Terry Joseph Now Notre Dame Defensive Pass Game Coordinator
While there have been some position changes in the Notre Dame secondary this spring and summer, including senior Troy Pride Jr. shifting from field to boundary corner and sophomore Houston Griffith moving from nickel and safety to corner, there also was a change in job title.
Hired as the safeties coach in 2018 to help shore up the secondary, Terry Joseph is now listed as “defensive pass game coordinator.”
Throughout the spring, Joseph could be seen taking a more active role in the entire secondary, and head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged the shift in title during his meeting with the media on Friday to preview Sunday’s opening practice.
“It's a bit of a change,” said Kelly of Joseph. “He's got a hand in what we're doing on the back end in terms of the entire coverage. So he works closely with [defensive coordinator] Clark [Lea] in coordinating the coverages with the fronts. It is a leadership position for him that equates the kind of work that he's doing for us.”
In college football coaching, a decision often has to be made on which position group necessitates having two assistants.
Sometimes it’s the offensive line, with one coach handling guards and centers, while another instructs the tackles and tight ends.
Or it can be applied to the defensive line, with one mentoring ends and another the interior. In recent years at Notre Dame, it’s been linebacker, with one handling the inside, often a coordinator, and another the outside.
In 2018 the decision was made under first-year coordinator Lea that two assistants needed to be in full-time capacities in the secondary, especially after a green safety corps in 2017 produced only five passes broken up and no interceptions, a first at Notre Dame since the two-platoon system (different starters on offense and defense) became permanent in 1964.
“When Coach Lea took over the defense he looked at ‘What did we do and who had the hard downs — and how can we improve to help the guys that consistently had the hard downs?’” recalled fourth-year Irish assistant Todd Lyght this winter. “When you looked at our defense, there were some hard downs on the back end, especially at safety.”
With Mike Elston well proven at instructing the defensive line, Lea excelling with the linebackers/rover in 2017 and 2018, and the full system now in place, the decision was made to facilitate the back end with the hiring of Joseph to coach the safeties while Lyght tutored the cornerbacks, the position where he was a two-time consensus All-American in 1989-90 for the Irish.
The move paid huge dividends while earning a College Football Playoff bid following a 12-0 regular season.
• The Notre Dame pass efficiency defense had its highest finish ever (No. 6) since that stat first began to be kept by the NCAA in the early 1990s.
• Jalen Elliott and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman started all 13 games at safety and made significant impacts as playmakers while combining for six interceptions, 12 passes broken up and four forced fumbles.
• At cornerback, Julian Love earned consensus All-American notice as a junior while classmate Pride Jr. became a mainstay, especially in the second half of the season.
The individual attention both Lyght and Joseph were able to devote to their position groups was crucial.
“When I coached the whole secondary, with the NCAA 20-hour rule, we’d watch film and do 50 clips for both the corners and the safeties over a five-day period while getting ready for the game,” Lyght recalled. “Now, you split that up, the safeties are getting 50 clips and the corners are getting 50 clips.
“Their learning is doubling just by watching themselves play, seeing that repetition on the film and also being able to do a lot more technical work with the corners — because the cornerback position is so technical. Being able to just address that, their fundamentals and the application of the technique, has really helped them improve, which has helped our overall group improve.”
In college, defensive backfield performers did not receive a lot of fundamental work in high school because they also were often stars on offense, and let their natural talents take control. At the college level, individual instruction is far more imperative.
“Most of the time they’re the best athlete on the team [in high school], things come easy to them and schematically they’re not asked to do a lot of things,” Lyght said. “Now, here you run into all these different type of offenses — spread, tempo, 21 power offense, pro-style, west coast, triple option … The secondary is asked to do a lot. By splitting up the duties, you can get so much position specific stuff done that it really helps their development.”
Adding Joseph has provided a safety net to Notre Dame’s defense in more ways than one.