Analysis: Sizing up Brian Kelly's next step after Mike Elko's departure from Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Amidst the avalanche of reaction, overreaction and the social media equivalent of a wake for someone or something that didn’t actually die, came a sobering voice of resolve.

“Part of the business,” tweeted future Notre Dame safety Derrik Allen, minutes after the news that Notre Dame first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko was bolting for Texas A&M was confirmed by Irish head football coach Brian Kelly Thursday afternoon.

“Sign to a place ’cause of their cultures and beliefs,” the tweet continued, “not because of a coach.”

The 6-foot-1, 204-pound four-star recruit from Marietta, Ga., who signed with 20 other prospects during the new early national signing period (Dec. 20-22), didn’t have much company in his opinion Thursday, from either current or future Irish players initially, more so when the shock and hurt started to fade hours later.

But the tone of his message brings the kind of practicality to the bold, jilting headline that Kelly already must be immersed in …

It’s all about how you move on.

And Kelly’s next move must be every bit as astute as his decision to hire the complete stranger from Wake Forest 13 months ago.

Which starts with an open mind.

Eventually the ninth-year Irish head coach will have to prioritize how important is it to keep the same scheme Elko introduced (a 4-2-5 with a rover) versus, say, something as philosophically jarring as a move back to the 3-4.

And if his preference is to keep the scheme similar, does longtime assistant and defensive line coach Mike Elston rise to the top of the list of candidates? Does linebackers coach Clark Lea, who came to ND last winter with Elko from Wake, have a better handle on it?

Can Kelly find someone who checked all the boxes that Elko did — tactician, motivator, elite recruiter, master talent evaluator, visionary?

Can Kelly lure a top-tier safeties coach to advance and evolve the position group that Elko coached and the one that is teeming with both promise of an infusion of talent and more room for improvement than any position group on a team that finished 10-3 and will likely end up no lower than 12th in the final polls?

The one thing Kelly won’t have to ask himself is what went wrong.

There was no philosophical rift between Kelly and the 40-year-old New Jersey native, no personality clash. The move was driven by economics, it would seem, more than anything else.

According to a source familiar with the process, Texas A&M twice came after Elko after hiring Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher on Dec. 1 to head the Aggies program and giving him a guaranteed 10-year contract worth $75 million to do so.

The most recent rebuffed overture from the Aggies coaxed a new contract from ND for Elko, which he verbally agreed to. One source described the compensation as putting Elko in the top 10 highest paid defensive coordinators in the country and having the highest salary for an assistant in Notre Dame history.

Another put it in excess of $1.5 million a year, which, per USA Today’s data base for assistants’ salaries, would have put him behind only Clemson's Brent Venables ($1.7 million) and the man who flirted with and turned down Texas A&M Wednesday night, LSU’s Dave Aranda.

It took a four-year guaranteed contract at $2.5 million per season for Tiger head coach Ed Orgeron to hold onto already the highest-paid assistant in college football and one that, per the Baton Rouge Advocate, will trump the salaries of 62 percent of the FBS head coaches from 2017.

Elko’s deal with the Aggies, per the source, will average $2 million per year (with incentives), and probably could have gone higher if Notre Dame wanted to prolong the bidding war.

There’s also a chance Lea, if he is not ND’s next defensive coordinator, will be Texas A&M’s next linebackers coach, but that situation is still evolving and Lea is certainly valued by Kelly.

Also evolving, and probably much more complicated with Elko’s departure, are the impending decisions of junior nose guard Jerry Tillery and junior linebacker Te’von Coney on whether to jump into the 2018 draft pool with wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.

St. Brown, a junior, declared for the NFL Draft Thursday, hours after Elko’s decision leaked. Junior running back Josh Adams is also weighing an early entry, with Jan. 15 the deadline to decide.

The two defensive players may have to forge ahead before they know what a return to Notre Dame in 2018 might look like.

And there are so many moving parts to finding Elko’s replacement, not the least of which is that the best short-term solution and the best long-term one might not be the same person.

The 2018 Irish team, better situated for a playoff run than the one that rallied past LSU (21-17) Monday at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., would probably benefit from continuity. That goes for both the scheme and the face and voice that’s demanding the buy-in of it.

There are arguments in either scenario that would point to Elston as deserving a long look. It’s not about the loyalty of rewarding a man who held together ND’s 2017 recruiting class through a 4-8 season or settling into a comfort zone.

It’s that he has shown the potential of delivering in all the areas Elko did, even as a coordinator in an admittedly small sample size.

As Notre Dame’s interim defensive coordinator for the final eight games of 2016, following the late September firing of Brian VanGorder, Elston’s defenses held opponents below their season averages in points 75 percent of the time in scoring and 87.5 percent of the time in yardage, while facing teams in the top third nationally in total offense 37.5 percent of the time.

Elko’s numbers were very similar — 76.9 percent of the time in both yardage and points over 13 games, and facing the top third in total offense 38.5 percent of the time.

VanGorder’s numbers, by comparison, were 53.3 percent in points, 43.3 in yardage and playing the upper-third offenses 26.7 percent of the time.

Thirteen months in any job is too short to forge a legacy but not too brief for impact. Lasting impact.

When Kelly first contacted Elko about coming to Notre Dame, the Ivy League grad who grew up in a trailer park, parked himself in front of his iPad and watched enough film to convince himself that Notre Dame football could be great again.

On defense. In this decade. In meaningful January games. In sustainable fashion. And that’s why he came.

That vision, that possibility is still very much alive. Now Kelly just has to find a way to make that home run hire.


Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko looks out onto the field during a lightning warning before the Notre Dame-Wake Forest, Nov. 4 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)