Analysis: Singing of the unsung in Notre Dame's renaissance season

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As stunning as some of the numbers have been for the Notre Dame football team two-thirds of the way through a renaissance season, the people and stories behind the figures are more intriguing.

Including those percolating along quietly in the background.

You may now know first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko is an Ivy Leaguer who grew up in a trailer park, and whose MP3 player is loaded with tracks from Biggie and Tupac.

You know that running back Josh Adams just turned 21, and has fans yearning for “33 Trucking” caps that aren’t for sale (for now anyway), due to ND trying to steer clear of any NCAA interpretation nonsense.

And you may know offensive guard Quenton Nelson can get away with lifting and shaking his head coach, that rover Drue Tranquill’s pregame ritual always includes a cold shower, that freshman defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s brother, Adam, plays for Navy and goes by Amosa-Tagovailoa.

Here are three not-so-obvious contributors to Notre Dame’s 7-1 start and its newly minted No. 5 ranking in the AP college football poll:

• Mike Elston, assistant head coach, defensive line coach: He was the “real” interim defensive coordinator last season after the Brian VanGorder purge four games into 2016 and Greg Hudson was rolled out as the figurehead replacement.

Stealthily and gradually, Notre Dame improved from 103rd in total defense to 42nd over the final eight games of the 4-8 run.

One of the many eye-popping numbers Elston has contributed to this season is this: When UCLA put up 23 points on Washington on Saturday and Ohio State raked Penn State for 39 points, it eliminated two of the three teams in the 129-squad FBS that had held every one of its opponents to 20 points or fewer.

Now Notre Dame stands alone in that regard.

The Elko-Elston collaboration also has its fingerprints all over ND’s current rush defense ranking (16th), 56 spots higher than the Irish finished each of the past three seasons.

“Obviously he's been involved with the program in every facet of the defense,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Elston, the only original assistant coach from 2010 still on the staff. “He's a very bright coach. He relates well. He's done just a fabulous job of retooling our defensive line.

“He, for me, when he was involved in the defense (in 2016), I got a chance to spend more time with it last year. I was able to see what his influence was with our players, the way he coached them. I was able to relay that on to Mike Elko.”

Kelly originally had said Elko would be able to retain and dismiss any of ND’s holdover positions coaches, but he clarified Sunday that Elston’s retention was non-negotiable from the start.

• Deon McIntosh, running back: The 5-foot-11, 193-pound redshirt freshman is the third-leading rusher on the nation’s No. 6 rushing team.

Top backups to junior Josh Adams, Tony Jones Jr. and Dexter Williams, have been battling injuries much of the season, so McIntosh actually has as many carries (55) this season as those two do combined. He’s amassed 304 yards with a 5.5 yards-per-carry average.

Where he’s most valuable is helping the Notre Dame offense play keep-away at the end of games, which helps save wear and tear on Adams and keeps the reps down for the Irish defense by ND not having to punt and turn the ball back over to the opposition’s offense.

Early in the season, the Irish were among the top 10 in most defensive reps per game nationally. But heading into Saturday’s matchup against visiting Wake Forest (5-3), ND is down to a very manageable 72.8 defensive snaps per game.

That’s 38th nationally and a little under three plays above the national average.

In Saturday’s 35-14 victory over North Carolina State and the defrocking of the nation’s No. 6 rushing defense, McIntosh helped the Irish burn the final 8:40 of the game, as ND ran 12 straight running plays, including a kneel-down, to end the game.

“I think there were about three minutes left in the third quarter, through the entire fourth quarter, we did not use any tempo on offense,” Kelly said. “We've had a number of those games, late in the third and fourth quarter, where we've completely slowed down.

“But when we've needed to play with tempo, I've been pleased with that this year.”

• Julian Love, cornerback: The sophomore finds himself in the top five nationally in two categories. He’s fourth in passes defended (with 13), a combination of interceptions (2) and pass breakups (11). And he’s third in the nation in interception return yards, with 128, just eight yards away from the top.

Love had three pass breakups Saturday and a 69-yard interception for a touchdown. His other interception this year, against Michigan State on Sept. 23, was also returned for a TD (59 yards).

That leaves him one pick-6 away from tying the school career record, shared by four players and most recently by Shane Walton.

He stands sixth on the ND all-time list for interception return yards in a season, with Nick Rassas (1965) holding the record with 197. Love is tied for third on the single-season pass breakups chart, with Clarence Ellis’ school record set in 1969 just two away.

