How college football's backroads set up Notre Dame DC Mike Elko for success

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Mike Elko’s 9-year-old son was missing. Sort of.

The first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator figured he was cavorting somewhere nearby on campus, on an idyllic June afternoon. Tossing a football with someone, he presumed.

In the 15 minutes of uncertainty until there was a reassuring knock at his office door from his middle child, Elko’s big, I-know-something-you-don’t-know kind of smile, never waned.

“I don’t follow the molds,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m kind of a weird enigma.”

An Ivy Leaguer who grew up in a trailer park.

A guy who went to the same high school (South Brunswick in New Jersey) as rock group Steely Dan founder and front man Donald Fagen. Yet Elko not only has never heard of the group or the man, he much prefers the stylings of hip-hoppers Biggie and Tupac anyway.

A man whose path to Notre Dame started and stayed on college football’s backroads for a considerable time before his fortunes went vertical.

In that latter instance, though, he actually is very much the norm. The new norm.

LSU’s Dave Aranda, Michigan’s Don Brown and new Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando all followed similar rites and routes of passage. So did almost every one of the top 15 defensive minds in college football when it comes to putting up the best scoring defense numbers cumulatively over the past four years, of which Elko is a part.

The average college football fan likely has never heard of some of their previous coaching stops, couldn’t locate most of them on a map — or both.

Stony Brook, Penn, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Fordham, Richmond, Hofstra, Bowling Green, Wake Forest. Notre Dame became stop No. 9 for Elko before age 40, a birthday he is observing in July.

“I think this path, as a coach, really forces you to learn the game of football,” Elko said from an office that’s orderly and neat but looks like he’s still very much in the process of unpacking.

“It’s easy to play the game of football when you have a linebacker who just makes 14 tackles a game and erases everything, right? You maybe don’t know what’s working, what’s not working. When you’re at a Division III school, you learn football. You learn where to put people, and what people can do and what they can’t do. So I think that’s part of it.

“I think with me — not to say this the wrong way — but maybe there’s a little chip on your shoulder too, to prove that just because you’re not at the highest levels, that you can still coach comparatively to those guys.”

Now he is one of those guys. Spotlight glare and all.

It’s not just the volume of flaws Elko inherits from the truncated Brian VanGorder Era, the perceived stability of eighth-year head coach Brian Kelly, and the built-in culture shock that greets every Notre Dame coach — head or assistant — to some degree.

It’s how fundamentally critical defensive coordinators and elite defenses are to producing playoff teams and national champions that ratchets up the significance of his hire and what it eventually turns into.

In the 19 seasons that college football has used the BCS or four-team playoff to determine its national champion, only one titlist — Auburn in 2010 — had a total defense ranking nationally below 25th. But the Tigers (60th total defense) were very good at rush defense (ninth), another critical metric.

Since Notre Dame won its most recent national title, in 1988, only three national champs have dipped below the No. 25 threshold nationally in that stat category and none of those three lower than 40.

The Irish haven’t been above No. 70 in rushing defense since the 2012 season, in which they played Alabama for the national title and finished 11th against the run, seventh in total defense and second in scoring D.

When Kelly pulled the plug on the VanGorder experiment four games into last season, Notre Dame was on a trajectory of matching its worst total defense (103rd) and scoring defense (101st) rankings in school history.

Greg Hudson, no longer with the program, was named interim coordinator at that juncture, though Mike Elston — the only remaining Kelly assistant who has been with him since the start at ND — was actually pushing the buttons over the final eight games.

Elston, Kelly’s recruiting coordinator, remains a valuable coaching commodity for the Irish, and switched position groups to take on one of ND’s most-challenged areas, defensive line. But Kelly went outside his comfort zone to find the permanent defensive coordinator.

Prior to the December job interview, Elko said he and Kelly had never so much as said hello or shook hands. Ever.

“I don’t think Brian Kelly would have known me if he walked past me in an airport,” Elko said with a smile.

Kelly did, however, remember Elko’s defense holding his dynamic 2015 offense to a season-low 282 yards in a 28-7 laborious victory for Notre Dame. No other team in 2015 could even rein the Irish in under 400 yards, including an Ohio State team loaded with NFL Draft choices and a Clemson team that was national runner-up that season.

“I knew what I was looking for,” Kelly said, “and I knew that we needed to go back collegiate (as opposed to an NFL background). I knew that we needed to go back to fundamentals. I didn’t know what our 3-technique’s responsibility was. I didn’t know really where our fits were coming from defensively.

“So I know what the profile needed to be exactly. I needed a teacher. I needed somebody who could delegate that teaching out and empower the guys that were on this staff to do that. I think it’s the old adage: You know what you don’t want, and that gets you quickly to what you know you do want.”

Elko did his research too — to see if Notre Dame was for him. He pored over film from Notre Dame’s 4-8 season to make sure the Irish defensive personnel not only had a strong future, but enough of a solid present for him to make a significant impact in year one.

“The defense should look significantly faster against Temple than it looked in the spring game,” Elko offered, referring to the Irish season opener on Sept. 2, “because guys will have a lot more confidence and comfort in what we’re doing. I think that’s the biggest thing.

“So where specifically will that show up? It will show up in everything.”

* * *

Mike Elko was a star quarterback at South Brunswick (N.J.) High who doubled as a safety. On home-game Friday nights, he played on Mike Elko Field. And every Thanksgiving weekend, before finally shuttling off to the University of Pennsylvania to play college ball, he played for the Mike Elko Trophy against rival North Brunswick.

