Notebook: Mike Elko rebuilds Notre Dame's defensive culture

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

ORLANDO, Fla. — Before he could install a scheme, Mike Elko had to instill a culture.

Elko’s task, when the first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator arrived in South Bend last winter, transcended X’s and O’s.

“There’s two different situations you can walk into, right?” Elko explained on Friday. “You can walk into one where there’s a little bit more of an established culture, and one where you’ve got to change the culture.

“The unique thing about this experience is we had to change the defensive culture in year eight of a program, with all that comes with that.”

So how do you go about doing that? How do you convince your players that they’re more than the 4-8 record they fashioned in 2016? That confidence is a choice? That their ceiling isn’t squarely in the cellar?

“Yeah, I don't know. I think that's always a fickle thing,” Elko admitted a few days prior to Monday’s Citrus Bowl matchup between the No. 14 Irish (9-3) and No. 16 LSU (9-3). “I think one of the things we try to do — and we talked a lot about this through the offseason — was put these kids in positions that accentuated their strengths.

“And so I think they got into positions where they felt good about what we were asking them to do, which allowed them to start having success, which allowed it to continue, and then it kind of snowballs from there.”

Take Drue Tranquill, for example. In former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense, the 6-foot-2, 231-pound senior was a relatively slow strong safety. At times, a liability.

Under Elko, as a hybrid linebacker/safety, Tranquill finished with 74 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, an interception and three fumble recoveries — tied for fourth nationally.

Same player. Different position.

The confidence grows, and the culture shifts.

“He's been outstanding at a position that I think accentuates everything he does well,” Elko said of Tranquill, who announced earlier this month that he will return to ND for a fifth season, in 2018. “And then that confidence just kind of grows from there.”

So, too, do the statistics. In his first season in South Bend, Elko’s Irish rank 31st nationally in scoring defense (21.8 points per game), 39th in pass efficiency defense, 43rd in turnovers gained (20) and 49th in rushing defense (153.2 yards per game).

But what about year two?

“I think across the board you’re going to see an enormous jump,” Elko said. “I do. I think you’re going to see an enormous jump from everyone. When you start a year cycle with a solid foundation of what you’re looking to do, where that can go is so high.

“When you start a year cycle at ground zero with zero foundation, you have so much to build that it’s almost impossible to get it to its highest point.”

The turnover trend

There’s no denying that Notre Dame was a different team in November.

More specifically, a worse team.

Because, sure, that’s what the record indicates. The Irish won eight of their first nine games, but dropped two of their last three.

But here’s a more stark disparity. In the first nine games of the 2017 season, Elko’s defense forced 19 turnovers, while the Irish committed just seven of their own.

In the final three games, Notre Dame forced just one turnover, while committing eight.

Of course, Elko can only really answer for one end of that equation. The Irish, he says, weren’t as opportunistic as the early statistics might suggest.

“We caused turnovers this year against teams that were loose with the football,” Elko said. “We struggled at times creating turnovers against teams that protected it well. The next evolution for us is to do it at a higher level, to where we can take it away from everyone.

“I think the last five teams we played are all really high nationally at not turning the ball over. We have to get better at doing that against the better teams.”

Indeed, three of Notre Dame’s final five opponents — Wake Forest (seventh) and N.C. State and Stanford (both tied for 10th) — rank in the top 10 nationally in fewest turnovers lost.

LSU, incidentally, is tied for first, with eight lost.

It’s not as if the Irish didn’t have their opportunities late in the regular season.

“The Miami game sticks out to me,” Elko said. “There were three (turnovers) we had on the plate for us at Miami that we didn’t make. We had a blindside hit on the quarterback that we didn’t get the ball out. (Miami quarterback Malik Rosier) fluttered two balls that we didn’t come down with. Same thing at Stanford. There was a handful of opportunities that we could have made, and we just didn’t make them.

“I don’t know why that happens. It just does. I think it’s getting more comfortable with the scheme, thinking less about my assignment, thinking more about the play, playing faster, which then triggers a lot of that stuff to happen better.

“It’s recruiting, too. We’ve got to recruit longer, faster guys. That helps that situation.”

The safety dance

Speaking of recruiting …

Notre Dame has a pair of prized defensive backs arriving in South Bend this offseason, in four-star freshmen Derrik Allen and Houston Griffith.

Elko warned, however, that it wouldn’t be fair to expect an immediate ascension.

“The future is very exciting,” Elko said with a grin. “I think sometimes people want that to happen faster than it’s necessarily capable of happening.”

But on the back end of Notre Dame’s defense, something better happen soon. For the first time in the two-platoon football era (1964-present), an Irish safety didn’t nab a single interception this season.

Junior Nick Coleman and sophomore Jalen Elliott haven’t excelled, not that that’s an unexpected development.

“I think they have played somewhat like we thought they would,” Elko said of his starters, Coleman and Elliott, both first-year starters at safety. “It’s been a little bit up and down, because of the inexperience. They have given us everything they have. They come to work every day. They have improved week-to-week throughout the year.

“The ‘no picks’ thing, obviously we would love to have one. There’s other areas that upset me a little bit more than the ‘no picks’ thing, to be honest with you.”

Namely, open-field tackling.

“We probably have missed too many this year, which is hard,” Elko conceded. “That’s the modern game nowadays: big space and big-space tackles. But I think that’s probably the biggest area we have to get better at.”

One thing is certain: this offseason, Elko’s group won’t be lacking for competition.

Besides Coleman and Elliott, Navy transfer Alohi Gilman — who was named the program’s scout team defensive player of the year at the annual Echoes awards banquet — will be eligible after a season on the sidelines due to NCAA transfer rules. Gilman finished second on Navy’s defense with 76 tackles as a true freshman in 2016.

And don’t forget about a pair of rising sophomores, Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark Heath.

“Playing safety in college is like playing quarterback,” Elko said. “You’re involved in everything. You’ve got to check the defenses. You’ve got to play the run. You’ve got to play the pass. You’ve got to know what’s going on. A lot of these (freshmen) are coming from not doing anything like that, so the evolution of a safety in college is hard. It’s hard to get it all down.

“So we haven’t forgotten about Isaiah and Jordan. They have progressed very well this year. Those kids will be involved in these conversations moving forward next year for sure.”

Staying silent

After a rash of message board rumors this week connected Elko to the vacant defensive coordinator position at Texas A&M, head coach Brian Kelly confirmed to Irish Illustrated on Wednesday that Elko will return to Notre Dame next season.

When pressed on the matter further on Friday, Elko offered little in the way of elaboration.

“I learned a long time ago not to answer any of those questions,” Elko said with a smile. “You guys will be talking about me on the hot seat if we don’t beat LSU.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko watches players warm up for the Notre Dame-Navy NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN