Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 12, 2016

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 20 of 55 SEPT. 12, 2016 21 Notre Dame's path to the 2016 Col- lege Football Playoff will be led — or stymied— by its defense, which gave up 26.6 points and 173.4 rush- ing yards per game over the last two seasons. Notre Dame must show defensive improvements if the Irish want to make a run that ends with a playoff berth. That starts with defending the run game. The Irish defense ranked 72nd na- tionally in rushing defense each of the last two seasons. Making matters more concerning is the fact that six of Notre Dame's 2016 opponents — Navy, Army, Texas, Stanford, Nevada and North Carolina State — ranked in the top 30 nationally last season in rushing offense. Defensive coordinator Brian Van- Gorder has a lot of pressure to de- velop a more effective run defense, and despite the loss of USA Today A l l - A m e r i c a n d e f e n s i v e t a c k l e Sheldon Day and consensus All- American linebacker Jaylon Smith to the NFL, the defense is capable of improving. EXPERIENCE IS VITAL Notre Dame enters the 2016 season with a defense far more experienced in VanGorder's system. Eight of Notre Dame's 11 projected starters are now in their third sea- son in VanGorder's complex defense, and that experience is essential to limiting the mistakes that plagued the unit the last two seasons. When VanGorder first arrived, and even into last season, many of the veterans on the roster — from a playing time standpoint — were still adapting and learning the de- fense. With their focus on still trying to learn their jobs, the veteran play- ers were limited in their ability to instruct younger players. VanGorder now has players who can pick up situations quicker and also help bring the younger players along faster. That will be important for a defense that is counting on so many young players to contribute. With more experience in the sys- tem comes greater confidence in each player 's knowledge of the system. With greater confidence in assign- ment knowledge comes the ability to think less and react more, which in- creases the speed with which players go about doing their job each snap. IMPROVEMENTS AT LINEBACKER Notre Dame's Mike and Will line- backer positions are supposed to be the playmaking positions in the de- fense. Smith was a playmaker for the Irish, but wounded Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt struggled, which kept the linebacker production against the run game down. Notre Dame also totaled only 78 tackles and four tackles for loss from its Mike linebackers, which is nowhere close to what the defense needs from the position. In 2014, the Mike linebackers pro- duced 117 tackles and five tackles for loss. Those tackle numbers are right where Notre Dame needs to be, but the dynamic plays need to increase. The four players expected to man the inside positions are junior Nyles Morgan at Mike linebacker, and junior Greer Martini, sopho- more Asmar Bilal and sophomore Te'von Coney at Will linebacker. The group should be far more productive against running attacks than what Notre Dame has shown the last two years. This is especially true of Morgan at Mike. His athletic advantage over Schmidt is significant, especially af- ter the former team captain suffered a devastating leg injury in October 2014. Schmidt never fully recovered his quickness and speed after that injury. Better production from the Mike will impact the Will position as well. Last season, Notre Dame had to use Smith in a clean-up role, making plays where Schmidt could not. This season, the Will linebacker should be allowed to play with greater down- hill force. MORE MEAT UP FRONT Without Day inside, Notre Dame will be in a transition mode. Gone is their gap disruptor, but the new look line will have far greater size. Day was 6-0 and 285 pounds, and he is being replaced by sophomore Jerry Tillery, who is 6-6½ and 310 pounds. Tillery will not be able to match Day's production, but he is better suited to execute the style of play VanGorder seems to want from his interior players. When you look at how VanGorder has structured and recruited for his defense the last two years, it is obvious he prefers line- men who can play physical football. What VanGorder wants — and needs — from linemen is to get a strong push at the point of attack, keep all five offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage and hopefully come off blocks to make plays at the line. The primary objective, however, is to keep the linebackers clean. With a starting front that averages 292.6 pounds, Notre Dame is much better prepared to play this type of football. ✦ Stopping The Run Pivotal To Defense's Success CHALK TALK BRYAN DRISKELL Bryan Driskell has been a football analyst for Blue & Gold Illustrated since April 2015. He can be reached at Notre Dame will have much better size up front thanks to the move of sophomore Jerry Tillery (6-6½, 310) to defensive tackle. PHOTO BY ANDREW IVINS

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