SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Simpler has meant better so far at Texas and Notre Dame, with both head coaches taking more hands-on roles to fix bad defenses.
The two traditional powers showed improvement after making changes at defensive coordinator, although both are stills works in progress. The Fighting Irish (2-5) have made major changes since firing Brian VanGorder on Sept. 24, using more players and switching their defensive alignment, philosophy and attitude. The adjustments at Texas (3-3) after demoting Vance Bedford on Oct. 3 have been more subtle.
Both coaches say the biggest change has been in confidence.
“I think we have just allowed them to play without worrying about mistakes. Just play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.
The Irish have gone from giving up 33.5 points, 201 yards rushing and 253 yards passing in four games this season under VanGorder to 20 points, 153 yards rushing and 174 yards passing since. The statistics are skewed by one game being played in the remnants of a hurricane that made moving the ball almost impossible.
Still, the defense has allowed one touchdown the past two games and only two in the past 10 quarters after struggling in the first half against Syracuse.
“The thing I wanted to do when we made the change was keep the points down and limit the big plays,” Kelly said.
The Irish have gone from surrendering an average of four plays of 20 yards or more the first four games to one the past two games. The Irish defense is playing faster, getting a better pass rush with a three-man line and is tackling better.
Kelly is spending more time with the defense, watching practice from a tower at times so he can oversee both offense and defense. He has the team meeting in position units instead of as a whole, with him sitting in with defensive backs. Players say it helps put the focus on little things. The Irish also have changed practices to emphasize third-down defense and other critical situations throughout the week.
“So guys have to come ready for practice starting day one, and early in the practice as well,” linebacker James Onwualu said.
New defensive coordinator Greg Hudson has brought more enthusiasm, showing videos of wrestler Ric Flair and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air for inspiration.
“You come into a meetings he’s got videos playing, he’s got music playing, so he just brings a different energy,” lineman Issac Rochell said.
Texas got off to a shaky start after making the switch, giving up 672 total yards in a 45-40 loss to rival Oklahoma, stoking speculation coach Charlie Strong could be fired after this season.
Safety Dylan Haines said first-week changes under Strong included developing new coverages in the secondary and blitzes. Haines got Texas’ first two interceptions of the season in the first half but the Longhorns still gave up 390 yards passing and didn’t get a sack until late.
Haines also joked about changes in practice. When Strong demoted Bedford, he sent Bedford to help defensive backs coach Clay Jennings.
“I wondered, what was going to be the dynamic? Now we have two coaches yelling at me,” he said.
The biggest change for the second game was the wristbands with the defensive signals in last week’s 27-6 win over Iowa State. Texas players had talked earlier in the season about a lack of communication on calls and Strong called for the wristbands to simplify things.
Strong, who won two national titles as a defensive coordinator at Florida, said the improved communication allows quicker changes.
“That helped us a lot out there . because now there’s no excuses going across the board. Everybody knows the play. There’s no, ‘I didn’t get the call or whatever it was for that play,’” linebacker Naashon Hughes said.
Texas played its best defensive game last week, not giving up a touchdown and piling up eight sacks.
Strong insists there hasn’t been many changes the players would notice. He said he hasn’t had to sacrifice time away from coaching others areas, but he is taking a bigger role in developing defensive strategy week to week and keeping closer tabs on practice.
Hughes did notice Strong brings a vocal element to the practice field.
“It’s louder. There’s more yelling,” Hughes said. “Coach Bedford wasn’t that loud.”