Analysis: Mike Elko is Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator, but is he the answer?
SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly needed a pragmatic home run more than he needed a perceptual one.
Even if the real and manufactured unrest from the fan base and pointed questions from recruits and their parents in recent weeks made it seem otherwise.
What the Notre Dame eighth-year head football coach gets in newly hired/soon-to-be-coronated defensive coordinator Mike Elko is a face, a philosophy and a direction for a defense that’s largely curdled since the 2012 Irish defense played so well that it nearly produced a Heisman Trophy winner.
But is Elko the answer?
That was the challenge Kelly had to decode this week by looking into the eyes and hearing the words of a man whose résumé includes coaching experience at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Stony Brook, Fordham, Hofstra, Richmond, alma mater Penn and Bowling Green before producing three top-40 defenses the past three years at Wake Forest.
The cultural shift — some would say shock — of coaching at Notre Dame is the great unknown in the equation.
Not that the huge step up in scrutiny and recalibrated recruiting dynamics, which were set in motion for Elko on Thursday with a multi-year contract agreement, can’t be overcome.
The man considered to be at the top of the college defensive coordinator food chain at the moment — and not just because of his $1.8 million-a-year compensation, LSU’s 40-year-old Dave Aranda, had a similar career path before the three years he spent at Wisconsin (2013-15) and this past season with the Tigers.
Utah State, Hawaii, Southern Utah, Delta State and Cal Lutheran were where Aranda coordinated defenses and recruited before his almost vertical career ascent of the past few years.
“I think a lot of times big-school programs are so tempted to chase after big-school coordinators when they have an opening to fill,” said Barton Simmons, scouting director for 247Sports and a man who’s tracked Elko’s career closely at Wake Forest.
“That’s such an easy default, and it appeases a lot of the fan base and gets people excited, but that’s not always the best hire.
“Mike Elko is a guy who works at sort of a second-tier school, who’s probably one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. And maybe not that many people have noticed, just because they’ve had one of the worst offenses in the country for the past three years and they’re losing games, 16-13.
“I think you give a guy like that the set of talents at a school like Notre Dame, and there’s no telling what he’ll be able to accomplish.”
But don’t expect to find out all at once, either.
This won’t be about winning the press conference — once Notre Dame’s protracted vetting process wraps up — or winning the starchy prepared statement, if ND chooses that option initially.
The revelation of how the 39-year-old Ivy Leaguer fits is a process, not an event. And it’s about meaningful, sustainable change on defense, paired with the kind of enterprising recruiting Notre Dame lacked in the 33 months deposed coordinator Brian VanGorder presided.
A big plus in that regard is that Kelly is expected to retain linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston, the man who actually orchestrated the ND defense’s improvement post-VanGorder and the only other person to interview for the defensive coordinator’s job.
Kelly told the Tribune earlier this month that Elko would have the power to hire his own staff, so expect some additional staff changes. But Elston won’t be one of them, because of his value as one of the nation’s top recruiting coordinators, his universally strong relationship with the current players and his ability to help accelerate Elko finding traction with his new team.
Projecting Elko’s recruiting prowess is even more inexact in its science than how his pressure tolerance and tactics might play out in South Bend.
“I think he’s got potential as a recruiter,” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “I think he’s got a good reputation, but I think the jury is still out until he works for Notre Dame and goes after the five-star players.
“One big difference between recruiting the three-stars and the five-stars is the egos, of both the players and their parents. They have to be constantly petted and worked on, just because they’re getting so much attention from anybody else.
“And you have to identify the five-stars early. Get on them as sophomores. The great recruiters do it. If you don’t, you’ll be out of the picture and not even realize it.”
Simmons, too, has seen as many coaches struggle as succeed when the recruiting expectations, stakes and athletes change dramatically. So predicting what Elko will bring to ND’s talent equation is difficult.
“I think probably the most important thing is someone who just works hard at it,” he said. “Recruiting ultimately boils down to relationships.
“I think as long as guys aren’t scared to recruit and they’re willing to work at it, then that’ll translate, because those relationships remain and that work ethic remains. And as much as recruiting is about personalities, I think more than anything the guys who are good recruiters are the guys who outwork others.
“And so that’s the biggest translator that you need to have.”
What we do know definitively about Elko is that his three defenses at Wake Forest each outperformed Notre Dame’s last three in the critical metrics of total defense (39th-40th-38th compared to 45th-45th-71st) and rush defense (50th-52nd-61st compared to 71st-72nd-72nd), and consistently in almost every other defensive category.
The same is true of Elko’s last two defenses (2012-13) during his five seasons at Bowling Green (10th and 6th total D, 46th and12th rush D), though his first three years there had plenty of growing pains. The difference is you’re playing with a lot more developmental players at Bowling Green than those that are turn-key ready, so change tends to be more incremental.
What we also know about Mike Elko is that he wanted to amp up the pressure with his defense in 2016. And in one season, Wake went from 122nd to 10th in turnovers gained, 94th to 12th in sacks and 64th to 30th in tackles for loss, with collateral benefits of a 94th-to-41st leap in pass-efficiency defense and 43rd-to-20th in scoring defense.
“They were able to create pressures without being too reckless,” Simmons said. “In a lot of cases, it’s stunt games on the defensive line, and a lot of it comes from four-man rushes, but they’ve also been successful in finding different ways to create that pressure from the second level.
“When you watch those guys play, it’s not a sort of an all-or-nothing when they do bring heat. It’s more of a balanced defensive attack. I think they seem to get better every year personnel-wise, so they seem to develop well. And that’s certainly a credit to Mike Elko as well.”
We know Wake held the nation’s No. 24th-ranked offense, Florida State, to 17 points this season, and led Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, 12-10, going into the fourth quarter before the dam broke in a 44-12 loss (the game that led to the WakeyLeaks scandal).
We know at Wake he’s used a four-man front, with two true linebackers and a linebacker/hybrid safety for a 4-2-5 effect.
We know Oregon and Florida both saw Elko as a desirable candidate in their defensive coordinator searches, and Wake tried to lure him back to Winston-Salem for a fourth year.
“He’s a smart guy, he has an Ivy League background,” Simmons said. “His teams played disciplined defense. I think a lot of the things that he brings to the table fits the type of athlete that Notre Dame typically gets.”
Not to be overlooked, his choosing to come to Notre Dame not only shows his faith in Brian Kelly, it tells the college football world that he does believe he can and will be the answer.