Diaco looks to reshape the Notre Dame defense

It was well-known that the likes of Urban Meyer, Jon Gruden and Bob Stoops weren’t coming to South Bend to replace Charlie Weis, but forgive Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick for reaching for the stars. A guy can dream, right?

At the end of the day, former Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly was always the guy that the Fighting Irish brass realistically targeted — and the interest was mutual. Kelly’s prolific offenses in Cincinnati paved the way for his journey to his dream job.

But as we near national signing day and look forward to the spring’s Blue-Gold Game, one aspect of the Notre Dame team not being talked about enough is the necessity to improve on the defensive side of the football.

Enter new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

The 36-year-old Diaco will be in charge of retooling a defense that ranked just 86th in the nation in total defense (398 ypg) and 89th against the run (170 ypg) in 2009.

The Irish will line up in a 3-4 scheme in 2010, but Diaco is preaching discipline and accountability more than X’s and O’s.

“Genuinely, there are some core principles to playing great defense,” Diaco told the South Bend Tribune. “Effort. Hustle. Tackling. Maintaining the top of the defense. That won't change. The bulk of the work and preparation is built into that.”

Diaco is used to change, as he took over a Bearcats defense in 2009 that lost 10 starters on that side of the ball. While all the hoopla this past season was about Cincy’s spread offense, the defense made crucial stops along the way in their undefeated regular season.

A two-time all-Big Ten selection at Iowa under Hall of Fame coach Hayden Fry, Diaco was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker in 1995. A 1995 graduate, he finished his career as the seventh-leading tackler in Iowa history.

There’s no question that when he steps onto the still-frozen South Bend practice field grass in March, Diaco will need to channel all of the lessons he learned from Fry and other coaching mentors to help him turn around a porous Irish defense.

November 2009 was not a kind month to the Notre Dame defense, as all too often it looked as if the unit didn’t even want to be on the field. Navy’s Vince Murray and Ricky Dobbs combined for 260 yards on the ground in the second consecutive home defeat to the Naval Academy. Pittsburgh freshman Dion Lewis scattered for 152 yards the next week. Connecticut’s Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon tag-teamed for 244 on the ground in the final home game of the season — a game that may have single-handedly put UConn coach Randy Edsall in the team’s coaching search. Finally, a 205-yard effort from Stanford’s Toby Gerhart closed the Charlie Weis era.

Now it’s up to Diaco to pick up the pieces and instill confidence into a shattered group.

“Confidence comes from the preparation,” Diaco proclaimed. “The fundamentals that we're going to work every day; the nuts and bolts things that need to be done, will be done — we won't miss a day.”

“We'll have a clear focus on those nuts and bolts — blocking and tackling, block destruction. At particular points in the season, where you're so focused on a particular formation, or player, or system, you lose some of those core fundamentals. (Head) Coach (Brian) Kelly, our philosophy, that never happens. The nuts and bolts things are addressed each day and worked each day.”

And when Saturday afternoon arrives, Diaco expects his Irish defense to execute those fundamentals to perfection, week in and week out.

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