Unfinished Business: Mike Elko, Notre Dame defense still getting their house in order

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Perhaps the brashest words to come out of Mike Elko’s mouth Friday had to do with the first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator knowing how to get to his new house now without the crutch of a GPS.

As far as the Irish defense that Elko has been charged with making over, he was stingy with the bravado and superlatives but not with lofty expectations.

Expectations that admittedly don’t exactly match reality at the moment.

The plan is for those visions to merge by the time the Irish open the season Sept. 2 against Temple. What he plans then to unveil to the Notre Dame Stadium crowd Saturday at the 88th–annual Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. EDT; NBCSN) is the half-baked version of them.

“It’s developmental football,” Elko said of the rebuild process that has been heavy in fundamentals and reprogramming through the 14 spring practices that started way back on March 8.

“It’s not, ‘Here’s where we were. Hire Mike Elko, and now we’re here.’ ” he said, moving his hand from shoulder level to way above his head. “It doesn’t work like that. We’ve got to steadily climb.

“That’s just development. That’s the process of development. There’s not a switch that you flip that gets you to the top of the elevator. You’ve got to climb the stairs.”

It’s not that difference, or even improvement, is imperceptible four months after eighth-year head coach Brian Kelly made the most pivotal hire of his run in South Bend, in the 39-year-old former Wake Forest defensive coordinator.

Elko offered Friday after practice No. 14 that the Irish defense is disrupting the football better, leveraging the football better, playing harder — all aspects that are reasonable to be discernable in Saturday’s intrasquad spring finale.

Growing pains are to be expected as well.

The evolution to the new system, per Elko, is most taxing on the linebackers — a position group of strength — and safeties — a position group loaded with uncertainty.

“As they get comfortable in it, they play faster,” Elko said. “Then that speed at which they play allows them to be disruptive and productive.”

Maybe the most positive development for those looking for differentiation from the aborted Brian VanGorder Era is that the players have never seemed overwhelmed this spring with the learning process, as they tended to be even in year three of the deposed coordinator’s regime.

The rover, a hybrid position, is a more tangible VanGorder/Elko divergence.

Senior Drue Tranquill, 6-foot-2, 230 and a safety in the old system, and 6-2, 229-pound junior Asmar Bilal, a linebacker under VanGorder, are the two players that appear to be the best fits, with 6-3, 203-pound walk-on Robert Regan outplaying the others to audition there, including impending transfer Spencer Perry.

The surprise Elko volunteered Friday is that the position has enough flexibility built into it that Elko may play a 5-9, 175-pound player there occasionally in the fall, that being cornerback Shaun Crawford.

“A lot of that is dictated by who that guy’s lined up on and what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We’re going to see some really talented slot receivers. If we’re going to line up and cover them well, there’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position.”

The other surprise Elko divulged was that the defensive line, that had been constantly losing battles to the offensive line all spring, had finally started to get enough push to create some standoffs in the last few practices of the spring.

“Just our overall physicality, that we’re going to be a group that recreates the line of scrimmage,” Elko said of that position group’s charge moving beyond spring. “That’s where your run disruption comes from, is your defensive line recreating the line of scrimmage.”

Last season, it couldn’t do that or create a pass rush on a consistent basis. The Irish ranked No. 72 nationally in run defense and No. 117 in sacks in the 128-team FBS. If Notre Dame is going to distance itself from the 4-8 bottom line in 2016, those two numbers will have to improve dramatically.

“Every time we come out on the field, it looks better,” he said of those critical areas.

And every time Elko comes out on the field, he welcomes the discriminating eyes that want more.

“I said this when I got here: If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for a national championship,” he said, “there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year.

“That’s Notre Dame, and I embrace that part of it. This is a very special place where we can do a lot of special things.”

But?

“Everything’s got a ways to go. You build a house, and the house is going to get done Sept. 2. You can’t move in before then. It’s just not ready.”

During his first spring practice with the Irish, new defensive coordinator Mike Elko (right) has put a focus on fundamentals. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)