Thrown for loss: Irish wants to keep Georgia behind sticks
By RALPH D. RUSSO
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Less is more for the Notre Dame defense. Less for the players to think about in terms of schemes, coverages and assignments, leading to more tackles made behind the line of scrimmage.
The debut of the Fighting Irish's new defensive alignment under coordinator Mike Elko was mostly a success. The Irish were disruptive and often in the backfield against Temple. Now the first big test: No. 15 Georgia comes to town on Saturday, with one of the best running back combinations in the country in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
'"'If you let these guys go through to the second level and you're relying on your safeties one-on-one from 12 yards off to make tackles, they need to be of NFL pedigree to make those tackles consistently," Kelly said this week. "And I don't know that they will because these two kids are extraordinary talents. So we need a close space, get down closer, and those are some of the hallmarks of a (Mike Elko) defense."
Kelly hired Elko away from Wake Forest in the offseason, looking for a less complicated approach that would help his players become more fundamentally sound. Notre Dame's defense was a mess early last season under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who was fired after four games.
Elko installed a 4-2-5 defense that has consistently been effective in producing negative plays. Wake Forest ranked 24th in the country last season with 7.23 tackles for loss per game. The Demon Deacons were 66th (6.17) in 2015 and 18th (7.17) in 2014 under Elko. Solid numbers for a unit that was not stacked with four- and five-star recruits.
The Fighting Irish ranked 103rd in the country last season in tackles for loss at 5.08 per game.
Against Temple, Notre Dame had 11 tackles for loss, by 10 different players.
"I think what I appreciate about Coach Elko most is he allows his players to play fast and play free, and 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," said Drue Tranquill, who plays a linebacker/safety hybrid position called rover. "And so I think when you see a stat like that, that's the first thing that jumps to my mind is a group of guys who isn't out there necessarily thinking of X, Y and Z, but I know my assignment and I'm going to go play fast and exhibit the traits, the physicality, the speed, the quickness that is why I'm at where I'm at."
Getting more stops behind the line was a goal of Georgia's defense this year, too. The Bulldogs played solid defense last year, ranking 36th in the nation in yards per play allowed (5.24), but they were even worse than Notre Dame in stops for loss, averaging 4.77 per game.
"You look at the teams that lead the nation in tackles for loss and negative plays, they usually have a common denominator: Really quick explosive defensive players that are hard to block and they are willing to bring them," Georgia coach and former longtime Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "You've got to get penetration. You've got to get guys knocked back. You've got to get guys blitzing off the edges to create negative plays. Movement is what creates negative plays."
Georgia has some of those explosive defensive players in defensive tackle Trenton Thompson and linebacker Roquan Smith. Notre Dame doesn't have quite as many of those types of established players, though end Daelin Hayes and linebacker Tevon Coney showed some of that potential with sacks against Temple.
Kelly said Notre Dame does not want to be a blitz-heavy defense. He said creating the negative plays that could put Georgia in long-yardage situations and put the onus on freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to convert doesn't necessarily mean playing high-risk defense.
"We're not a read-and-react defense. We're going to create a new line of scrimmage," Kelly said. "The defensive line is going to play in a manner that they're going to get off the football. Our linebackers are downhill players. We activate everybody, safeties, corners, everybody's involved in the run fits. So it's a comprehensive philosophical decision to get the offense behind the chains."
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Updated September 7, 2017