New athletic facilities are springing up all over Notre Dame’s campus. The sounds of heavy equipment sometimes drown out the marching band’s late-afternoon practice sessions.
Another major rebuilding project started when Brian Kelly was named coach and began retooling a defense that had become part of the problem under Charlie Weis. Less than two years later, that project is under budget and ahead of schedule. Notre Dame has won seven of its last nine games dating to last season because of its defense, not despite it. Throw away the fourth-quarter meltdown against Michigan, when the Irish allowed an Âastounding 28 points and 229 yards, and the unit ranks among the stingiest in the nation.
“We needed to make sure that our players knew, especially on the defensive side of the ball, that we can’t win without you,” Kelly said. “We’re not going to go into this and try to outscore people. That’s only going to last a short period of time. We’re here for a long period of time. We hope to be here for a very long period of time and to build the foundation of long-term success. It has got to be invested in what you do defensively.”
A defense that has allowed one touchdown or less in eight of its last 10 games will face a far different test when Air Force comes to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. The Falcons not only run a version of the triple-option offense that gave the Irish fits against Navy last season, but they also incorporate so many other formations that it’s Âdifficult to prepare for all of them.
Air Force is far from one-dimensional. In back-to-back wins over Tennessee State and Navy, quarterback Tim Jefferson completed 20 of 23 passes with no interceptions. Every sixth pass he has thrown has resulted in a touchdown.
“You talk to white-haired defensive coordinators about the triple option, and they’ll tell you about the good day they had and the bad they had, and the good day might have been 25 years ago and the bad day yesterday,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “It’s just one of those things. As the unit changes and the players change, the offenses get tweaked. We just try to put the chess pieces where they’re supposed to be, train them about discipline and mental toughness and to put their eye on their key for the duration of the play and the duration of the game.”
Kelly was known for his offensive-oriented approach when he arrived at Notre Dame and was given a mandate. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick was convinced that improving the defense was the way to get Notre Dame back into the BCS conversation before Kelly was hired. The new coach agreed. Kelly brought Diaco with him from Cincinnati, and the detail-oriented former Iowa linebacker set out to provide some stability to a program that has had 12 coordinators in the last 25 years.
Changing the culture of a defense so porous early last season that ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit called it a “high school defense” took time. Diaco and Kelly started by building a more physical mentality and a tighter bond between players.
“We’ve really been focused on a brotherhood, on building a community on defense and caring about the guy next to you,” nose guard Sean Cwynar said. “We know each other and we know our coaches very well. We have a commitment to each guy next to each other. We have to stay in our gap. We’re one of 11 out there on every play. We have a lot invested in this.”
Many have questioned whether Notre Dame could recruit the type of players required to field an elite defense. Kelly proved otherwise during his first recruiting cycle. Freshman defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt already are making their presence felt for a program that hasn’t had a defensive lineman drafted in the first round since 1997.
“We knew it wasn’t going to Âhappen overnight,” Kelly said. “We had some decent pieces in place. When you have a guy like Manti Te’o, that provides you an impetus because of his energy and leadership skills. It was good that we had a good recruiting class defensively. Once we were able to secure a very good start, then our expectations were rising relative to the kind of defense we could play.
“There’s another step in that process: We’re going to have to continue to recruit defensively, especially on the back end, as we continue to progress defensively.”