SOUTH BEND — The relentless smile and burgeoning confidence Mike Elston walks around with these days started with cookies.
Chocolate chip cookies, to be exact. and not even a secret family recipe.
The Notre Dame associate head football coach and overseer of a defensive line group that was among the least productive in all of Power 5 football less than two years ago has largely refined the position group by bringing an uncompromising approach to teaching technique and fostering a chemistry that elevates expectations and accountability among the players.
His wife, Beth, brings the cookies, which she bakes herself using an old Nieman Marcus recipe with an urban legend attached to it.
“At first, when we’d get a sack on the field, she’d make the guys a sackful of cookies,” said Elston, who re-engaged with the defensive line in 2017 after coaching linebackers during the Brian VanGorder defensive regime (2014-16).
“Now it’s a ritual on Friday. She hands them out. I love them. They love them.”
The legend of the recipe centers on a woman who allegedly bought the recipe from the renowned department store but at a price exponentially higher than she thought she had agreed to. When she was denied a refund, the story goes that she took out her revenge by posting the recipe online.
While the back story might not be real, the flavor of the cookies and the results seem very real.
The Irish went from their lowest sack total since 1991 in 2016 (14) and the lowest output collectively by the defensive line (3) of all the 65 Power 5 schools to 24 overall and 16.5 from Elston’s defensive line group last season.
The expectation, especially from Elston himself, is another quantum leap from the position group this fall, with former nose guard Jerry Tillery — the 2017 sack leader (4.5) — moving to a more single-team friendly defensive tackle position and with junior ends Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes surging in their production.
“Daelin has all kinds of talent,” Elston said of the former five-star linebacker prospect who has evolved into an end. “But he didn’t use his technique, didn’t use his hands to an effective level that he needed to last season. Now, he dominates — with his physicality, with his hands, with his block destruction.
“So between him, Khalid and Julian Okwara — even Ade (Ogundeji) — I think you’re going to see tons of production in terms of quarterback pressures and sacks. I’m very excited about that position.”
Tuesday night at Notre Dame Stadium Elston channeled his excitement toward the participants in the latest rendition of the Kelly Cares Foundation’s Football 101, a popular women’s-only event.
The annual fundraiser that mixes food, a fashion show and football instruction from the Irish players and coaches surpassed the $1 million mark Tuesday in money raised from that event alone in the Kelly Cares Foundation’s efforts.
In less than a week Elston will turn his attention to the three freshmen defensive linemen who will be joining the veterans, the latter of whom returned to campus last week. The newcomers are twins Jayson (defensive tackle) and Justin (defensive end) Ademilola and nose guard Ja’mion Franklin.
“Our defensive linemen are always in my office. They’re always in the video room,” Elston said. “It’s a special group of guys, and I’m excited this weekend to add the three incoming freshmen.
“They’ll add to our depth. I think they’re the same kind of workers these guys are.”
In June and July, the work is all about refining technique, according to Elston.
“Assuming you’re tough and you’re physical, defensive line play all comes down to technique,” he said. “You can show them the fine detail of how it needs to be done, because you’re not worried about cramming for an exam, like a Michigan game in September.
“You have some good time to sit down with a young player, show them video from the fall, video from the spring and say, ‘This is how it needs to be done. Now, here’s how you’re doing it. Let’s bridge that gap.’ ”
The raw talent part of the equation is trending up as well, as Elston already has secured commitments from four four-star defensive linemen in the 2019 class: Ends Nana Osafo-Mensah and Howard Cross III, and interior linemen Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears.
“We only have one scholarship left (for a defensive lineman), and it’s only June,” Elston said.