Michigan man Steve Elmer leads with his heart for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Michigan Stadium pulsated deep into the night, long after the Wolverines had dropped a miracle on Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly’s head three Septembers ago.

Steve Elmer’s body couldn’t help but reverberate during and after Michigan’s 35-31 rally past Notre Dame in the first night game in the facility’s history, but his heart was somewhere else.

“I don’t want to make anyone upset,” the now Notre Dame starting right offensive tackle said with a smile Wednesday of his one and only visit to the Big House when asked if he was privately rooting for the Irish in that game.

You see, Elmer was a Michigan recruiting visitor that night when the Wolverines came back from being down 24-7 late in the third quarter and from 31-28 with 30 seconds left.

The Wolverines pulled in a commitment from Dymonte Thomas that weekend, a defensive back prospect from Alliance, Ohio, who Notre Dame was pursuing at the time and is now a backup safety for the Wolverines.

But a week later, with the Irish having started 0-2 for just the eighth time in school history, Elmer — a Midland, Mich., man —verbally committed to the team on the losing sideline in Michigan Stadium, some 17 months before he was eligible to sign a national letter-of-intent.

Was he ever a Michigan fan?

“No. Never,” he said, eschewing the company line of “this is just another game on our schedule” that’s been popular among his teammates this week.

Elmer will likely lead with his heart rather than a script again Saturday night when the 16th-ranked Irish (1-0) close out the 42-game series, for now anyway, with Michigan (1-0) in the 11th-ever night game at Notre Dame Stadium.

“My friends, a lot of them, are Michigan fans,” he said, then kind of puffed his 6-foot-6, 315-pound frame when asked if any of them gave him a hard time about growing up rooting for the Irish.

ND offensive line coach Harry Hiestand likely would give a similar non-verbal if pressed whether he expects Elmer to make significant improvement this week from his uneven right tackle starting debut against Rice last Saturday.

Elmer actually made four starts at right guard last season as a true freshman on a line hit hard by injuries but with the resilience to maintain the second-best sacks-allowed rate in the FBS in 2013 and the fewest sacks (8) in a season at Notre Dame since the Lou Holtz/Joe Moore-coached group yielded seven in 1989.

He headed into spring practice as the innocent bystander in a complicated position battle between ascending sophomore right tackle Mike McGlinchey and two senior left guards in Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty.

The plan was for Elmer to simply slide into the spot not taken by the winner of that competition. But when Hegarty and Hanratty surged in fall camp, putting Elmer back out at tackle, the move back to his natural position wasn’t so simple.

“The tackle position … you are confronted in most instances with the defense's best player,” Kelly said. “Whereas at the guard position, you're working a lot in tandem, getting four hands on somebody. You're so used to helping.

“It's interesting. Steve would be punching inside while he's got a loose end. ‘Steve, listen, you got enough problems with that loose end. You don't need to be helping the guard in this instance.’ … He just needs that work and repetition.”

The angles are different. The speed of the game is faster. He’s on an island, and it’s not the kind to which you take vacations.

On Wednesday, Elmer and his offensive linemates stayed a half hour after practice later than all the other position groups, which is pretty normal.

“I’m not perfect,” he said. “I’ve still got a lot of work to do. But I’m feeling better every day.”

Hiestand being his position coach helps that confidence. His philosophy is to play the best five linemen regardless of position. And all five Irish starters either played tackle at ND at some point or were recruited to play that position out of high school.

So training a lineman to switch positions is mundane stuff for Hiestand.

“Each position has its own challenges and I respect both positions,” Elmer said, “but you don’t see speed rushers at guard.”

As a whole, the line statistically played well in the 48-17 season-opening victory against Rice. Aesthetically, perhaps not so much.

The 281 rushing yards they helped amass are the most by an ND team since Oct. 6, 2012, when the Irish steamrolled Miami with 376. The unit allowed one sack on Saturday, but quarterback Everett Golson was chased from the pocket fairly regularly.

“I think what we're looking for is a little bit more consistency out of the five,” Kelly said.

At least he won’t have to search for passion from Elmer, one of only three Michiganders on the Irish roster, along with senior kicker Kyle Brindza and freshman defensive end Jhonny Williams.

“I went to camp (at Notre Dame) going into my freshman year (of high school),” Elmer said of this first contact with the program. “I really didn’t know what to expect. But it was cool. I had a great time. I just remember thinking, ‘Someday maybe I can come here.’ ”

Now he’d like to put an exclamation point on history.

To reach: Eric Hansen

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Midland, Mich., product Steve Elmer (left) brings passion to Notre Dame's offensive line play. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)