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Defensive Breakdown: Brian VanGorder’s Scheme

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I watched some film from Brian VanGorder’s time at Notre Dame. Here’s a basic breakdown of what I saw.

Atlanta Falcons Minicamp Paul Abell/Getty Images

Louisville hired their third defensive coordinator in the last five years when they brought in Brian VanGorder this offseason. For the second straight year I watched about as many available defensive snaps that I could find online of the incoming defensive coordinator’s scheme and I got a good look at BVG’s defense while he was at Notre Dame. VanGorder is one of the few coaches that can claim that is scheme is “multiple” and not be lying. He did a lot of different things during his 2+ years in South Bend and I think we could see the same things here at UofL.

Let’s run through each look I saw through VanGorder’s thirty games running Notre Dame’s defense.

BASE 4-3

The base defense is something that I think most football fans are familiar with. Four down linemen with the defensive tackles in a “3 technique”. That means they are lined up over the guards. The ends are heads up with the offensive tackles. The middle linebacker is lined up between two outside linebackers. It’s a pretty basic look but most defenses have a comfort zone and this is VanGorder’s.

From time to time the line would shade to one side. That moved a tackle into a nose tackle spot where he was heads up with the center. It’s a subtle change but it changes the blocking assignments for the offense and might make the offense adjust from what they were doing.

4-3 OVER

This formation is slightly different than the base defense. The strong side outside linebacker lines up tight on the end of the line instead of being off of it. I saw this a lot when there was a tight end on the line but it was used a few times when the third receiver was split out in the slot.

4-2-5 NICKEL

The base look of the 4-2-5 nickel is four down linemen in their normal alignment. The two linebackers are middle linebacker Joe Schmidt (38) and weakside outside linebacker Jaylon Smith (9). The play below shows a basic “man under” defense (you can literally call this play in madden). Everyone is in man coverage across the board with two safeties over top.

VanGorder will also use this alignment with a defensive end in a stand up position. It’s similar to the 3-3-5 we’ve seen for the last few years but with an end and not an outside linebacker. I think that could be different with Louisville. Jon Greenard can play defensive tackle so we could see him slide down and someone like Boosie Whitlow or Tabarious Peterson could be the stand up end. VanGorder has a lot of options at his disposal and he never shied away from using what he had at Notre Dame.

In the second clip you can see a zone blitz that is a pretty typical design that I saw. The defensive end at the top of the screen is standing up and he drops into the flats. The slot corner/nickel back blitzes from the bottom of the screen and the safety takes his man. However, when the corner blitzes at the top of the screen, no one accounts for the receiver and he finds a big window for an easy conversion.

This play demonstrates the complexities of the defense. Some guys are in man coverage. A linemen is dropping into a zone. Pressure is overloaded to one side with a blitzer coming from both sides of the formation. Everyone has to execute or you risk leaving someone open to make a play. These plays were very hit or miss in the games I watched. A lot of these plays led to QB hurries but a lot also led to first downs.

3-3-5 NICKEL

Romeo Okwara (45) played a hybrid defensive line/outside linebacker role for the team so in this look he’s playing as a linebacker as opposed to a linemen like you can see above in the 4-2-5. That spot was also manned by the normal outside linebacker at times which shows again that VanGorder had no issue utilizing different personnel.

The play below shows another blitz look meant to confuse the quarterback. As Okwara drops into coverage, the nickel back on the opposite side blitzes.

3-2 DIME

As you can see in this look, three down linemen line up with two linebackers (to the right and left of the ref). Drew Tranquil (23) is an extra safety brought in and on this play he is behind the nose tackle as a spy. Devin Butler (12) is an extra corner at the top of the screen. Normally, BVG used his normal nickel back in this set. That put four safeties on the field with two corners. I think the personnel just changed with the game and situations.

The second look is a little different even though everyone bails out into a zone. The dummy blitz look gives a good idea of what the offense will see when a blitz is actually called. Typically, Drew Tranquil is the blitzer while the two linebacker drop into coverage. I also got a look at a blitz where a deep safety joins in from about 8 yards out.

As you can see from some of the clips, the secondary changes coverages a decent amount. Sometimes they are in press man coverage and sometimes they’re off 8+ yards. Other times they’re in cover two where the corners play a short zone and the safeties play over top at the hash marks. We will even see man-zone schemes where one corner is in man coverage and the other is in a zone, or blitzing. The coverages will vary a lot which could lead to some big plays against some of the younger quarterbacks Louisville will face this year.

I’ve had a lot of people ask if the “soft” coverage by the corners will be like we saw with Sirmon last year and they’re not that similar to me. The corners fly up the field on short passes in this defense because of the deep help they have. Instead of playing it safe and making a “catch” tackle where you just want to secure the ball carrier and get him down, Notre Dame’s corners looked to limit the the yards after catch and run through the ball carrier.

I watched games from 2014 through the final game that VanGorder coached in 2016. The 2016 defense was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. The scheme didn’t change and the team still had talent but for whatever reason it just didn’t work anymore. Joe Schmidt was known as the quarterback of the defense and they were 17-4 when he played over his two years in the system. They were 1-4 without him during that time and 1-3 after he graduated. There were reports that he was the only guy that truly knew the defense and that he got everybody lined up correctly. It’s hard to disagree with those reports with the results they had.

I think this defense can be very complex at times and that’s a concern. However, I don’t think that Louisville has been in a better position on defense to take on the challenges of the scheme than they are right now. They have depth and versatility. The transfers in the secondary also bring some experience and talent. I don’t know how it will go exactly, but the scheme is a big upgrade from what we all saw last year.

Also if you’d rather listen instead of read, I talked about most of what’s above on 93.9 last week. I hopped on shortly after the 25 minute mark.