Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko's success evident through NFL pupils

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Gabe Martin, Chris Jones and Kevin Johnson have at least three things in common:

• 1. They arrived at their colleges of choice as two-star football prospects according to Rivals, while they were unranked by 247Sports.

• 2. They currently reside on NFL rosters, and

• 3. In between, they were coached by Mike Elko, the new defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.

The third item, they’ll tell you, helped bridge the gap between Nos. 1 and 2.

“I learned so much football from him, just playing under him,” said Martin, who excelled at the hybrid rover linebacker position for Elko at Bowling Green. “He showed me a lot, and I couldn’t be more thankful.

“He put me in the place I needed to be to get where I am today, so I’m forever grateful for that.”

Where Martin is today, cashing checks as a second-year linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals, is a far cry from where he started. The 24-year-old was lightly recruited as a 6-foot-2, 210-pound outside linebacker out of Grand Blanc, Mich., in 2010. He generated scholarship offers from Bowling Green, Akron and Ohio.

Among FBS-level programs, that was it.

Still, the relationship he formed with Elko swayed him toward Bowling Green.

“After I went to (a recruiting) camp there I ended up getting offered, and it seemed like I was on the phone with him all the time,” Martin said of Elko. “After I finally got to school, I was over at his house, hanging out with his kids. I know (Elko’s children) Michael and Andrew pretty well. I actually went to ‘Bring a friend to school day’ with Andrew.”

For Martin, that’s what Elko was — a friend, a mentor, a teacher.

Sometimes, a disciplinarian.

“He’s definitely a tough coach,” Martin said. “He’ll get on you a little bit, but at the end of the day he’ll love you. He’ll yell at you in the moment but then bring you to the side, explain what’s going on and why.

“He always tells you why, and that was the biggest thing.”

Why. That’s what set Elko apart. He taught the defense, sure. But the University of Pennsylvania alum also instilled why a specific defense, stunt, technique was designed to work in a given situation.

“You’re going to understand the defense, but you’re also going to understand why you’re running the defense that you’re running,” Martin explained. “It’ll get to a point where you can guess what you’re going to do or what he’s thinking.”

“He takes the time to teach us football,” added Jones, a Bowling Green defensive tackle from 2009 to 2012. “A lot of times with coaches, especially in college, with school going on, you don’t have guys that teach you the game of football. What Elko did so well, he took the time. He taught us formations. He taught us the scheme, and he made it as simple as he could.”

Martin’s progression, like his team’s, was represented on the stat sheet. In his redshirt freshman season in 2011, he compiled 25 tackles and a sack in 11 games. The next year, he piled up 70 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception, earning first team All-MAC honors in the process.

He wasn’t the only Falcon that made a quantum leap.

“Me and him had a great understanding,” said Jones, the MAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2012. “He knew that every day I was going to come in and give it what I had.

“Just coming in every day, when we got to the meeting room, he was completely honest with us. The honesty is what really helped us. I think, as we saw ourselves growing with him as a coach, he just won us over.”

The 6-1, 293-pound Jones certainly grew, from registering 29 tackles in his freshman season in 2009 to a mammoth 42-tackle, 12.5-sack, 19-tackle-for-loss outburst as a senior in 2012.

Like Martin, Jones wasn’t a highly coveted recruit.

And like Martin, you would never know that today.

“He knew what our strengths and weaknesses were,” said Jones, currently a defensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers. “For me, if there was an offensive lineman we knew wasn’t as good as the others, I would be lined up with that guy in third-down situations. We would have specific calls to get me 1-on-1 with that guy.

“He’s a really great coach. Every single thing I’ve read about him is true.”

Elko’s reputation transcends a specific program. When the seasoned defensive coordinator moved to Wake Forest with head coach Dave Clawson in 2014, he inherited a talented cornerback named Kevin Johnson.

It only took one conversation for Johnson to decide who he wanted to play for.

“Going into my senior year, I was considering leaving to go to the NFL Draft,” Johnson said. “But after talking to coach Elko, he was talking about the plans he had for me, and I decided to come back.

“He was a big part of that. He’s a hell of a coach.”

Following a senior season in which he tacked on 43 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, Johnson — a one-time lowly two-star prospect in his own right — was chosen with the 16th overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft.

The Houston Texans got a cornerback that was notably more NFL-ready than the season before.

“We played an NFL-style defense (at Wake Forest),” Johnson said. “He put me in at boundary cornerback and allowed me to lock up with receivers and play them 1-on-1. Just him coaching me up with leverages and understanding the game from a mental standpoint, instead of just relying on my athletic ability, really helped me.”

Elko’s handiwork is statistically undeniable. In 2012, his Bowling Green defense finished sixth nationally in total defense, 10th in scoring defense, 12th in rushing defense and 13th in passing defense. A year later, the Falcons were fifth in scoring defense, sixth in passing defense and 10th in total defense. This season, Wake Forest ranks 13th in turnovers gained and 21st in scoring defense heading into Tuesday's Military Bowl matchup with Temple.

But numbers aside, Elko’s success is also represented through his pupils in the NFL.

"The amount I was able to learn from the man …,” Martin said, his voice trailing off. “If I could recommend anybody to go learn football from, he would definitely be on the top of that list.”

Added Johnson: “Aside from the schemes and those types of things, I think he’s really going to get the best out of those guys at Notre Dame.”

Huge congrats @CoachMikeElko ! Well deserved coach!

— Gabe Martin (@GabeMartin50) December 21, 2016

Congratulations @CoachMikeElko ! That's one Helluva coach. Well deserved !

— Kevin Johnson (@KevJr9) December 16, 2016

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Gabe Martin (50) during an NFL preseason football game against the Denver Broncos, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)