Why Notre Dame's defense may hold the key to its 2016 season
CULVER, Ind. — There's a plot of dirt for equestrian practice on one side of the Culver Academies football fields and the vast Lake Maxinkuckee on the other. But, for the moment, a pile of straw in the middle of everything draws everyone's attention. A one-man blocking sled is positioned such that Notre Dame's linebackers plant their cleats on the unstable, yellow patch as they come out of their stance to strike. This is not ideal. So linebackers coach Mike Elston dryly requests that maybe the apparatus be placed elsewhere to start next time, though he mostly gets the results he seeks despite a less-than-ideal setup.
Like when junior Nyles Morgan, one of the team's new starters at inside linebacker, springs toward the sled and jolts it up sharply. The device shudders and creaks before the 6' 1", 245-pounder releases it and runs by.
"Great punch!" Elston calls out, as Morgan circles back to the end of the line. "Can we do that on a body? Can we do that on a body—that's the question."
Apply that to just about every defender partaking in the now traditional off-site opening practices, and you have a summary of the most important unknown for Notre Dame in 2016. Finding a starting quarterback isn't a problem as much as a chore; either junior DeShone Kizer or senior Malik Zaire can do that job. It's far less easy to be as confident in the defense as a whole, based on the relative newcomers and what's left of a unit that last season ranked 39th in scoring defense, 45th in total defense, 54th in average tackles-for-loss and 109th in turnovers gained. If a dominant group might struggle to maintain excellence after an exodus of NFL-drafted players and reliable leaders … what happens when a crew that was just sort of OK endures that kind of overhaul?
It could depend on what you expect from a Notre Dame defense, in any year. The Irish were ordinary last season and that didn't preempt 10 wins and a playoff run that lasted into late November. But no one shoots for average in August. So defenders say they met more this summer than they had in previous years, studying film and diagramming calls and building camaraderie, hoping that experience in a system offsets inexperience on Saturdays.
"Having an understanding of the defense is more important than the experience at this point," junior safety Drue Tranquill says. "I look back to my freshman year and no one really knew the defense, so no one was able to teach the younger guys and then you saw a lot of mental errors, a lot of different areas where we needed improvement. The experience is going to come."
This is true, because there are games on the schedule for which Notre Dame must field a team. The rest is less assured.
Of the 11 players who composed the first-team defense for the Irish's first practice, only four have started 12 or more games. The lack of an established star anywhere is a bit disquieting; even as it regards the main holdovers, only the most doe-eyed mythologizers would depict them as bonafide game-changers. Defensive end Isaac Rochell has 26 starts and 3.5 career sacks; cornerback Cole Luke has 26 starts and six career interceptions; safety Max Redfield is a former five-star recruit with 22 starts but he finished 2015 in the dog house, sent home from the Fiesta Bowl; and linebacker James Onwaulu has 17 starts at that position (he arrived as a receiver) and eight tackles-for-loss in two years.
There are players coming back from injury (Tranquill, who tore his ACL in Week 4 last season, and Jarron Jones, who missed all of '15 with an MCL tear). There are players emerging from some obscurity (Morgan, who played in 13 games last fall without a start) and some sprung from total obscurity (cornerback Shaun Crawford and linebacker Asmar Bilal were first-day-of-practice first-teamers who haven't played a snap). Based on production to date, there is not one individual you can count on to be a dominant force.
That leaves room for stars to rise, but it also leaves a team with playoff aspirations in a tenuous spot. Notre Dame, naturally, insists it knows what it is doing. The reasoning: Defensively, it knows what it is doing.
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The belief begins with the player standing on a steamy turf field, checking out his headband in the reflection of a visitor's sunglasses. Morgan is evidently the heir to the graduated and garrulous Joe Schmidt both in the role of Mike linebacker—effectively the mainframe for the entire operation—and in the ancillary gig of charismatic unit spokesman. The former consensus top 100 recruit from Crete, Ill., couldn't budge Schmidt from his post for two seasons, but there's a reason the term is understudy. "I'm kind of like the teacher now," Morgan says. "Now I get to see what he had to go through dealing with me."
You thought you had questions about this defense. "I was nagging him, I was bugging him," Morgan says of Schmidt. "He'd be dead tired after running off the field and I'm like, 'Joe! How did you play this fire zone?' He'd be like, bro, I can't breathe right now. I'm like, 'So ... how do you play the fire zone?'"
His curiosity is well founded. Notre Dame won't be in position to make many plays if Morgan doesn't literally get teammates in position to make plays. He is the conduit between the defensive line and the secondary, the primary organizing voice before each snap. "The middle linebacker position is the most difficult position to get down," Irish coach Brian Kelly says, "and he's got it cold." Kelly emphasizes that Morgan, tellingly, has earned the complete trust of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Asked what it's like when VanGorder doesn't trust a player, Morgan is blunt: "He's on your ass. And you will know it."
So it's a start—Notre Dame's new Mike linebacker has achieved silent lucidity.
"First thing I noticed, I pretty much stopped getting yelled at," Morgan says. "Really, as far as making calls and different checks, things like that, (VanGorder) trusts that I can make the call. I don't have these constant reminders anymore, that I used to have all the time. Now it's just, 'He knows what he's doing, lemme leave him alone and worry about someone else.'"
This is in a way the Irish defense's operating principle for 2016: Knowledge will mitigate limited game experience. (Of course, that's what you say when you're short on the experience part.) Hence those summertime meetings organized outside the hours players spent with coaches. "We had a lot of younger guys that were hungry and were coming to us older guys like, meet with us, meet with us, meet with us," Tranquill says. And some would argue that the best way to master a concept is to teach it, a task the veterans now can manage entering Year 3 with VanGorder's scheme. Redfield, one of the defense's few senior presences, agrees.
"We think the young guys are learning faster than we've ever taught the system before."
From atop the bleachers at Culver, it's impossible to verify any of this, with no one wearing pads and with the expected mixed results in various first-day-of-practice exercises. During one small sample of 11-on-11 work, the defense surrenders two completions of 30-plus yards but also notches tackles-for-loss on back-to-back runs. That surely is a give-and-take repeated on many opening days across the country. But Notre Dame's search for clarity on defense has everyone on the lookout for the tiniest of clues in every snap, one way or another.
Maybe from here, the Irish will be a program that can gin up playoff runs without asphyxiating offenses into submission; since finishing second nationally in scoring defense en route to the BCS championship game following the 2012 season, the defense has ranked 27th, 82nd and 39th in that category. In early August, with uncertainty just about everywhere, it seems prudent to aim for being merely reliable, and see where that takes Notre Dame this time. "We have all the pieces to be successful," Morgan says, leaving open for interpretation exactly what success will mean.