Why Mike Elko took leap of faith to Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The first thing Mike Elko did when Brian Kelly called about the two of them joining forces was to watch film.

Lots of it. Even the darkest moments from a 4-8 Notre Dame football season that helped explain why Kelly, ND’s eighth-year head coach, was formally introducing six new assistants and a new director of football performance at a run-on press conference, Monday.

“I didn’t take this job blindly,” said Elko, ND’s 39-year-old answer to the deposed Brian VanGorder experiment at defensive coordinator. “I never would have.”

Elko had options. He could have stayed at Wake Forest, where he presided over three straight top 40 defenses nationally with not a single four- or five-star prospect on the defensive roster in any of those seasons (2014-16).

Oregon and Florida also reportedly more than kicked the tires and vice versa in December on the former Ivy League safety, who grew up in a coaching family in South Brunswick, N.J., and played his high school football home games in “Mike Elko Stadium.”

“It was named for my great uncle, who was a coach,” he said. “I also played for the ‘Mike Elko Trophy’ every Thanksgiving. It was weird.”

Weird was not his reaction, though, to the Irish defensive talent level as he sifted through game tape.

“That was probably the biggest thing I looked at before taking the job, was how fast can we have success?” he said. “So I believe there’s talent here that meshes and matches well with what we do.

“I don’t think it will be an exact match. It never is. But there certainly will be a foundation in place to get done what we need to do pretty quick.”

Kelly and Elko both depicted the new scheme Monday as multiple — a blend of the 4-2-5 look that was the base defense at Wake the past three seasons, the 3-4 that Kelly is somewhat smitten with and fits best with ND’s recruiting patterns, and the 4-3 base the Irish spent in the 30 games of the truncated VanGorder Era.

The 4-2-5 features a rover position, a kind of hybrid safety/linebacker who will split time in practice between working with the linebackers group and a graduate assistant who will coach just that position.

Junior Drue Tranquill may be a candidate for that role. So might Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The Irish jumped on the one-time Virginia commit late in the current recruiting cycle that ends with Wednesday’s national signing day.

The product of NBA great Allen Iverson’s alma mater, Hampton (Va.) Bethel High, will choose between the Irish and Michigan State on Wednesday.

“Years ago, we realized there is this group of kids out there who are really good football players,” Elko said of the rover position, “who are really athletic, really good blitzers, really good tacklers that can’t play in the box as linebackers and can’t play as safeties.

“So we created this positon where the responsibility of that job is to do the things they’re good at — blitz, run and hit, make plays on the perimeter without having to cover as a high safety, without having to line up over a guard and play physical linebacker.”

In the bigger picture, Elko tries to strike a balance between having enough nuance in his calls and the scheme to keep opponents off balance but simple enough so that it’s not keeping his own players off balance.

VanGorder’s algebraic NFL scheme only promised pressure (117th in sacks last season nationally and never better than 74th under the former coordinator). Elko’s delivered it (11th in sacks last season).

“Brian VanGorder, you can line him up with the most intellectually sophisticated football coaches that I've ever met, but they have to be translated,” Kelly said in distinguishing between past and present.

“Mike Elko does a lot of things that are hard to decipher, but easily taught. And his experiences are in college. He does an incredibly efficient job at communicating what he's teaching. And we're teachers. He's a really good teacher at the end of the day.”

Elko will coach the safeties, along with his coordinator duties, with defensive backs coach Todd Lyght now able to focus just on the cornerbacks.

Clark Lea is the new linebackers coach, coming to Notre Dame from Wake, with linebacker coach Mike Elston returning to tutoring the defensive line as he did from 2010-14.

“There’s going to be a foundation of what we want our kids to play like,” Elko said. “And then with the scheme, we’re going to put them in positions to be successful.

“Whether we’re a 4-2-5, or a 3-4 or a 4-3, we’re going to play hard. We’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to tackle well. We’re going to be physical. We’re going to come off blocks. Those things are more important than the X’s and O’s picture.”

And don’t get too attached to who’s playing a given position, at least until September. Elko said there will be position movement from last year’s team to the first day of spring and again from the first day of spring to the Sept. 2 season opener with Temple.

“There’s a comfortability that he’s going to allow me to do what he needs me to do to get this defense right,” Elko said of Kelly, another selling point to taking a leap of faith.

“We have a shared vision of how we want things to go and run. And then I’m going to have the ability to go out there and get it done.”

Kelly said he will actually spend more time with the defense on a daily basis in 2017, balancing his formerly offensive-centric schedule, as he did in the weeks that followed his Sept. 25 firing of VanGorder. The Irish improved 61 spots, from No. 103 to 42nd in that post-VanGorder coaching alignment.

“The two things I asked Brian Kelly before I took the job was do you have the talent to rebound and what do you think went wrong?” Elko said.

The film he scoured backed up Kelly’s answers.

Now Elko can use it all as a convincing pitch on the road recruiting.

“I tell them, ‘A month and a half ago, I had the same decision to make as you do’ ” Elko related. “ ’And I chose Notre Dame.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko talks to reporters during a press conference Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, at Notre Dame in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)