Defensive coordinator Mike Elko's intensity making recruiting impact for Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Mike Elston provided an opinion, backed by a prediction.

Four months later, you’re starting to see the proof.

"I'll put this out on record,” Notre Dame’s defensive line coach and former recruiting coordinator said on Aug. 16, prior to the program’s 9-3 regular season. “I haven't worked with a defensive coach that's more active in recruiting than Mike Elko. 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.”

As the NCAA’s new early signing period approaches on Wednesday, No. 14 Notre Dame — which meets No. 16 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 — sits at 20 verbal commits, with a class that ranks No. 5 nationally by Rivals and seventh by 247Sports. The strength of that still-unfinished class lies with its defense, which boasts two four-star defensive backs — Rivals top-100 prospects Houston Griffith (No. 35) and Derrik Allen (No. 66) — and six Rivals four-star recruits overall.

With as many as five scholarships still to fill, Notre Dame’s six four- or five-star defensive commits are tied for the second-most for an entire class in the Brian Kelly era, behind only its eight four — or five-star commits in 2016.

And, remember: three Rivals four-star defensive backs — cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Noah Boykin and safety Julius Irvin — are strongly considering the Irish down the stretch.

To be clear, it requires more than one coach, one scheme, one campus, etc., to secure any single commitment. The position coaches contribute; the head coach contributes; the curriculum matters, as does the on-field results.

But how much has Elko’s presence affected Notre Dame’s burgeoning defensive windfall?

“That’s the most important, when you know that this is the head guy, the guy that’s running the whole defense and he’s taking time to physically find guys who fit his scheme,” said consensus three-star defensive tackle commit Ja’Mion Franklin, who added that Elko contacted him multiple times every week throughout his recruitment. “That’s when you know it’s really important to him.

“I really appreciated that the head guy that’s running the defense took time to recruit me.”

That hasn’t always been the case at Notre Dame. Former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s disastrous stint in South Bend was marked by a general recruiting malaise. When Elko arrived from Wake Forest last winter, he brought — to use Elston’s words — an elevated “intensity level in recruiting.”

Elevated results, too.

“He’s the type of guy that I’m excited to play for in his defense, because he told me on that day in February (when I met him on an unofficial visit) that they were going to be a physical defense,” Griffith said. “Everything he told me, it all added up when I took my official visit back in September (for the Georgia game).

“Everything he told me would happen, happened on the field, so I was pretty impressed with that.”

Impressed enough, it seems, for Griffith — the son of former two-time Super Bowl champion fullback Howard Griffith — to drop a verbal commitment to Florida State and pledge on Dec. 12 to Notre Dame, where he will enroll early in January.

But Elko’s job in this cycle hasn’t been solely to secure new Irish commitments. He also had to win over the existing pledges who came onboard before he arrived.

“I think he’s been huge,” said St. Peter’s Preparatory School head coach Rich Hansen, who coached three Irish 2018 defensive commits — defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, defensive end Justin Ademilola and rover Shayne Simon.

“The (Ademilola) twins were committed and then there was some trepidation about the coaching change. When Mike got to develop a relationship with those guys, I think they quickly saw that he was bringing something special to the table. Listen, when you’re a kid picking a school, who’s coaching you is a huge part of it. Mike was able to be very, very clear and up-front with them about the expectations.

“I think Shayne (Simon), especially, appreciated that. He has a good plan for him, and he’s very up-front about it and very detailed about it. That’s the kind of kid Shayne is. He doesn’t go to bed at night until he turns the pillow over twice just to be sure. So he had a really good connection with Mike from the beginning.”

So did Griffith, who heard from Elko regularly and received several visits from the Irish defensive coordinator throughout his recruitment.

And so did Franklin. Is the pattern becoming clear?

“Honestly, I’d say he’s probably one of my favorite recruiters of people I’ve encountered in my recruiting process, just because there’s no show when you talk with him,” Franklin said. “It’s all real. It’s genuine stuff. What you see is what you get, and that’s just how he rolls.

“I really appreciate that. That’s the kind of people I like to have in my life and in my corner.”

That’s what, and who, Franklin is signing up to play for on Wednesday.

He isn’t the only one.

“Honestly, at this point if we get anybody else that’s just a bonus,” Franklin said. “That’s people realizing how special we’re going to be. As of right now, I’m happy, man. This is one of the greatest classes in Notre Dame history.

“We’re going to get this thing rolling. We have talent. Everybody brings something different to the table. There’s that specific Notre Dame guy, and we’re all Notre Dame guys. It’s a really special group, man. You can see it.”

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mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko watches players warm up for the Notre Dame-Navy NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN