NOTRE DAME'S DEFENSE BEGAN THE SEASON WITH A NEW COORDINATOR, A NEW SYSTEM AND TWO STARTERS LOST TO AN ACADEMIC SCANDAL. NOW THE POINT-STINGY, BLITZ-HAPPY D OF THE NO. 5 IRISH GETS A MONSTER OF A MIDTERM: FLORIDA STATE
WHEN BRIAN VanGorder first addressed the Notre Dame defenders he had been hired to coordinate last winter, he said the things every new coach says. He asked them to raise their hands if they wanted to be national champions, and dozens of arms dutifully shot up. He told them that they'd get what they earned, that hard work and attention to detail would lead to wins. They'd heard it all before. What resonated, though, was a more visceral message, one the well-traveled VanGorder has sounded to the Fighting Irish D again and again.
"He said, 'We want to kick everybody's ass,' " defensive tackle Jarron Jones says. "That's the point: We want to kick everybody's ass."
It's one of the few points the No. 5 Irish have been willing to concede. A 6--0 start has stirred talk in South Bend of a second national-title game in three seasons as the Irish head to Tallahassee for Saturday's showdown with second-ranked Florida State. The defending champ, led by Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback Jameis Winston, always loomed as Notre Dame's defining challenge of '14. It's just that few, if any, predicted the Irish would meet it unbeaten, thanks to a young, aggressive defense and its take-no-prisoners coach.
Even after surviving a kinetic North Carolina attack led by dual-threat QB Marquise Williams for a 50--43 home victory last Saturday, Notre Dame ranks eighth in scoring defense, allowing 17.2 points per game. The Tar Heels were the first opponent to crack the 20-point mark, and they benefited from an interception return for a touchdown and two fumbles that set them up inside Notre Dame's 40-yard line. Before the season, says Irish sophomore defensive tackle Isaac Rochell, "there was just a huge question mark on the defense, which is understandable. We lost a lot of guys and we had a new coordinator. Even within our team, we might have had some of those questions."
In May's NFL draft, defensive end Stephon Tuitt went in the second round to the Steelers and noseguard Louis Nix was selected in the third round by the Texans. Two presumptive 2014 starters—junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell and senior defensive end Ishaq Williams—were swept up in an academic fraud investigation in August that has kept both of them off the field this fall. Add in injuries to senior linebacker Jarrett Grace (a former starter sidelined since breaking his right leg last Oct. 5) and senior safety Austin Collinsworth (a 2014 captain who dislocated his left shoulder against North Carolina).
The Irish have made up the difference with inexperienced players performing beyond expectation and one emerging star in sophomore outside linebacker Jaylon Smith, the team's leader in tackles (45) and stops for a loss (6½). But mostly their success revolves around the 55-year-old VanGorder, who has been with five teams in the last 10 seasons after a three-year stint as Georgia's defensive coordinator. He not only offered the players a clean slate, but he also invigorated them with a blitz-centric philosophy that features constantly rotating personnel groups.
That's the fix fifth-year coach Brian Kelly deemed necessary for a D plagued by the wrong kind of turnover. "We were probably going to have to be a little more aggressive," Kelly says. "We were going to play some young players and we were going to have to use them situationally. They couldn't play 60, 70 snaps like we were used to. That was [VanGorder's] background. That's what he was really good at. That was the fit."
DESPITE KELLY'S reputation as an offensive guru, Notre Dame has become a strong defensive team during his tenure, riding that unit to an undefeated 2012 season and a BCS title-game appearance against Alabama (a Dumpster-fire 42--14 loss). Since Kelly arrived in '10, the Irish have surrendered just 18.8 points per game, which ranks eighth nationally. VanGorder has built upon the foundation established by his predecessor, Bob Diaco, who left to become UConn's coach. But the differences between the two go beyond VanGorder's switch to a base 4--3 from a 3--4. "[Diaco] was really very creative with how to get into your mind, your intellect," Smith says. "Coach VanGorder is pretty much straight up. He's going to be 100% real with you, tell you how it is."
He also distills a scheme with many moving parts into simple terms players can comprehend, and he won't move on until they do. "If I did something wrong, he would tell me what I did wrong and why," sophomore safety Max Redfield says. " 'Because it's a three-under, four-deep, you need to be in this position.' Or, 'It's seven-man spacing, so you need to be here, because the linebacker has this.' It just gives you that broader understanding of concepts of the game."
The Irish need to absorb the big picture because VanGorder's defense shifts and attacks unremittingly. "Lining up and playing against him every day was a pain in the ass, to say the least," says Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, who held the same position at Auburn in 2012 when VanGorder was the Tigers' defensive coordinator. Loeffler assesses VanGorder's process this way: He finds the four or five things an offense does best and eliminates them, and he's especially proficient at using line stunts and extra defenders in the box to corral the running game. And the frustration doesn't end there. "He understands how you're going to try to counter him, and he's got an answer," Loeffler says. "You have to be very unpredictable with what you do against him."
