten fixed require more than just tweaking practice techniques and improving communication. If Brian VanGorder can’t find a way to change his system for his players to be more successful then perhaps it’s time for Brian Kelly to change him.