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Notre Dame

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Notre Dame
vs. Rice
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Radio: 1190 AM, 92.3 FM, 107.3 FM,
Associated Press
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, right, and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are reunited in South Bend.

Demands increase for Irish defense

Players adjusting to style of coordinator

– Brian VanGorder walks down a hallway of the Guglielmino Athletic Complex, unaware anyone else is nearby.

“Let’s get to work,” he says to the walls. “We’ve got a game to play.”

Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator is like that at practice, too, scolding his tacklers to improve their effort or lighting into cornerbacks for mistakes.

In fact, VanGorder talks anywhere and everywhere, so much that defensive lineman Sheldon Day tried an impression of him recently.

“Rookies, get in the book!” Day said with a grin. “Something crazy like that.”

He’s not his predecessor, Bob Diaco, who’s now the coach at Connecticut.

But VanGorder, with his thick, slicked-back hair and distinct circle beard, is probably a more rugged soul.

“Coach D was a more calm guy,” Day said. “It’s definitely different. Coach VanGorder is making sure everybody knows everything, always giving us some type of story.”

Players have adjusted to the change in temperament and, from afar, don’t seem bothered by VanGorder’s demanding approach.

“The kids have been receptive,” VanGorder said. “I think they understand that my style of coaching isn’t personal. It’s the act itself and getting it right. They’ve approached it in a very mature, matter-of-fact way.”

What is important to Brian Kelly is that VanGorder is an experienced coach who has a lot of aggressive and creative schemes.

VanGorder also worked for Kelly at Grand Valley State from 1989 to ’91.

“We’ve always wanted that opportunity to coach again together,” Kelly said. “We share a similar philosophy. His hand is in everything.”

That’s for sure – he’s spearheaded an overhaul.

Last year, the Irish defense was a unit that could slow teams down (31st in yards) but not rush the quarterback (90th in sacks) or take the ball away (103rd in turnovers).

The defense that VanGorder will trot out Saturday against Rice will be a system that highlights the blitz on a regular basis.

The secondary shifted toward press coverage and away from the “off” technique used under Diaco.

“Being able to get up into a receiver’s face and challenge them is something these young guys enjoy,” defensive backs coach Kerry Cook said.

For the defensive line, getting more production is the goal. The previous regime didn’t ask those players to win matchups against centers and guards, but VanGorder will and is banking on Day to flourish in the new system.

A defensive tackle, Day will slide outside on passing downs, and his mates in the trenches will get to use their athleticism, too. “This defense is made for us,” Day said.

The transition to the 4-3 is testing Notre Dame’s linebackers. No more “Cat” and “Dog” positions, which lined up outside the opponent’s offensive tackles.

In VanGorder’s scheme, the “Mike” is a dependable run defender and has coverage tasks back up the middle.

The outside linebackers, the “Sam” and “Will,” have “really good opportunities to get to the quarterback,” according to position coach Bob Elliott. They will play a lot inside the tackle box.

Two things to know about Notre Dame’s defense: It will employ any position in the pass rush, and Kelly insists it will feature a heavy rotation.

“It’s been a smooth transition,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith, a Bishop Luers grad. “We’re really looking forward to it.”