Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Irish Forging Identity as Michigan Awaits

When Brian Kelly was hired at Notre Dame, he explained his decision to accept the job in his introductory press conference with the phrase that "there's a football coach, and there's the football coach at Notre Dame." Kelly made it his mission to reshape the Notre Dame football program into one of modern excellence, forging an identity of toughness, respect, and excellence without compromising any of the core values that makes Notre Dame special. This, of course, is a multifaceted undertaking, and given the depths of ineptitude that the program had reached, an enormous undertaking at that. On the field, Kelly knew that in modern college football, you needed to win in the trenches, particularly in the defensive front. So, as Kelly, ever the offensive minded football coach, goes through his third season as Notre Dame coach, it's amazing that his team has taken the identity of a fierce defensive team.

This past Saturday against Michigan State, the Notre Dame faithful had really no ascertainable idea what would happen. The team had blown out Navy in the opening week, then struggled to prevail against an underrated Purdue team in Week 2. The problem with this team was that without an identity, us fans wouldn't know what to expect. We're used to Brian Kelly assembling offensive powerhouse teams, like his two BCS teams at Cincinnati, but with the inexperience of Everett Golson at QB, and the loss of Michael Floyd to the NFL, offense was certainly unlikely to identify this team. Instead, the Irish defense, with it's aggressive, punishing, and suffocating style, has taken over as the backbone of this Irish team, due in no small part to Kelly's primary mission once he was hired to recruit studs in the front 7 on defense. It's hard not to buy into the guy - just look at his passion speaking to his team during the game.

Shembo was dominant against MSU
Kelly's recruiting strategy is starting to pay off, and it showed against Michigan State. The Spartans, one of the favorites to win the Big Ten this year, couldn't move the football hardly at all for the entire game. Since Kelly took over, he has signed Prince Shembo, Louis Nix, Kona Schwenke, Danny Spond, Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell, and Elijah Shumate. Each of these players made big contributions against the Spartans, especially Shembo. Shembo plays the CAT linebacker position for the Irish defense, which is essentially the outside linebacker in the 3-4 who primarily rushes the passer. Shembo was able to use his size, strength, and especially speed to wreak havoc in the backfield for nearly the entire game. His ability to come off the edge is strengthened by the fact that offensive lines have had to shift to accommodate for the pass rushing ability of Tuitt as well. When you can line the massive Tuitt up inside and outside, it gives the defense a tremendous amount of flexibility and ability to confuse offensive lines. When you combine the ability of Nix to come up the middle, and then Shembo as the rushing linebacker, it puts a lot of pressure on an offensive line quite quickly. The emergence of Shembo and Williams at the CAT this season has taken the Irish defense to another level.

Te'o is a true Notre Dame leader
It also helps that the other side of the defensive line, with Kapron-Lewis Moore and freshman Sheldon Day (who has been outstanding), doesn't allow for hardly any drop off in productivity. Moore has improved his game so much, and been such an integral part in forging the defensive identity of this team, that he was named one of the senior captains for the season. Moore, along with the other Irish defensive captain, Manti Te'o, have sparked an intensity throughout the rest of their defensive teammates that shows on every play. Think back to the game on Saturday. The Spartans, with Le'Veon Bell, have one of the better rushing attacks in the country. The Irish defense, though, held him to 77 yards and no touchdowns. On each play, Irish defenders flocked to the football with speed, size, physicality, toughness, and intensity. The success of the defense in this manner is a direct result of the recruiting this staff has done, the coaching this staff has done to instill such a mentality, and the leadership of players on the field like Te'o. It's hard for players not to follow a true Notre Dame star like Te'o when he's flying on the field against Michigan State, racking up tackles and other big plays, after suffering his own terrible tragedy.

It's this strong defensive identity that is pushing the team through the season. It permeates through the rest of the team and allows the other parts of the team that are still trying to develop come into their own  without costing the Irish any victories. The first place this is seen is in the defensive backfield. Riddled with injuries and perhaps the only area on the team Kelly has had bad luck in recruiting (see, loss of Ronald Darby and Tee Shepard), the secondary is full of inexperience, to put it lightly. Starting senior safety Jamoris Slaughter was lost during the game to an achilles injury that will sideline him for the season, thrusting sophomore Matthias Farley into that role. At corner, the team was already starting two new starters, Bennett Jackson and true freshman KeiVarae Russell. When you consider that true freshman Elijah Shumate has played a significant amount of snaps at the nickel corner slot, it really shows how inexperienced the Irish are back there. It will take time for the players to get acclimated and comfortable, even if Russell and Shumate have looked great thus far. And that's just the thing - because of the play of the Irish front 7, the secondary has been able to ease into the season without too much pressure. I think that will pay dividends as the schedule toughens going forward.

The strength of the Irish defense has also helped the maturation of the offense under Everett Golson. Golson, who has looked more comfortable with each passing start, hasn't been forced to carry the offense himself, due in large part to the success of the defense and the running game. This has allowed Golson to look good when he does throw the ball, even if the box score doesn't indicate as such. To be sure, he does have far too many overthrown balls, and he needs to work on his touch to execute the mid-screens and flat screens that dominate Kelly's spread offense, but those are things that come with practice and game reps. I think we'll see a much improved Golson as the season progresses, starting with this week's game against Michigan. The great thing is, once Golson starts to hit his stride, that will make an Irish offense that has been adequate thus far much, much more dangerous. When that happens,  we'll have a more complete team on the field.

Now, the key for this team will be consistency. Michigan State was a tough matchup, but can they keep this up against a good Michigan team? The defense is going to have to play at this level for the foreseeable future until the other facets I mentioned start to consistently come around. We're going to need Shembo, Nix, Tuitt, Williams, Moore, Te'o, and the rest of the defense to be this intense, this tough, and this cohesive in order to stave off any struggles from the offense and the secondary. Against Michigan this weekend, a team that has given Brian Kelly fits (especially last year in a debacle that I don't talk about), they're going to need to tighten up and play assignment football to be able to try and control Denard Robinson and his scrambling ability. They Irish did this well last year, forcing Denard to beat them through the air. Hopefully they do the same this year, but with better results. With this defense leading the way, everyone is a lot more confident. For a program that has said these things for years, seeing it on the field makes all the difference, and turns Irish skeptics into believers of Brian Kelly and his mission. It's up to his team to prove him right every week, starting this Saturday.