“Weird,” is how he still describes those high school experiences.

The field was named for Elko’s great uncle, a renowned high school football coach who died three months before this generation’s Mike Elko came bounding into the world.

The younger Mike wasn’t named for him, has no real connection to him other than bloodlines, and took no particular inspiration from whatever the elder Mike had accomplished.

“I don’t want to say that I picked up the torch,” he said. “That’s not the case. It’s not like it played an integral role in my life or anything like that or molded me or shaped me. It’s just an interesting story — that’s all.”

The were plenty of other coaches in the family tree, including Elko’s father, who presided at the youth/Pop Warner level. So of course, when he matriculated to Penn, he aspired to be … in business.

Then communications.

Then ultimately coaching.

“Sports are what I enjoy,” Elko said. “And anytime I started thinking about careers elsewhere, not in sports, it never really vibed with me. So I was going to try the coaching thing and see where that took me.”

It took him first to Stony Brook, where in 1999 he applied for and filled a grad assistant opening to tutor wide receivers. Before he arrived, the staff was reorganized and he ended up coaching linebackers instead. He’s remained on the defensive side ever since.

Ironically, linebacker is the position in which many of his pre-ND bios, and his Wikipedia page, incorrectly list him as playing at Penn. He actually played safety.

Another bit of irony, a safety/linebacker hybrid called a rover has become a staple of Elko’s 4-2-5 defenses. The bio confusion was not the inspiration.

“Would I have been a good rover?” Elko repeats the question out loud with a tone of incredulousness. “No. (Laughing). No. The rover is a really good football player.”

For the Irish, it will be former strong safety and senior captain Drue Tranquill most of the time. Freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is being groomed for the future.

Elko takes no credit for creating the concept, certain he borrowed it from someone around 2004, just not sure where. One of the beauties of the position is that the player is versatile enough to play on any down and against any formation.

So if a team speeds up its offense and Elko can’t swap out defensive personnel within a drive, it doesn’t create inherent mismatches.

“That’s a part of it, for sure,” he said. “And then I think the other part of it is creates a home for someone — and I think you’re going to see this, this fall — to be extremely successful, who maybe isn’t the best linebacker and maybe not the ideal safety. But he can play this position and really accentuate all of these strengths.

“I think you’ll see that with Drue this fall. I think he’ll have an enormous fall, because you’re asking him to do the things he’s really good at.”

He then lets go a good belly laugh, and it has nothing to do with the prospect of Tranquill becoming a transformational player in 2017.

“You guys (the media) are way more fascinated with the rover than I am,” he said. “I am fascinated about the amount of people who ask me questions about the rover.”

* * *

There isn’t any one tangible facet of Elko’s résumé — such as scheme — that hints at where the magic is supposed to come.

It’s more like a thousand little nuances strung together. It’s being able to think on his feet and adjust. It’s being able to evaluate talent and recruit it. It’s how pieces fit together more than what they look like individually. It’s knowing how to toggle between sophistication and simplicity.

All lessons he learned along the way in the obscurity of college football’s backroads, from coaches most people have never heard of.

“Wherever you are, you’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve, right?” Elko said. “I don’t know that it’s a matter of coming up with this and you, the offense, are going to have to respond. I think it’s more nowadays about creating a package that has enough flexibility to create confusion and indecision in an offense and allow your kids to feel very comfortable playing in it.

“And if you can be at that happy medium, then you’re going to be successful. If you allow it to get too stagnant, then I think offenses will get ahead of you. If you push the envelope too much scheme-wise, you might lose your own kids.”

Like the Irish defensive players did over and over again in the 30 games VanGorder presided over the ND defense.

A fresh challenge with which Elko will have to deal that his predecessors under Kelly didn’t is being paired with a truly uptempo offense, under new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I don’t want you to get the sense that all of the sudden, this is going to be Baylor’s offense,” Kelly qualified. “Could we run it that fast? Not quite, we’re not that basic offensively. But we could run it fairly quick. But we will certainly have an understanding of the game and when we need to conserve pace of play.”

Still, the formula is likely to expose ND’s growing defense to more plays and more field time. Elko’s penchant for being able to force turnovers — his Wake team last season ranked 10th in takeaways, ND was 104th — could certainly mitigate some of that.

“The other component of it — and Brian and I have spoken about this — is we have to develop a lot of kids who can play and help us,” Elko said. “We’ve got to get a lot of kids involved. We’ve got to make sure we are rotating players at every position. We can’t ask 11 kids to play every snap, every game, all the way through.

“It never feels exactly right to get below the top 11, so you’ve got to force yourself to do that. Kids will develop and grow in your defense when you give the opportunities to perform on Saturdays for them.”

Even in the moments when the Irish players looked a little lost last spring, Elko’s big, I-know-something-you-don’t-know kind of smile, never waned.

“From my conversations with Brian Kelly in the interview process, I knew what he was looking for, what he wanted the defense to look like, what he wanted the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame to be like,” Elko said. “And as he was describing what he wanted, I felt a lot like he was describing me.

“Then it was a matter of building trust with the players. And I just think you have to roll up your sleeves and dig in with them. There’s no recipe to it. And it’s not the same approach or same the philosophy from one place to the next.

“But people trust people that they know and people that they know care about them. And I’m going about establishing that as fast I can.”

***

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

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