The big-picture part of his contribution is ND’s No. 33 standing in pass-efficiency defense, up from 79th last season and the best by an Irish team since its No. 12 standing in 2012.

The Irish will need it Saturday, when Elko faces his former team, Wake Forest.

The Demon Deacons’ offense ranked no higher than 113th nationally in Elko’s three seasons presiding over the Wake defense (2014-16), including dead last in total offense in 2014. But this year, they’re 48th, and a lot of that has to do with vastly improved senior quarterback John Wolford.

Last season he was 107th nationally in passing efficiency. At No. 7 this season, he’s the best QB in terms of efficiency on ND’s remaining schedule, and it’s not even close (Miami’s Malik Rosier is next at No. 31).

Among those the Irish already played against, Georgia freshman Jake Fromm tops the list, at fifth. N.C. State’s Ryan Finley (36th) is next among the QBs in the rearview mirror.

Wake, however, will be without redshirt freshman sensation Greg Dortch on Saturday and for the rest of the season. The wide receiver suffered a season-ending abdominal injury over the weekend in the Deacons’ 42-32 victory over Louisville.

Dortch set a school record with four TD catches in the game among his 10 receptions for 167 yards. He was Wake’s leading receiver with 53 receptions for 722 yards and nine touchdowns this season.

More history awaits Adams

It had been 11 years since a Notre Dame offensive player was named Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week, that being quarterback Brady Quinn.

On Sunday, junior running back Josh Adams garnered that honor, after running for 202 yards on 27 carries and a TD in ND’s 35-14 victory over N.C. State.

As far as Adams’ own milestones at ND, the nation’s sixth-leading rusher, is 82 yards away from passing Julius Jones for the fifth spot on ND’s career rushing list. Adams is at 2,937 career yards.

And with 1,169 yards this season, Adams is eight yards away from removing one of his position coach’s (Autry Denson) three best seasons from the ND single-season top 10 list.

At his current pace (146.1 yards per game), Adams would finish the regular season with 1,753 yards. A bowl game, would put him at 1,899. The single-season school rushing record is 1,437 held by Vagas Ferguson (1979).

And Adams will face rush defenses ranked 88th, 82nd, 75th and 95th nationally in November. He’ll also go head to head with No. 2 rusher in the nation, Navy QB Zach Abey (163.1), and No. 1, Stanford running back Bryce Love (198.1), the last two weeks of the season.

Irish injury update

The most serious injury, per Kelly, to come out of the N.C. State game for the Irish was tight end Alizé Mack’s concussion. Kelly said the junior is going through the concussion protocol, so his status for Saturday’s Wake Forest game is unknown.

The same goes for running back Tony Jones Jr., who suffered a hip pointer in the game. He has been battling a chronic ankle injury for most of the season.

Expected to play against Wake are starting defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner (ankle sprain), starting middle linebacker Nyles Morgan (he aggravated a chronic shoulder injury) and starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush (ankle sprain).

“Mild, checked in today, felt good,” Kelly said of the Wimbush injury. “He'll enter (Monday’s) workout with no restrictions.”

The name game

Back to the hyphen mystery involving brothers Adam and Myron from Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

Navy junior reserve offensive tackle Adam, and ND contributing freshman defensive tackle Myron are the sons of Tulileie and Saipeti Amosa.

Adams cleared up the confusion Sunday via Navy sports information director Scott Strasemeier.

“My father’s last name is Amosa, and my mother’s maiden name is Tagovailoa,” Adam related via text. “I was born with the last name Amosa at first, and Myron was born with the last name Tagovailoa-Amosa because our grandfather (High Chief Seu Tagovailoa, my mother’s father) wanted one of my mom’s kids to hold the family name.

“Prior to starting (Navy Academy Prep School), my grandfather passed away, and my mom wanted all of her kids to hold our grandfather’s last name. So after finishing NAPS, I came back home and officially/ legally changed my last name from Amosa to Amosa-Tagovailoa.

“I wanted to keep it Tagovailoa-Amosa like Myron, but my mom wanted Amosa first, so that during graduation I would be in the front of my class (LOL).”

The brothers will play against each other Nov. 18 at Notre Dame Stadium, on Senior Day for the Irish.

Notre Dame assistant head coach/defensive line coach Mike Elston celebrates during the ND's 49-14 rout of USC Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)