Somewhere in the dark recesses of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football facilities this last week, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was stroking his goattee pensively and drawing up blitzes to use against the Texas Longhorns.
At least that's the expectation, as the Horns will start two freshmen offensive linemen on Saturday in South Bend and VanGorder, a longtime coordinator with seven years of NFL experience, is known for his often-complicated schemes that include a heavy dose of blitzes.
"You can live 80 years like a kitten, or you can live 50 like a lion," VanGorder likes to say.
Surely, he's living through his 50 as a lion -- in late October last year, Notre Dame was in the top 20 nationally in frequency of blitzes, sending extra rushers after the quarterback on 40% of third-down pass plays. The aggressiveness paid off in helping to create 16 interceptions in 2014.
Texas head coach Charlie Strong certainly agrees with VanGorder's likely philosophy.
"When you go on the road and you're playing in an environment that we're playing in, those two freshmen linemen, it's a concern because you just don't know how quickly it's going to tick for them, and if they bring the pressure -- and I always say this, here I am as a defensive coach, if I see two freshman linemen I'm going to blitz you every snap and see if they can block you," Strong said on Monday.
"But you know what, we've just got to be ready to just make sure we can keep it -- make sure we can balance our offense and make sure that we don't allow them to pressure and put the pressure on those two guys."
Not only did the Horns often struggle last season in picking up blitzes or even simple end-tackle twists, but there are potential pressure points at left tackle and right guard with true freshmen Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe occupying those spots, respectively.
Here's a look at a couple of blitzes that VanGorder will likely use at some point against Texas -- an all-out, Cover 0 blitz and a fire zone blitz bringing the nickel back and strongside linebacker (h/t to One Foot Down to breaking them down first here and here).
Late in the blowout of Michigan last season, VanGorder dialed up a Cover 0 blitz on 4th and 9 to bury the Wolverines once and for all. Notice the lack of any deep safety at all, a pre-snap indication that the Fighting Irish could come fast and hard after the quarterback:
Indeed, Notre Dame brings both linebackers and two defensive backs, with the field-side linebacker responsible for the running back. As soon as the running back stays in to help pass protect, the linebacker comes as the final blitzer.
via One Foot Down
Notice how VanGorder slants the nose tackle across the face of the center to open up a gap for star junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, one of the most dangerous blitzers on the Notre Dame team. However, that isn't the pressure that ends up creating the sack -- when the right tackle gets hit by an inside move from the left defensive end, the blitzing nickel back gets a free run at the quarterback because the running back has to step up to take the defensive end.
When the Fighting Irish show blitz, as they do in this alignment, the Longhorns offensive linemen have to be aware of the slants and inside moves from the defensive line as they try to create rush lanes for the back seven.
Like former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, VanGorder also likes to bring a variety of fire zone blitzes when he's feeling less risky -- the ability to overload one side of the formation while still dropping a player into coverage is a sound defensive strategy employed across college football. As long as the players understand their rush lanes and coverage responsibilities, that is.
Notice that this particular fire zone blitz begins with all six players in the Notre Dame defensive front are lined up along the line of scrimmage (often called a "Bear" front), just like the Cover 0 blitz shown above. So while the pre-snap indication here is once again a blitz, there will be plenty of times when VanGorder drops players into coverage from this look instead of bringing pressure.
Smith and the defensive tackle both drop into zone coverage, while the strongside linebacker and the nickel back execute the blitz responsibilities of this fire zone. Another key to this play? Though the Fighting Irish show two deep safeties at the start of the play, since the nickel back comes on the blitz, the strong safety covers the curl/flat zone above the inside receiver.
The running back is on the wrong side of the formation to pick up the blitzing nickel back, forcing quarterback Devin Gardner to get the ball out before more quickly than he would like. After re-setting his feet, Gardner forces a pass into coverage that the Fighting Irish intercept easily because he doesn't see the free safety dropping into the deep middle of the Notre Dame Cover 3.
There are a couple of players to watch in VanGorder's agressive scheme -- the immensely talented Smith and junior nickelback KeiVarae Russell. Smith is a freakish athlete at 6'3, 240 pounds, while Russell is a dynamic playmaker now returning from a two-semester suspension for acadmic fraud.
Whether it's on a zone blitz overloading one side or coming on a Cover 0 blitz with every other player not in coverage, those two players will feature heavily in VanGorder's schemes because of the incredible speed that both possess for their respective positions.
As always, though, there's a risk-reward scenario with blitzing -- if the young freshmen can hold up in pass protection, the Horns will have a chance to produce some of the explosive plays that eluded the defense so often last season. Since Bryan Harsin left in 2012, the Horns have had some issues running an effective running back screen game, but this would probably be the game to show some improvement there.
And Texas will also have to be careful about running read option plays into fire zone blitzes that bring a defender the Horns can't option off. One of the best ways to avoid Notre Dame being able to guess the side of the formation the play is going to is by using the Pistol instead of having the running back lined up to one side of the quarterback in the shotgun. In the shotgun,
In 2013, for instance, New Mexico State gave Texas some trouble defensively because the Horns weren't disciplined with their option rules at the NMSU Pistol formations and post-snap movement by the H-back didn't tip off the side to which the Aggies wanted to run.
Another critical aspect -- both of these blitzes came in unfavorable down-and-distance situations for the offense -- 4th and long on the first play and 3rd and long on the second play. For all of VanGorder's reputation as a blitz-happy mad man, these are typical blitz situations the Horns offense must stay out of in order to find success.
Since VanGorder's schemes can be high-risk, high-reward at other potentially more opportune times for the Texas offense, there will be chances for the Horns to take advantage of blitzes and create explosive plays, as opponents did exactly that quite often last year. The Fighting Irish will either prosper or pay penance for blitzing and the direction in which that pendulum swings may well determine whether the Horns can move the football and create the big plays necessary to win a primetime road game against what should be a really good football team.