SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Notre Dame is hoping to pick up the pace on defense this season.
The Fighting Irish got off to a quick start last season in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's first season at Notre Dame, keeping opponents off balance by switching personnel. The Irish gave up 12 points per game through five games, third best in the country — although three of those opponents ranked in the bottom 20 in the nation in total offense at season's end.
Then North Carolina exposed the Irish defense with an up-tempo offense that kept VanGorder from making changes. The Irish held on to win 50-43, but other opponents picked up the pace, too. Then injuries started piling up.
That combination led to miserable play as the Irish gave up 30 or more points for seven straight games, the longest such streak in school history before finally beating LSU 31-28 in the Music City Bowl.
VanGorder blames himself for not being better prepared for fast-paced offenses.
"I don't think I did a very good job in that scenario. We put a lot of hard work into that. We're not that much different from anyone across the country that's running a defense. It's a problem, and the statistics show that it's a major problem," he said. "The emphasis of it and certainly the plan we take into a ballgame in respect to it becomes critical."
The Irish, which finished 27th in scoring defense and 31st in the nation in total defense a year earlier under Bob Diaco's bend-but-don't break defense, fell to 82nd in the nation in scoring defense, giving up 29.2 points a game, and 71st in total defense, giving up 404.2 points a game under VanGorder's more aggressive defense.
Irish players say they know they have to be better, particularly against fast-paced offenses.
"How fast can we get aligned? Can we get our eyes right and be able to stay on our objective? How much can we eliminate the mental errors? That's really what we're working on now," linebacker Jaylon Smith said.
Irish players say they have a better understanding of VanGorder's defense, saying they feel more comfortable asking questions about it because they grasp it better. Linebacker Joe Schmidt said he tries not to ask too many questions, though.
"Or all of a sudden you're paralyzed in thought," he said. "So there's a balance there you have to find, I think, and that comes with maturity and understanding. But it's still just a puzzle and you're trying to fit the pieces in the right place."
When VanGorder was asked if there was anything that stands out that he feels really good about the defense, he paused for a moment and said: "I'll say this, we have a high character room. They show up to work and learn every day. That's how it is right now," he said. "We have a lot of work to do to get a lot better."
Notes: Coach Brian Kelly said sophomore DeShone Kizer has solidified his position as the No. 2 quarterback ahead of freshman Brandon Wimbush.