SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco wanted his players this offseason to learn about Dan Gable.
Gable is the wrestling great who went 118-0 at Iowa State and won two national championships only to lose in overtime in the NCAA finals of his senior year — his only loss in high school or college.
Gable went on to win the gold medal in the 1972 Olympics, shutting out all six of his opponents.
“Dan Gable’s greatest, most defining moment was also his worst moment,” Diaco said. “The lessons learned in that propelled him to go on and win Olympic gold. So the unit needs to understand that lesson. We need to understand that moment right there is really our greatest moment. We have to turn it into our greatest strength.”
The moment Diaco is talking about is Notre Dame’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS title game last January, when the Crimson Tide scored on their first three possessions and jumped to a 35-0 lead. The Fighting Irish defense, which had been dominant in leading the Irish to a 12-0 record during the regular season and the program’s first No. 1 ranking in nearly 19 years, gave up a season-high in points, total offense (529 yards), rushing yards (265) and first downs (28) to the Crimson Tide.
The theory the Notre Dame coaching staff is promoting this spring is that the loss to Alabama wasn’t as bad as it appeared at first glance, that while mistakes were made, some Irish players did play well.
“After you have a chance to inspect it, it wasn’t just an absolute push around,” Diaco said.
Diaco said it was a combination of misalignments, players making mistakes and miscommunication, and the Irish not handling it well when they got behind.
“Now all of a sudden, your eyes are wandering, your feet are happy, you’re misaligned and it starts to snow ball from there and it’s hard to get back on track,” he said.
It was a surprising letdown for a defense that despite that disappointing performance, still finished seventh in the nation in total defense, giving up an average of 305 yards a game. That’s the highest-rated defense for the Irish since the 1980 team finished fourth. The Irish finished second in scoring defense at 12.77 points a game last season, their best ranking since finishing second while winning the national championship in 1966 (3.8 ppg).
So while the Irish have something they can build on, Diaco doesn’t want players thinking that way. His message to the team is to forget about last year’s success and to build from scratch this year. The players say they understand.
“This is a totally different team this year,” linebacker Carlo Calabrese said. “We start from the ground up again. We have new players, new people on the field. We just have to become a dominant team again.”
The biggest challenge is filling the void left by linebacker Manti Te’o, the team’s leading tackler and emotional leader. Kelly said instead of one player, the Irish likely will be looking for a number of players to take leadership roles. He mentioned cornerback Bennett Jackson and linebackers Dan Fox and Calabrese as likely candidates, but said there will be others.
“We have different pieces that are still coming together,” Kelly said.
Jarrett Grace, a junior who played primarily on special teams last season, appears to be the most likely player to replace Te’o. Kelly said he’s been impressed by what he’s seen.
“He’s a really, really good football player. He’s going to be all over the field. Will he have seven interceptions? I’m not going to go that far. But in terms of run fit, sideline to sideline, communication, he’s shown himself to be a really good player,” he said.
Kelly said Notre Dame should have greater depth in the secondary, allowing the team to get into more formations.
“It just opens up your defensive playbook a little more,” Kelly said. “It just gives us more flexibility.”
The Irish won’t know for sure what they have, though, until they face a quality opponent in the fall.