February 1, 2018

Is Brian VanGorder the right hire for football’s defense?

By Dalton Ray —

With the hiring of Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator, football now has their third defensive coordinator in as many years.

VanGorder has 37 years of collegiate coaching experience and is the complete opposite of former defensive coordinator, 40-year-old Peter Sirmon. The new Louisville DC has a tenured and better overall resume than Cal’s new linebacker coach, but that doesn’t take much since Sirmon barely had a one.

The VanGorder hire is, uh, curious to say the least.

In his last stop as a defensive coordinator (Notre Dame 2014-16), VanGorder was fired four games into his third season after allowing 33.5 points per game. The 134 points allowed in the opening quarter of the season is the most in ND history.

As Auburn’s 2012 defensive coordinator, VanGorder’s unit allowed 28.3 points per game (66th in the nation) and 421 yards per (81st).

VanGorder served as Bobby Petrino’s linebacker coach during Petrino’s nine months as the Atlanta Falcons’ head coach. VanGorder then served as Atlanta’s defensive coordinator from 2008-11.

The highlight of VanGorder’s career came during his time with Georgia (2001-04). The Dawgs were a top 10 defense during his tenure and VanGorder won Frank Boyles Assistant Coach of the Year in 2003.

VanGorder obviously knows his football, simply look at his track record.

But is this the best hire? It appears that VanGorder hasn’t exactly grown with the game over years.

VanGorder used an aggressive 4-3 defense while at Notre Dame. The Irish blitzed often and sat back in zone behind it.

This philosophy worked well through the early- and mid-2000s, but has been compromised with the uptempo and spacing of the new-age offenses.

What VanGorder has on his side is sitting out the past two years. He served as a defensive analyst for Georgia in 2016 and Oklahoma State in 2017.

Learning from UGA’s Kirby Smart, one of the nation’s top defensive minds, is a good way to spend a season. While at Oklahoma State, VanGorder experienced one of the nation’s top spread, air raid offenses as well seeing the pass-happy Big 12 weekly.

The press conference introducing VanGorder as the new DC had little takeaways.

Petrino dropped his trademark “very excited” phrase he says every conference. VanGorder said he’s happy for the challenges, as he wants his defense to play with fundamentals, enthusiasm, blah, blah, blah.

When asked about the defense he would run, VanGorder said he has background in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes and will use the spring to determine what works best for his players. He said having a flexible defense that can adjust to opposing offenses is crucial.

Haven’t heard that before.

Having a “multiple” defense didn’t work too well for U of L last year under Sirmon.

Having a fluid defense able to match whatever offense is ideal, but not practical — especially with Louisville’s personnel. Only the nation’s premier defensive teams — Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Michigan — can step on the field with any offense and match whatever is thrown at them but they still have a set, defined identity.

Louisville mainly used a three-man front last season and the simplicity (as well as lack of toughness, tackling, identity, etc) led to a long year defensively.

VanGorder’s scheme is known to be complex, so the learning curve and terminology adjustments for players will take time. Furthermore, allegedly not having a set scheme going in will add to the time.

Petrino, who was at best in the mid to late-2000s, has hired a defensive coordinator that was at his best 15 years ago. In 2006, this combination would have created a buzz across the nation.

In 2018, the duo of Petrino-VanGorder appears to be two coaches with their best days behind them, rejoining with hopes of experiencing the success they had before the first iPhone hit the market.

VanGorder could step back into the game new and improved, but the hire is questionable regardless.

You can follow Dalton Ray on Twitter @dray5477

File photo / The Louisville Cardinal

1 thought on “Is Brian VanGorder the right hire for football’s defense?

  1. Questionable, yes. VanGorder has talent, but recruiting isn’t his strong suit. Teaching doesn’t seem to be, either. At Notre Dame, he was one of the worst recruiters on the staff, and his tendency to lock onto one player per position and not give others any playing time didn’t help grow the players. Finally, his teams at Notre Dame were characterized by a lack of attention to fundamentals, and nobody really learning any of his scheme thoroughly enough to make it automatic. So, there were lots of missed tackles turning five-yard runs into 80-yard runs, and lots of missed assignments leaving receivers wide open and holes you could drive a truck through.

    As you say, he might have learned a thing or two, and for Louisville’s sake I hope he has. But at Notre Dame he was a hot mess, presiding over one of the worst defenses in Notre Dame history. It says a lot when Notre Dame improved from something like 133rd in total defense when he was fired to something like 70th at the end of the season.

    You never know, though. Maybe he and Petrino will succeed where he and Kelly didn’t.

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