NOTRE DAME, Ind. – It is no secret that defense has been the key to the Notre Dame football team’s 4-0 start. What has been a bit of a secret through those first four games is the thoughts of the man in charge of the Fighting Irish defense.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco made just his second media appearance since the start of training camp on Wednesday. The Irish are allowing just 112 rushing yards, 178 passing yards, 291 total yards, and, most importantly, 9.0 points a game over the first four games of the season.
“We’re interested in keeping the points down,” Diaco said of his defense’s top ‘core belief’. “So, in keeping the points down, the next piece that produces points is big plays, so defensively we gotta be sure that we’re constantly focused on eliminating big plays. After that we try to analyze what the opponent does to produce points so we can limit and keep the points down.”
Diaco’s defense was more than successful in limiting Denard Robinson’s big plays in last Saturday’s 13-6 victory over Michigan. Robinson, who hurt Notre Dame with 14 combined big plays in the two previous meetings between the two rivals, made just two big plays last week – a 20-yard run and a 20-yard pass completion.
“Denard is the most electric offensive football player there is,” Diaco complimented of the Michigan quarterback. “He’s spectacular, and you have to defend from sideline to sideline (and) from the line of scrimmage to the end zone, because they can attack at any moment triple option style (in) any of those windows.”
The next priority for Diaco’s defense is to attack the football, thus creating turnovers. It is something the Irish have done well this year. They caused six turnovers in the seven-point win over Michigan and so far have eight interceptions and five fumble recoveries this season to help the team to a plus-9 turnover margin. It’s a vast improvement for a team that was minus-15 a year ago.
The Proper Perspective
Even before the season began, Notre Dame’s defensive front seven was generally considered to be the strength of the team. The biggest question the defense had was how a thin and relatively inexperienced secondary would fare. Diaco says that strength has never gone to anyone’s head though.
“We’re interested in building a unit that loves each other (and) loves being with their teammates and coaches and coaches with their players,” Diaco explained. “We’re interested in building a player that understands that the minute he decelerates and takes a second to pat himself on the back somebody’s gonna pass him immediately by.”
“We’re interested in creating players and developing players that just love hard work. They bring the same energy to every task – we talk about it all the time.”
Diaco added that it is ingrained in his defense to attack the smallest of tasks, like sweeping the floor; in the same manner they would attack an offensive player on game day. However, as good as the defense has been so far this season Diaco says there is still room for improvement.
“We’re in no way anywhere close to where we need to be and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Diaco said of his defense. “Our players are improving and our coaches are improving defensively every day. That’s built into what we consider to be a successful day. But, we’re nowhere near where we want to be.”
There aren’t many accolades that aren’t coming Manti Te’o’s way these days. The senior linebacker was recently named the Chuck Bednarik Defensive Player of the Week after earlier being named the Lott IMPACT Player of the Week for the second straight week. Te’o is also on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated.
“I would say that Manti is the finest football player in America – all positions (and) all teams,” Diaco said of Te’o. “And that he’s the best football player that I’ve personally coached.”
A high majority of Irish fans and football experts would agree with that statement, but Diaco sees Te’o in action every day, so surely he has more insight into what makes Te’o the player that he is.
“Oh wow, we’re gonna be here a while,” Diaco joked as he searched for the words to properly respond. “He’s big like a big inside linebacker at 250-plus pounds and strong like that in terms of knock-back hitting ability, block destruction and knock-back tackling ability, but he moves like a small guy.”
Diaco says Te’o moves like a player that is 40 pounds lighter. He went on to describe his intangible traits as well.
“He’s a unique blend of being able to be kind and good and courteous and warm and friendly when he’s not inside the gates or inside the stripe (of the field) and then when he’s in there he’s an absolute warrior.”
Te’o is starting to hear Heisman talk by leading his team with 38 tackles (16 solo) and is tied for the team-high with three interceptions. He has 2.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 pass break-ups, 5.0 pass deflections, and two fumble recoveries through four games.
Notre Dame’s current two starting safeties, Zeke Motta and Matthias Farley, are a stark contrast. Farley is a sophomore who played mostly soccer in high school and spent last year on the bench as a scout team receiver. Meanwhile, Motta has played in all 42 possible games since arriving on campus, while evolving from an introvert into a vocal presence defensively.
“Zeke Motta is hungry and interested in being the very best safety in America,” Diaco said of the senior. “He’s basically focused most of his energy on becoming the very best player he can be. He comes to practice like game day. There’s no moment of football preparation where he’s not at one hundred percent (and) one hundred miles an hour (with) all the energy and passion he has.”
Motta is second only to Te’o with 26 tackles (13 solo) this season. He is the veteran of the Irish secondary after fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter was lost for the season with a torn left Achilles tendon.
Diaco says Farley has the ‘tangibles’ like size, speed and the ability to change direction to play the position, but his ‘intangibles’ are what makes him stand out.
“The other piece at safety for us in how we operate – the player needs to be very bright,” Diaco began. “And also not get too overly anxious or excited about things – just be able to focus on that particular task at that particular moment. That for him is a top flight trait.”
Diaco complimented Farley’s entire family, which includes a sister who is a model, a brother who has played professional basketball in Europe and another brother who performs ballet, as a “special family”.
“So as far as Matthias is concerned, he’s not doing anything special, but he’s an awesome young man. I would say his intangible traits have allowed him to go on the field and produce at least up to this point better than the rest.”