Sept. 4, 2014
By: Todd Burlage
Ask any University of Notre Dame football player or coach about the single most important message first-year Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is trying to instill in his team and the answer is always the same — big picture thinking.
Football is an intricate and often confusing game, and VanGorder believes the more his players understand everything that will go on around them, the better prepared they are to defend everything that does go on around them.
VanGorder is the first to admit his approach to getting through to his players isn’t molecular science. But understanding the entire defense and not just an individual assignment or the responsibilities of a specific position group is critical to defensive success.
“He’s teaching our guys how to see the whole picture of football and sometimes that is hard to do,” Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston says of VanGorder’s mission. “Guys are just looking at the sideline on each play to see what they’re supposed to do and they’re not looking at the big picture so you can give yourself a picture of the play that is about to happen.”
“It’s a grind. It is just hard work. It is staying with it,” VanGorder says of trying to get from a “me” to an “us” mindset. “My thing as a coach has always been to never compromise a kid so it’s details, details, details. And, at the same time, you have to understand that there is a process that the players have to go through.”
VanGorder is one of two new assistants Irish head coach Brian Kelly hired during the offseason. Along with his defensive coordinator, Kelly also brought in quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, the first such hire Kelly has made in his five seasons at Notre Dame.
In previous years, Notre Dame quarterbacks always have primarily been under the tutelage of Kelly and the Irish offensive coordinator and/or another assistant. But the shift to a principal coach at that position this year already has been beneficial to the Irish quarterbacks.
“It helps so much having (LaFleur) here,” starter Everett Golson says. “When (offensive coordinator) Mike Denbrock is looking at the big schemes of things and looking at how the play works, Coach LaFleur is concentrating on things with me like, `you didn’t take your three-step drop and your two hitches,’ so it definitely helps my footwork. I have cleaned up a lot of stuff.”
Kelly’s hirings of VanGorder and LaFleur were not only based on their superior credentials and accomplishments, but also in large part because of the long history and trust factor he had with both of them that was born from familiarity and a shared vision.
A Jackson, Mich., native, VanGorder, 55, was Kelly’s first hire at Grand Valley State in 1989. “He was the number one guy on my list,” Kelly says, and LaFleur was hired as part of Kelly’s first staff at Central Michigan in 2004.
“I have known Coach Kelly for a very long time,” said LaFleur, who actually quarterbacked against Kelly’s Grand Valley teams when he was the signal caller at Saginaw Valley. “I know that [Kelly] has extremely high expectations, not only for the coaches but also the players, and especially from the quarterback position.”
Both new hires will have vital roles with so many new faces in important positions this season. But clearly all eyes will be on VanGorder and his youthful Irish defense as the first-year coach implements an aggressive 4-3 scheme that served him well as both a college and a National Football League coach, yet remains entry-level learning for his Irish players.
“The task for us is huge and we’re all in this together. Let’s keep getting better through the year,” VanGorder says. “I don’t know where we are right now but what I do know is there is a lot better football in front of us.”
And there is lot of experience behind VanGorder — and plenty of coaching stops — for him to draw from.
Through his three years as an assistant at Grand Valley and his three years as head coach at Wayne State in the Division II ranks; to his successful four-year stint as the defensive coordinator at Georgia (2001-’04) where he won the Broyles Award in 2003 as the best assistant coach in the country; to his seven seasons as a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in the NFL, VanGorder has seen and done it all.
VanGorder coached linebackers for the New York Jets in 2013 before coming to Notre Dame, emphasizing upon his arrival here that the first season at any job is always the toughest.
“I’ve done it plenty of times,” VanGorder said of his 11 stops during his 26-year coaching career. “It is always a hard transition.”
But the switch in scheme and style that VanGorder has implemented, has been handled well by the Irish players during training camp.
“He has brought everything,” Notre Dame sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith says of his new coach. “The whole NFL scheme, coming from the Jets and being a defensive coordinator for the Falcons, he has brought his whole mindset and it is really something that we all have adapted to.”
VanGorder admits that the daily demands working as a big-time football coach — without mentioning his multiple career stops — have made being a father of five children difficult. So, having his son, Montgomery, as a Notre Dame student and a walk-on quarterback is as “good as it gets.”
“We’re going to have a blast,” VanGorder says of spending some unorthodox time with his son. “It’s a real blessing to have him here and be part of this.”
LaFleur, 34, hasn’t been in the coaching business nearly as long as VanGorder but he certainly has come a long way in a short time. Beginning as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 2003 to an offensive assistant with the NFL’s Houston Texans in 2008, LaFleur spent the past four years as the quarterbacks coach with the Washington Redskins where he worked with rookies Kirk Cousins and Robert Griffin III before coming to Notre Dame.
“I think in particular the way he was able to work with those two quarterbacks,” Brian Kelly says of LaFleur’s ability to teach players with varying skill sets, “Matt is very detailed when it comes to the quarterback position, so you’re seeing things like eye progression, and the footwork, and the details of the position, which I think is so important in the development of the quarterback.”
From a novice perspective, the differences between coaching quarterbacks in the NFL versus the college level seem vast, but LaFleur doesn’t evaluate his job description that way.
“When it comes down to it, football is football,” he says. “There are a lot of differences. But when you are coaching the quarterback, there is so much more carryover between the college and the pro game than you might expect.”
LaFleur frequently shows his players game clips from a library of NFL quarterbacks to demonstrate to his young students the proper way to play the position. If footage of future hall of famers Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and others won’t get a college kid’s attention, what will?
“Our guys like to see that,” LaFleur says. “They like to watch the great ones.” And his impressions of Golson so far?
“The first thing that I noticed from just day one was the leadership,” LaFleur says. “He took control right from the get go, not only with the offense but with the entire team. I feel like the guys look to him as a leader.”
A Mount Pleasant, Mich., native, LaFleur was as adept as a student as he was an athlete, earning a bachelor’s degree in physical health education from Saginaw Valley before receiving his master’s degree in science administration from Central Michigan in 2011 while coaching in the NFL.
The father of two young sons, LaFleur couldn’t be happier with his current career stop.
“Just the people,” LaFleur says when asked what has impressed him most during his first seven months at Notre Dame. “This is a great university. The kids are mature beyond their years. They are high-character people that are very goal-driven and expect a lot out of life and expect a lot out of themselves.”