Vorel: Notre Dame signees suffer most from defensive coordinator Mike Elko's abrupt exit

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Ja’Mion Franklin deserves to feel more than a little salty.

Here’s what the defensive tackle signee had to say about Mike Elko, Notre Dame’s now-former defensive coordinator, prior to officially inking with the Irish on Dec. 20.

“Honestly, I’d say he’s probably one of my favorite recruiters of people I’ve encountered in my recruiting process, just because there’s no show when you talk with him. It’s all real. It’s genuine stuff. What you see is what you get, and that’s just how he rolls. I really appreciate that.

“That’s the kind of people I like to have in my life and in my corner.”

On Thursday, Elko chose a different corner. Barely a year after he arrived in South Bend, he rolled roughly 1,100 miles south.

Specifically, the defensive coordinator and safeties coach accepted a lucrative offer to join Jimbo Fisher’s coaching staff in the same capacity at Texas A&M. In doing so, he left behind as many as nine returning starters on the Irish defense, as well as 12 defensive signees that inked early with the program in December.

And, really, that’s who gets the most undeserving deal in Elko’s departure: those 12 guys that were so committed to this coach and this program that they signed a month and a half early just to prove it.

Now isn’t the time to cry for head coach Brian Kelly, who will search for a fourth full-time defensive coordinator in his eight-and-counting seasons in South Bend.

But what about Houston Griffith, a four-star defensive back who flipped his commitment from Florida State to Notre Dame, signed early and plans to enroll early as well? What about Jayson Ademilola, Justin Ademilola, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo, all of whom committed while Brian VanGorder was the coordinator and have withstood widespread instability ever since?

What about Shayne Simon, who committed to Elko and Co. as a rover, a position that might not even exist in the incoming defensive coordinator’s scheme?

For that matter, what about Franklin?

“Can’t trust everything you see nowadays,” the 6-foot-2, 306-pound defensive tackle tweeted after the news broke on Thursday. “Salt looks a lot like sugar.”

Can’t trust everything you hear, either.

“What do I like about (the NCAA’s new early) signing day?” Kelly said after signing 20 players on Dec. 20. “It's put the commitment back in commitment.

“If you're committed, there are no, ‘Hey, I'm committed, but I'm going to take other visits.’ It really, truly means a commitment to one university. We have a commitment to you, and we're going to honor that commitment. That's what it's meant to us here at Notre Dame.”

Commitment? Really? It’s hard to argue that Elko honored that commitment on Thursday.

And yeah, I get it: it’s a business. Maybe Texas A&M’s offer was simply too lucrative to refuse. Maybe Elko has a preexisting relationship with Jimbo Fisher. Maybe it’s been a lifelong dream for the New Jersey native to put down roots in College Station, Texas. Maybe he likes “Whataburger” more than “Five Guys,” and in the end, that tipped the scales.

Whatever the reason, he’s entitled to his decision.

But shouldn’t Notre Dame’s signees be granted the same level of “commitment?''

If this were a fair system, those 12 defensive players would be allowed a release from their letters of intent. If they still wanted to sign with Notre Dame, they could do so on the next national signing day, Feb. 7. If they were truly invested in a university and a program more than a coach, then they’d inevitably reach the same decision.

But at least then they wouldn’t be irreversibly tethered to a broken promise. At least then they’d be granted the same freedom their former coordinator flaunted on Thursday.

Of course, that won’t happen, because this isn’t a fair system, nor has it ever been. Coaches make promises, break promises, make money and pile up promotions. They ask for “commitment” but often forget to return the favor.

Players, meanwhile, have to sit out a year after transferring to a different school.

Last week, before he unexpectedly coached his final game at Notre Dame, the Tribune asked Elko for his thoughts on the NCAA’s early signing period.

"In my mind, I love it," Elko said, "because now there’s some closure to that first initial recruiting wave.”

Ah, yes. Closure. It’s hard to imagine many Notre Dame signees feeling much of that right now.

It’s more like salt in a wound.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko works with players during Notre Dame football practice Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN