SOUTH BEND – It was difficult to pinpoint one area of concern for the fans of Notre Dame football throughout this past off-season.
Veteran Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly brought in an inordinate amount of new coaches that no one can say – even in light of a season-opening rout of Temple - unequivocally that this new staff will be able to turn the program back to where its fan base wants it to be.
The Fighting Irish have a new starting quarterback and of course, there is the defensive side of the ball, which no one, including Kelly, felt good about last season. But one game into the 2017 season, there is significant reason for hope that the unit is on its way to being good enough to lift the Irish back into national relevance.
The 24th-ranked Fighting Irish (1-0) will host 15th-ranked Georgia (1-0) Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m., NBC).
Notre Dame entered this season with a revamped defensive coaching staff led by coordinator Mike Elko, and based on the win over Temple; many of the conundrums that plagued Notre Dame a year ago have been resolved.
“What I appreciate about Coach Elko most is he allows his players to play fast and play free,” senior linebacker Drue Tranquill said Wednesday. “He really puts things in a way that allows his players to organize their jobs and their checks in a way that allows them to play fast.”
The Fighting Irish averaged just a shade more than five tackles for a loss throughout the 2016 season, yet more than doubled that number against Temple (11). That improvement was never more evident than in the third quarter.
Notre Dame limited Temple to a pair of three-and-outs to open the third quarter, but the Irish offense couldn't build on its 28-10 lead due to a missed field goal and an interception thrown by quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
The Owls returned that pick to the Notre Dame 14-yard line and were in position to trim their deficit to 11 points. However, a sack by linebacker Te'Von Coney on a critical third-and-five play, allowed Notre Dame to keep Temple down.
“It's well-balanced in a sense that we have our pressures, we have our base defense, we have our heavy defenses,” Tranquill continued. “So it's very balanced in a sense, and I think maybe in a sense of disguising things, and confusing the quarterback and giving him different looks maybe contributes to that.”
A year ago, Notre Dame ranked 117th (out of 128 teams) in sacks generated with just 14 throughout the entire season. However, Elko's unit is on pace for 36 for 2017 following the opening week.
“I think a lot of that probably goes to our defensive line being able to move the line of scrimmage and just their development this off-season,” Tranquill said of the improvement. “I think that would be a good thing for our defensive line rather than necessarily just our scheme. I think our defensive line moved the line of scrimmage well and was able to get pressure on the quarterback.”
Kelly was pleased with the defense's ability to create pressure in Temple's backfield, but he was also pleased with the unit's ability to stop the Owls' run game. Temple managed just six second half points and averaged a meager 2.3 yards per rush in the game.
The Notre Dame coaches spent the entire game rotating multiple players into the defense, which allowed better rested players (i.e. playing fast) to be more productive than a year ago.
“It's really a matter of keeping those guys fresh,” Kelly explained of the strategy to rotate players, “and playing at the level that they need to. They are going to have to play.
“We had a fixed rotation of how they were going to play early and throughout. We trust them. We're going to stick with that.”
If the first week is any indication, that would prove to be a smart move for the Fighting Irish.
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