1. Notre Dame has improved dramatically under the Brian Kelly regime. How much of this do you attribute to Bob Diaco and his defense?
Eric Murtaugh: I attribute a ton of the improving over the past three years to Bob Diaco and his defense. You have to remember the season prior to Kelly & Diaco taking over the Irish defense was at an all-time low. Possibly the worst in school history. The players had been through multiple coordinators over 4 years. There was a grab-bag philosophy with players moving positions every offseason with each new system that was installed.
Three years later the defense has done a complete 180. And it's not like it took this long to improve the defense either. From the first game under Diaco the defense began tackling much better and stopping the run. They weren't quite the elite unit they've become in 2012 but you could see the vast improvement in fundamentals and in players knowing what they were supposed to do within the defensive system.
Now after 5 years of Charlie Weis teams that were all offense and no-defense, Notre Dame has finally built a team that revolves around the dominance of the defense and Bob Diaco deserves most of the credit for that.
2 . What can you tell us about the philosophy behind Diaco's "no crease" defense?
Eric Murtaugh: We covered the basics of Diaco's defense this preseason with a chapter devoted to it in our digital magazine. We made that chapter available to our readers so if you really want a more in-depth look at Diaco's philosophies you can read it here:
Here's the quick synopsis.
It's a 3-4 defense whose primary goal is to stop the run. The secondary goal is to keep everything in front of the defense. And lastly tighten up in the red zone and keep points off the scoreboard.
The defensive linemen's job is to eat blocks and let the linebackers fill gaps and make tackles. He wants 300 pound ends, and a big "War Daddy" nose tackle who can demand double teams. The nose guard is the key in a lot of ways the Irish have an enormous talent in Louis Nix who does this and makes everyone else's job easier.
The middle linebackers are the guys putting up the big tackling numbers as they read the defense and fly to the ball on running plays. One of the outside linebackers (called the Cat) typically plays with his hand on the ground up on the line. His main responsibility is to set the edge, but he's also a rush linebacker who occasionally drops into coverage. The other outside linebacker (called the Dog) has a role that is primarily based around covering tight ends and slot receivers.
The secondary plays a ton of Cover-2 soft zone that sacrifices a lot of underneath stuff in exchange for preventing big plays. If you check out the stats this year it's worked to perfection for Notre Dame. Some teams will dink and dunk down the field but they inevitably make a mistake and punt the ball or turn it over. Another aspect of the secondary is how much tackling is stressed. Diaco is always talking about size and he expects his corners and safeties to come up and make tackles at the line of scrimmage.
3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of his defense?
Eric Murtaugh: There are a lot of strengths to Diaco's defense when it's being executed properly, but you could say that about just every defense couldn't you?
I think the big strengths are what I mentioned above: Stopping the run and preventing big plays. When you put so much focus on that and you're able to do it you're going to win a lot of football games.
I think a weakness of the offense is that it's susceptible to a really smart and accurate quarterback. The scheme will give you a lot of underneath throws and in the past the Irish have been vulnerable to a lot of crossing patterns and little dump offs in the flat. There have been some games in the past (like the Oklahoma game this year) where the opponent is just easily throwing little 5 yard passes and moving down the field with ease.
I also think it's a scheme in which you really need top-notch talent to execute, to an extent. Diaco has that talent at his disposal now, but if the defensive line can't get pressure or eat blocks with just 4 players things can start to crumble from there. He doesn't like to blitz a lot and if the line isn't getting pressure they are giving the QB a lot of time to make some pretty easy throws.
Unfortunately, Notre Dame has been able to get a lot of pressure without blitzing. If you have the talent to do that it will take away a weakness of the Diaco defense.
4 . Do you think Diaco will stay at ND for the long run? If he doesn't stay, do you know what he's looking for in his next destination?
Eric Murtaugh: Ah, the million dollar question.
Right now there is a lot of fear that Diaco will be gone after this season but I believe he'll be at Notre Dame for at least another couple years. I'll get in to the details why with a later question.
I'm not sure what he'd be looking for right now but he's probably earned a low-level BCS job at the very least.
Bob Diaco Press Conference 09/26/12 - Notre Dame Football (via NotreDameAthletics)
5. How is Diaco as a recruiter?
Eric Murtaugh: If you ask most Irish fans they'd say he's a great recruiter but that's mostly because he delivered one of the most memorable recruiting stories in recent school history with an early morning visit to Brooklyn to flip 2011 defensive end Ishaq Williams.
He's tasked with scouting the northeast so he's not heavily involved with a great number of recruits. There's always been an impression that Brian Kelly wants Diaco focused much more on football, plus he's from New Jersey so he fits that part of the country well.
However, he's done very well as a recruiter every cycle. He's pulled the aforementioned Williams out of Brooklyn and then the top player out of New York State again in Jarron Jones plus a phenomenal defensive back in Elijah Shumate out of Don Bosco Prep last year. This season he has a couple strong prospects verballed and he was instrumental in keeping star linebacker Alex Anzalone with Notre Dame. He's also responsible for getting a verbal out of '14 DT Jay Hayes who should be the top player out of New York and one of the elite linemen next year.
I don't think he has the experience on the big stage to become a head right now and automatically be an ace recruiter though. Although he's on track to maybe one day be that kind of guy.
6. What kind of relationship does Diaco have with his players?
Eric Murtaugh: I don't think it's hyperbole at all to say that Diaco is beloved by his players.
He's somewhat eccentric but young enough where he can relate really well to this players. He also has shown himself to be a a terrific teacher, particularly with the linebackers, and you can see how much the player love him.
There have been a few glimpses inside the locker rooms after wins this year and the interaction between Diaco and the players is really something special to see.
7. At this stage in his career, would Diaco be a good head coach?
Eric Murtaugh: This is a tough question to answer.
If he were to go to the right situation, I think he could be a successful coach at the MAC-level right now. I think he has a lot of the tools and potential where he'd really improve a smaller program.
However, the issue with him is the spotlight.
He's eccentric in a very endearing way (kind of the opposite of John L. Smith if you know what I mean) and many of his media appearances have been simultaneously wonderful and head-scratching. He's clearly a very smart person, but he's also just flat out weird.
I also wouldn't say that he's bad with the media, but he's clearly not 100% comfortable either. Coach Kelly has severely restricted the coaches access to the media this year, so in that sense he's really not improving that part of his resume.
I think most Irish fans would agree that he'd probably struggle with the limelight at a larger program. As such, we're hoping he spend another 2 or 3 years at Notre Dame in order to refine some of the tools he'll need to become a head coach some day. You have to remember he's still pretty young (around 40 I believe) and he's got something special building in South Bend.
I'd be disappointed if he left for a lower-level job next year even though he'd do well, but I think he's better off staying at Notre Dame and waiting for a bigger and better job to open up. Unfortunately that probably means he won't be coaching at California next year---but you never know what could happen.
8. Have any of you guys had any personal interactions with Diaco? If so, how were they?
Eric Murtaugh: I don't really have an answer to your question. No one I know has met him and he's been very private behind the scenes which hasn't really helped his image that he's uncomfortable with the media.
Thanks again to Eric for all of these great and insightful answers and be sure and check out some of the good work going on over at One Foot Down.