Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Our Lady of the Lake and her Big, Angry Men

Stories about Notre Dame’s imminent return to glory under a new regime seem like Police Academy sequels, each new one more preposterous than the last. Rather than dismissing the latest batch, Stewart Mandel argues that New and Improved Notre Dame, Brian Kelly Edition is not Mission to Moscow ridiculous, but rather that we have a legitimate reason to believe that this time, it's not a joke. Mandel’s argument is that Brian Kelly’s first recruiting class is especially heavy on defensive line talent, unlike the classes of Charlie Weis.

Mandel is correct, although he overstates the case a little. It’s true that Kelly landed Notre Dame’s first five-star defensive linemen since the Bob Davie years. However, it’s not as if Weis didn’t pull in any talent at the position. Of the 37 (!) ESPN 150 players that Weis recruited in four full classes, five were defensive linemen. (For some reason, Notre Dame’s recruiting classes are not available on Rivals right now.) If you assume a three-man front as the base defense, then Weis brought in blue chip defensive linemen in a proportion consistent with the number of defensive linemen in a starting lineup. His downfall was on the defensive side of the ball, but it wasn’t a failure of recruiting.

Speaking of the three man front, I’m interested to see how it plays out on the college level. Bobby Diaco runs a 3-4 defense, which traditionally sees the outside linebackers making the plays and the defensive ends occupying blockers. At 225 pounds, Ishaq Williams seems destined four outside linebacker. With weights in the 250s, Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt could also be outside linebackers or they could bulk up into 3-4 ends. They are already at the weight at which Justin Houston tore up the SEC this fall. If they put on 25 pounds, where will they be on the field? The Irish’s use of Lynch and Tuitt presents an interesting issue because college teams that run a 3-4 are coming into a recruiting advantage. Three of the four teams in the NFL final four run 3-4 schemes. The defense is getting very popular in the NFL, as smart 3-4 coaches have the upper hand right now with their ability to confuse quarterbacks and offensive lines. Georgia’s switch to the 3-4 is likely to pay recruiting dividends because of what recruits are seeing on TV in January. The same is true for Notre Dame. The question is whether the best recruits pulled in by Georgia, Notre Dame, and other 3-4 schools are going to end up as defensive ends or outside linebackers.

Mandel’s description of Brian Kelly’s recruiting success also raises two issues for Michigan fans, aside from the obvious “a team on the schedule is improving the talent on its roster.” The first is that Brian Kelly is doing exactly what Rich Rodriguez should have done. Like Rodriguez, Kelly knows offense and is confident that his teams will be great on that side of the ball, regardless of the talent level. Kelly moved to ND to have access to better athletes on the defensive side so that his teams aren't lopsided. Rodriguez had to have thought the same thing when leaving his alma mater, where he had just gone 32-5, but for whatever reason, he was unable to take advantage of Michigan’s recruiting platform. Kelly, on the other hand, is taking advantage of being at Notre Dame.

That said, the second issue is that Kelly's recruiting success is also an implicit repudiation of the story that the media in Michigan will tell about Rodriguez's failure in Ann Arbor. The local media will want to make Rodriguez's demise a repudiation of the Spread, but based on the quarterback that he recruited, Kelly seems to be moving towards a more run-based Spread as opposed to a passing spread (or at least a more balanced version). The local media are also on a kick about how Brady Hoke is going to recruit the Midwest heavily, but Kelly is getting players from the Deep South, which is exactly the right strategy for a school like ND or Michigan and it’s the same strategy that Rodriguez tried and failed to execute. In short, the media in Michigan are in denial about the state’s current condition, so they responded vehemently to a coach who looked elsewhere for talent and they are excited by a coach who believes (or is at least mouthing the belief for public consumption) that a national contender can be created from recruiting the local high schools.

One final thought on Mandel’s piece. I’ve had a good time ripping Mandel’s overreaction to Notre Dame’s recent struggles. To his credit, in his most recent article, Mandel links to his own pieces that have been refuted by recent events. With my new-found appreciation for Mandel using his brain when writing, I’m inclined to point out that one of the things that I like about him is his willingness to reference instances in which he has been wrong. I like this trait in Mark Bradley, as well. I’ll put up with a lot from a writer if he will acknowledge when he is wrong.

1 comment:

dbh said...

A good piece. I always enjoy when people who actually watch football speak to it from an analytical point of view.
I do offer one point of clarification: It seems as though every hybrid defense being run in the "modern" football world is classified as a "3-4." Green Bay, for example, played most of the playoffs (that I saw) with only two players putting hands on the ground. On the collegiate level, Nick Saban's defense is labeled a "pro-style 3-4," but Alabama actually spends most of its games in a "nickel" (4-2-5) or "dime" (3-2-6) defense.
Maybe these hybrid defenses have a base 3-4 on paper, but in practice they're not really.