When Stanford prepped for what became a 17--14 loss in South Bend on Oct. 4, the offensive staff found that the Irish had used nine defensive front alignments against pro-style formations in their first four games. The Cardinal were confident they had a plan to counter what the footage showed—but what they saw on film they didn't get on the field. "It went from one thing of craziness to a complete other element of craziness," Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren says. He likened it to a Rex Ryan, Jets-style odd front with variations of movement mixed in; not coincidentally, New York was VanGorder's last stop before Notre Dame.
One blitz in particular—two linebackers followed by a safety through the A gap, which Stanford calls Hey Diddle Diddle Three Up the Middle—the Cardinal hadn't seen Notre Dame run all year. VanGorder used it twice, forcing an interception and an intentional grounding penalty. "I don't know if you can ever lock them into a front and a coverage," Bloomgren says. "It's just sheerly the absolute volume of not even knowing in a given week how to prepare your guys, not knowing what the emphasis is."
VanGorder wasn't made available to SI for this story, but Notre Dame's players have thrived within the dynamic he has created. Redfield was a five-star recruit out of Mission Viejo, Calif., who toiled in frustration for much of 2013 before getting his first start in the Pinstripe Bowl last December. He welcomed a new coordinator, even if it meant a whitewash of the work he'd put in. "I was kind of excited," he says, "because I saw that [fresh start] as an equal opportunity." He has become the ball-hawking safety required for any defense to be elite, with 18 tackles, one interception and two passes defended to his name.
At the crux of the defense's success, though, is a twin-engine odd couple. The 6'2", 235-pound Smith was a top 10 recruit out of Bishop Luers High in Fort Wayne, Ind., and a genetic freak with 3.1% body fat and a 35½-inch vertical leap. Last season he was the first freshman to start an opener at linebacker for Notre Dame since Kory Minor in 1995. His partner, senior inside 'backer Joe Schmidt, is a stocky 6-foot 235-pounder from Orange, Calif., and a former walk-on who didn't start until the 2014 opener against Rice. "I was not a 17-star recruit," Schmidt says dryly, though his sidekick is quick to point out why that doesn't matter. "We couldn't be each other without each other," Smith says. "He's the Joe Montana of our defense, really quarterbacking it, and I'm just kind of that safe-haven guy."
When offenses run combination pass routes, Schmidt says, he and Smith identify which receiver to cover almost without speaking. In the Stanford game two Saturdays ago, Schmidt detected a power run coming. He barked out, "Power, power, power!" to Smith. At the snap both players darted into position, and when the back arrived at the hole, Smith brought him to a dead stop.
"We both know exactly how we're going to move together," Schmidt says, "and we see it and we go."
A CAVEAT: THE Fighting Irish D has not been tested as it will be in Tallahassee. None of the six opponents Notre Dame faced rank in the top 50 nationally in total offense. Stanford is at 82, Michigan 109. Only North Carolina, at 36.0 points per game before Saturday's loss, was among the top 50 scoring offenses in the country.
The Seminoles provide asterisk-free context. They will preempt pressure on Winston with a quick passing game and bubble screens, while paralyzing pass rushers with seven-man protections and play-action on downfield shots. Even so, Notre Dame's mentality likely won't change. Not after VanGorder established it during that first meeting months ago. "We all know exactly what the mission is," Schmidt says.
Against Stanford the Irish clung to a three-point lead thanks to a stirring fourth-down, 23-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Everett Golson to tight end Ben Koyack. The Cardinal were driving, though, with the ball at the Irish 49-yard line and 11 seconds on the clock. Instead of dropping back to protect against a deep completion as most teams might, VanGorder dialed up that befuddling Hey Diddle Diddle blitz, leading to a sack by senior safety Elijah Shumate and the intentional-grounding penalty. Said Shumate, "We have a coach that fears nobody."
After the stop, an elated Schmidt, sprinting toward the student section, was met at the 10-yard line by a bearded man in a suit—not the leprechaun mascot but athletic director Jack Swarbrick—who was just about losing his mind. Good thing the linebacker is adept at wrapping up. "He jumps into my arms, and we're both screaming at each other," Schmidt says. "I mean, we were in like a locked embrace for six, seven seconds. Just jumping around like little kids. It was awesome."
From there Schmidt wandered in circles on the field. He attended his first game at Notre Dame Stadium as a preteen—his oldest sister, Catherine, ran track for the Irish—and he now found himself in the middle of a thriving defense that had escaped bruised but still unbeaten. He looked here and there, not wanting to leave the field, saying the same thing over and over: This is a dream.
Is this start another gilded Irish fantasy or is it the real thing? A young, audacious defense and its brassy coordinator will find out if they're going to kick or be kicked soon enough.