Notre Dame announces hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Elko

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The intrigue lingers regarding who Mike Elko will surround himself with, but at least Notre Dame has made his anointment official.

Tuesday afternoon the school confirmed the poorly keep secret that the 39-year-old Wake Forest defensive coordinator has accepted the same role at Notre Dame.

“Mike has consistently coordinated defenses that keep the points down, negate big plays, create negative plays, excel in the red zone and, quite simply, force opposing offensives to execute at an extremely high level to move the football,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a release announcing the hiring. “This rare combination of consistent success in those facets of defense, along with a proven ability to develop talent and fit it into his system, really places Mike in a class by himself among defensive coordinators across the country.

“As importantly, Mike’s commitment to helping young men reach their full potential in the classroom and in the community make him a perfect fit for Notre Dame.”

“I’m excited to join a program with the prestige of Notre Dame that can recruit the nation’s highest caliber of student-athlete and compete for a national championship,” Elko said in the release. “We hope to dictate the pace of the game with an attacking and aggressive style of defense, mix physicality and toughness with exceptional fundamentals and, lastly, play with great effort at all times. I can’t wait to dive in and help these players achieve the standard of success necessary to win at the highest level.

“It was extremely hard to walk away from everything we built at Wake Forest, especially with those players, and I’m so appreciative of everything that (head coach) Dave (Clawson) and (athletic director) Ron (Wellman) did for me and my family.”

Houston Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson was among those lauding the move. The former first-round draft choice, like the current Notre Dame players, inherited Elko as his unit’s coordinator when he was playing at Wake.

Johnson played just one season for Elko, in 2014, after the coordinator came with head coach Dave Clawson from Bowling Green.

“He’s definitely a great coach, one of the best coaches I’ve had the opportunity to play for,” Johnson told the Tribune on Tuesday. “He’s a players’ coach. He’s the kind of coach where, when you’re out on the field playing ball, you want to give your best effort not only for your team to win, but for coach Elko.

“You know how passionate he is about the game and how bad he wants to win and how much he loves the game.”

Elko inherits an Irish defense that improved dramatically in its final eight games after the in-season firing of third-year coordinator Brian VanGorder on Sept. 25, but has some holes to fill, particularly when it comes to pass rush.

On the day VanGorder was fired, Notre Dame (4-8) was on a trajectory defensively that would have tied the 2016 team for the worst rankings nationally in school history with the 2-8 1956 Irish squad that finished 103rd in total defense and 101st in scoring defense.

Those numbers were logged against four teams that finished with losing records and against only one offense (Texas) among the four that ranked among the top 70 nationally.

Over the final eight games, which did include an offense-suppressing game played in a hurricane but against offenses that were consistently more potent than the four the Irish faced under VanGorder, ND improved to 45th in total defense and 62nd in scoring defense (out of 128 teams in the FBS).

If you isolate to the numbers to only the final eight games, four of which came against teams that finished in the final CFP Top 25, the Irish would have ranked 19th and 47th, in total defense and scoring D, respectively.

That was under the collaborative leadership of linebackers coach Mike Elston, interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and Kelly.

Elston, ND’s linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator, will return, though his specific duties have not been delineated. Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and Hudson will have a chance to interview with Elko, who has the option to bring others from the outside.

That process has not yet taken place, contrary to some reports that claimed Gilmore had been dismissed.

Elko’s first three defenses at Bowling Green in his five years at the Mid-American Conference school ranked 87th in total defense in 2009, 102nd in 2010 and 79th in 2011, but then jumped to sixth in 2012, followed by a 10th-place finish in 2013.

All three of his Wake defenses finished in the top 40 nationally in total defense, and his 2016 unit improved dramatically in turnovers gained (122nd to 10th), sacks (94th to 12th), pass-efficiency defense (94th to 41st) and scoring defense (43rd to 20th).

Wake Forest (6-6) plays American Athletic Conference champ Temple (10-3) in the Military Bowl, Next Tuesday at Annapolis, Md. The Irish open the 2017 with Temple at home on Sept. 2.

New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko served as Wake Forest's defensive coordinator for the past three seasons. (Photo courtesy Brian Westerholt/Sports On Film)