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Playing More People On Notre Dame’s Defense A Priority For Brian Kelly

Utilizing more players on defense, such as lineman Jay Hayes, is a new goal for Kelly. (Bill Panzica)

As the de facto defensive coordinator for Saturday’s game at Syracuse and likely throughout 2016, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has three objectives he wants to fulfill.

One is to streamline the defense into a more basic, settled look, not relying on “exotics” or multiple personnel packaging and paralysis by analysis.

Two is for the defense to play looser and with greater passion, energy and enthusiasm, which ties in with the “paralysis by analysis” theme. This is what he wants former Irish defensive analyst and now titled defensive coordinator Greg Hudson to elicit from the troops. Kelly indicated earlier this week the defense had been playing way too “mechanical” and “robotic” under recently deposed third-year coordinator Brian VanGorder.

And finally, to combine Nos. 1 and 2, Kelly believes it is necessary to get many more players involved in the defensive rotation.

Under VanGorder, player rotation along the front seven was limited. This leads to more fatigue as the game and season progress, which in turn results in more missed tackles and lessened overall production.

“You're going to see a lot more players playing,” said Kelly during his Tuesday conference with the media. “There is going to be some depth, some camaraderie. We need to get that morale up on defense, and we will do that with a lot more players involved in what we're doing on a day-to-day basis.”

A prime example of the depth chart disparity came last season when fifth-year senior captain Joe Schmidt — despite playing in much pain that diminished his production — still played 827 snaps (the most on the defense, and an average of 64 per game), while his backup, Nyles Morgan, who earned some Freshman All-America notice the previous year, had only 41 defensive snaps.

This year Kelly believes it is unacceptable that junior defensive lineman Jay Hayes and sophomore linebacker Asmar Bilal, both of who had strong springs, played zero snaps in the 38-35 loss at home to Duke this past weekend. Hayes has played only 24 snaps (six per game) all season and Bilal 23 (5.7 per game).

In the opener against Texas, a 50-47 double-overtime loss, senior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell played 83 snaps, sophomore tackle Jerry Tillery 78 and junior end Andrew Trumbetti 60. Irish defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said this spring that the threshold per game for a defensive lineman would be about 50, and getting to 60 probably is a bit too much. For Kelly, it’s also a slap in the face to team depth.

“It then becomes a one-dimensional football team — the haves and haves not, and that does not do well with morale,” Kelly said. “That does not do well with ownership for everybody and attitude. We've got to build a better base there and that starts with me making sure that that happens.”

However, that doesn’t mean inserting players indiscriminately or for the sake of just rotating bodies. Playing time must still be earned.

“I'm not saying everybody's gotta play and we all gotta go have a big, group hug at the end of practice,” Kelly said. “It's merit based, too. But there are too many good football players that haven't been playing, in my estimation, and I'm making the calls on both sides here and they gotta get in the game.”

Linebacker Asmar Bilal (22) and end Daelin Hayes (9) could possibly see more action in the weeks to come. (Bill Panzica)

This applies to the offense, too. Sophomore running back Josh Adams had 54 snaps against Duke while classmate Dexter Williams — who was singled out by the head coach as the lone player who performed with consistent passion against the Blue Devils — had 10.

“That's too stark of a cliff right there,” Kelly pointed out. “Josh Adams is one heck of a good player…But we've got to do a better job there and that's one example.

“You can't take somebody that's had no reps and give them 70 on Saturday. That's impossible. But what we can start to do is put a depth chart together that gives a young man a look at saying, ‘I got a shot, here. I'm part of the solution.’

“I want guys to feel like they're part of the solution here. There is going to be a lot of those guys that are going to feel like that they now can be part of the solution both in a defensive standpoint and in some instances on the offensive side of the ball.”

Also, there should be no more discussion about the defense being too complex to where only a handful of players might be able to fully grasp it. Kelly said it will be pared down to give everyone a better shot of fulfilling his skills in it and to get on the field. Kelly believes the talent level is better than what has been displayed, but the greater problems have been that it’s inexperienced in some areas (specifically the secondary), and way overused.

“We've got some guys out there that are dog tired trying to do things,” Kelly said. “They got too many reps and we've got too many good players sitting behind them watching. We've got to get them in the game and we've got to trust them and we've got to coach 'em and get them in the game — and that's on me.

“We have some guys that are overexposed in those positions of tackling, and that will change. Devin Studstill had 67 plays in him when he missed that play that was a simple play on the sideline — he’s a true freshman. Fatigue was part of that. We've got to do a better job there.

“I'm not laying it all on fatigue, but we have to be smarter. We've got other players that can be in the game at that time. Tevon Coney was at play 56 when he missed the tackle on the back… Drue Tranquill had a great game. He had 39 plays. He had one of his best games. Yeah, he missed one tackle, but he's a safety! He had a great game. We've got to manage our players better. That's on us, that’s on me.

“We have some young guys out there and we can't overexpose them.”

Whether substitutes actually can roll in against Syracuse, which averages 86 plays per game (fourth in the country), with its fast paced offense is a different story. For now, it's another new theme to build on to help salvage the 2016 season.


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