Notre Dame is still looking to fill out the first coaching staff for new head coach Marcus Freeman. The last big hire to make is the defensive coordinator spot, and Irish Breakdown's most recent intel is that there are four candidates remaining. Over the next few days we'll provide profiles for each coach and discuss why they would be a strong candidate and also any potential concerns.
Let's begin with Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk.
DOUG BELK PROFILE
Current Position: Defensive Coordinator - University of Houston
Belk is a native of Valdosta, Ga. that played football at Carson-Newman from 2007-10.
2021 - Houston - Defensive Coordinator, Assistant Head Coach, Safeties
2020 - Houston - Co-DC, Assistant Head Coach, Safeties
2019 - Houston - Co-DC, Safeties
2017-18 - West Virginia - Cornerbacks
2014-16 - Alabama - Graduate Assistant
2012-13 - Valdosta State - Defensive Backs
2011 - Valdosta State - Defensive Assistant, Special Teams
Belk helped Houston make dramatic improvement on defense, especially in his one season as the solo defensive coordinator.
Houston ranked 119th in scoring defense the year prior to Belk's arrival as the co-defensive coordinator and 113th in his first season at Houston (2019). The Cougars ranked 127th and 118th in total defense those two seasons, 115th and 85th in rushing defense, 121st and 72nd in third-down defense, 95th and 94th in sacks.
In his first season as the primary play caller Houston ranked 19th in scoring defense (20.4 PPG), 6th in total defense (302.2 YPG), 14th in yards allowed per play (4.93), 10th in rushing defense (108.2 YPG) and 18th in sacks. Houston also led the nation in third-down defense (25.7%).
Houston also jumped from 127th in red zone touchdown defense in his first season (2019) to 7th this past season, 117th in pass efficiency defense to 14th, 115th in yards allowed per pass attempt to 22nd, 107th in turnovers gained to 22nd, 85th in tackles for loss per game to 25th.
Houston's base defense is a 4-2-5 look with at least one standup defensive end lined up front. At times you'll see both ends in a standup look, but in most instances the Cougar defense had at least three linemen in a three-point stance.
Here is a look at a base defensive look from Houston in 2021.
This is the base look you'll see on first and second down at Houston. The difference is they'll mix up the front from an over or under look. The view above is an over look, which puts the Bandit and nose guard to the boundary/weak side.
The clip below is an example of an under front, which puts the defensive tackle/big end into the boundary.
Most of Houston's look begin with a two-high safety look, but post snap they will mix those looks up quite a bit. You'll see both safeties rob downhill either in the alleys or replacing a linebacker over the middle.
At times both safeties will roll, but more often than not Houston ends up with single high safety look. There have been games when they'll run a combo coverage with both safeties back and a cornerback also getting deep.
Teams that spread Houston out with multiple receivers on both sides are able to get a safety down earlier than normal.
Outside of these situations the Houston defense tries to keep both safeties back as much as possible, which helps it disguise where the safeties are going post-snap.
Up front, Houston didn't zone drop much in the games I broke down, which means all four front players come the vast majority of the time. The linebackers aren't overly aggressive getting downhill and are normally more read and react type of players.
Houston's linemen play a lot of heavy alignments both pre and post-snap. They were disruptive this season from both a tackles for loss and sacks standpoint, but they aren't overly complex with their line games.
There are two areas that I saw teams have more success against Houston. One, they were quite vulnerable to post routes this season. Two, teams that run effective mesh concepts have caused Houston to turn a guy loose on chase routes.
REASONS FOR BELK
Belk would continue the youth movement on the Notre Dame coaching staff. At just 33 years old, Belk would be one of the younger coaches on the staff, although he is still several years old than offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
He's a rising star in the coaching ranks and despite being the primary play-caller for just one season, the Houston defense made huge strides in that one season. His system would fit quite well into the Notre Dame personnel, especially with his emphasis on four-down fronts.
From a coverage standpoint there would be an easy transition into what Notre Dame did this past season under Marcus Freeman. If anything, Belk would need to be more aggressive based on what I saw in the games I broke down.
Being a sole play-caller for just one season and being just 33 years old could make Belk more amenable to allowing Freeman to have an influence on what he does defensively, at least moreso than a more experienced coordinator would be willing to accept.
Belk being young with a good reputation as a recruiter would fit in quite well with what Freeman wants in that regard. Being from Georgia and coaching at Alabama for three seasons gives him some strong bonafides in the Southeast.
One of the things that makes Belk an intriguing candidate is also one of the concerns, and that is his youth and inexperience. If Belk was hired as the defensive coordinator it would make 37-year old Al Washington the oldest member of the defensive staff.
Although Belk built an outstanding defense in 2021, the Cougars struggled against the better teams on the schedule. Houston's defense gave up 31 points and 7.2 yards per play against Texas Tech, 35 points and 8.9 yards per play against Cincinnati and 30 points and 5.8 yards per play against SMU.
Belk was a graduate assistant just six seasons ago, which is a bit of a concern when you consider that Notre Dame would have two relatively green coordinators and a head coach that is just 36 years old.
One interesting aspect of this is Belk has always been a secondary coach, and right now Notre Dame already has two secondary coaches. Could they have Belk with with linebackers with help from a graduate assistant (and Freeman), or have Chris O'Leary - who coached rovers in 2020 - be the guy who does that? That's something to consider when evaluating the four top candidates.
Belk seems to be on a very similar track as Freeman in regards to being a strong head coaching option at a young age. Should he come to Notre Dame and have success he would be a very hot commodity for head coaching jobs, so there's risk he doesn't last long at Notre Dame.
At the end of the day, however, Freeman is looking to build a staff that gives his program a chance to compete for championships now, and if your top candidate is a guy that can help you win now, but you also risk losing him in the near future, you take that chance if it means you compete now.
It's easy to see why Belk is a strong candidate for the opening at Notre Dame and other top programs.
The next feature will be on Cincinnati Bengals linebackers coach Al Golden.
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