Notebook: Defensive coordinator Mike Elko impacting Notre Dame recruiting

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Mike Elko probably won't like this story.

That's because, in part, it's about him. More specifically, how he's impacted Notre Dame's recruiting efforts since taking over as defensive coordinator.

In the eight months since Elko was hired, Notre Dame has added commitments from eight defensive recruits. He helped the Irish finish the 2017 recruiting cycle with a flurry of additions, including safeties Jordan Genmark Heath and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive linemen Kofi Wardlow and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

The number of defensive commitments in the 2018 class has doubled since December. The Irish have added commitments from safety Derrik Allen, defensive tackle Ja'mion Franklin, rover Shayne Simon and linebacker Shayne Lamb in the Elko Era. All four of those recruits this summer attended The Opening Finals, a national event for top prospects.

Clearly, Elko deserves some credit. But he's not going to claim it.

"First of all, it's a staff effort,” Elko said Wednesday. “There's way too much written about me. Our staff is doing a great job recruiting. Very proud. We've gone out and targeted kids that we think fit our scheme, fit our system, and I'm very happy with where that's going."

The praise, instead, will come from recruiting coordinator Mike Elston.

"I'll put this out on record. I haven't worked with a defensive coach that's more active in recruiting than Mike Elko,” said Elston, Notre Dame's defensive line coach. “We'll pour through hundreds and hundreds of prospects to find the ones that are fits for us. His intensity level in recruiting is really unmatched, which has been great. You're going to see a consistent level of defensive recruits because of that.”

A defensive coordinator with such a focus on recruiting can put his assistant coaches in positions to succeed. Guidance from the coordinator can inform the assistant coaches on who to pursue, the traits to identify and the needs to address.

"He does a great job of clarity in what he sees per position for his defense,” Elston said. “It's been great. There's no stone unturned with his leadership in the recruiting for the defense for sure.”

A summer lull in Notre Dame's defensive recruiting would have been understandable. Unless prospects were watching Wake Forest games last season, they haven't had a chance to see what Elko's defense will look like at Notre Dame.

Recruits could choose to wait to watch how Elko's defense performs this season in South Bend. But that didn't stop players like Franklin, Simon and Lamb from joining the class.

The summer commitments were encouraging, but there's no doubt that the games this season will be important to recruits.

“It's been a great summer and a great couple weeks here with some positivity,” Elston said. “It's going to come down to guys wanting to see the product on the field. Is it consistent with what we've told them while they were here on their visits?

“It's completely understandable. We were 4-8 last year. The year before that we were 10-3. So it was a huge drop-off. You can't fault a young man and his family for wanting to see if there's proof in the pudding.

“Whether they come out and tell you that's what they're waiting on or not, it's irrelevant. When they come up here, it will be a better experience for them when they come to a game and they see the product."

The hesitance hasn't been enough to slow down Elko. Wearing the ND monogram on his clothing has opened doors on the recruiting trail.

“The one thing I've learned is the name of Notre Dame still holds a lot of weight,” Elko said. “When you target the right kid, Notre Dame's a very strong force in recruiting. Regardless of where you go across this country, that is going to hold true. As long as we're recruiting the right kid, that Notre Dame name still means an awful lot.”

Stadium impact

Irish fans won't be the only ones experiencing the renovated Notre Dame Stadium for the first time at the season opener against Temple.

Visiting recruits will also get their first chance to take in the progress of the Campus Crossroads Project. The introduction of the video board and a new sound system will certainly change the atmosphere in the stadium. The revamped recruiting lounge and locker room are upgrades likely to draw attention from recruits, but Elston sees the whole project as a selling point.

“It's a showstopper. It's incredible,” Elston said. “Not that it's going to impact them on a daily basis while they're here and working and a part of the team. It gives them a ton of pride to see that's what they're representing. It just shows you that when Notre Dame chooses to do something, they do it first class.”

The stadium has always been a part of the recruiting visit tour. Trips to the locker room, the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign and the field have long been staples of a visit.

But with the new venues in Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish may be able to host dinners and brunches with a view.

“The facility itself, not just the locker room, is going to be great,” Elston said. “You're overlooking the stadium on one side, you're overlooking campus on the other. You have different venues you can show people.

“We have a lot of plans for the stadium. It's going to be awesome. We can use the video board and all that stuff for signing day. We're going to incorporate that stadium as much as we can because of how awesome it looks."

Cornerbacks needed

The number of cornerbacks committed to play for Notre Dame remains zero.

More than six months after failing to sign any cornerbacks in the 2017 class, the Irish are still empty-handed in the 2018 class.

Finding commitments hasn't been a problem. Holding onto them has. The Irish lost commitments from Paulson Adebo and Elijah Hicks in the 2017 class and Kalon Gervin in the 2018 class.

Notre Dame did sign seven defensive backs in the 2016 class and three of them played cornerback as freshmen last season: Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. That influx of talent may have worked against Notre Dame in the 2017 class.

“At defensive back, we were loaded up,” said defensive backs coach Todd Lyght. “We had seven recruits in the defensive backfield. Young guys looking at that are thinking, 'We're not going to have a chance to play.'”

But Lyght is trying to spin the gap that developed with no cornerbacks in the previous class as a positive for 2018.

“It's definitely a selling point for us,” Lyght said. “Guys that we're looking at understand that they're going to come in and have an opportunity to play early and often, which is good for young players.

“It's also tough because you have to learn a new system, you have to come and play against elite players right out of the gate. Guys that are really looking forward to that challenge will come in and do a great job for us." | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

During his first spring practice with the Irish, new defensive coordinator Mike Elko (right) has put a focus on fundamentals. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)