Jalen Elliott nudges his way into Notre Dame's surge at the safety position
Before Jalen Elliott and the other Notre Dame safeties were afforded a clean slate by new position coach Terry Joseph, the then-besieged first-year starter forced himself to look at the old one.
Honestly. With both eyes open.
“I saw a guy that was indecisive sometimes,” the 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior confessed this week of the deep film study he conducted of himself following the 2017 season. “The play was there, but I was just overthinking it.”
As a result, the former two-time Virginia high school all-state quarterback often ended up in highlight reels. Other people’s highlight reels.
The notion of him hanging on to his sort of de facto starting spot from last season was pushed aside over the summer and in preseason camp by the incubation of Navy transfer Alohi Gilman and the recruitment of prodigies Houston Griffith and Derrik Allen.
Then Elliott pushed back.
“You can’t fish for plays,” Elliott said of his takeaway from 2017. “When you see a broad picture, see too much, that can hurt you more than it can help you. So if you just do your job, the plays will come. That’s what we’ve been focusing on, doing our job.”
Elliott uses the terms “we” and “our” liberally when posed with questions about him individually. It’s not him flexing the use of the royal “we” — rather his perspective on how the safety position and he upgraded. That is collectively.
After a solid 2018 debut against Michigan, a 24-17 Irish win, and vaunted transfer quarterback Shea Patterson last Saturday night, the safety corps will collectively try to take another step forward Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium against Ball State (1-0) in the first meeting ever in football between two in-state programs (3:30 EDT; NBC-TV).
The Cardinals have nine returning starters on offense to throw at the eighth-ranked Irish (1-0) and Elliott.
“Much more assignment-correct, better tackler,” ND coach Brian Kelly said of Elliott version 2.0. “That was probably the thing that we were looking for. We didn’t need anything else but a consistent performer at that other safety position.”
Left unsaid, Kelly and new defensive coordinator Clark Lea were also looking to put former coordinator Brian VanGorder’s evaluation mistakes and indifference to recruiting behind them for good.
VanGorder’s shortcomings on game day came back to bite him, resulting in his purge 30 games into his regime. But first Mike Elko and then Lea had to deal with the lingering effects of missteps on the recruiting trail.
Attrition tells part of the story. But of the nine defensive players in the recruiting class of 2013 that VanGorder largely inherited, only two — for varying reasons — exhausted their eligibility at Notre Dame.
In VanGorder’s first full cycle of recruiting, with the 2014 class, only five of the 13 defensive players have or will exhaust their eligibility at Notre Dame. With the 2015 class, it’s seven of 13, at his point.
Current grad senior inside linebacker Drue Tranquill, poached from Purdue’s class, was the only safety signed in the 2014 cycle. He’s also the last safety to come up with an interception for ND — in game 11 of the 2016 season — 15 games and two position switches ago.
“What coach Joseph preaches to us every day is just make sure we do our job, and the plays will come,” Elliott said of dealing with the longest interception drought by the safety position since ND and the rest of college football assumed the two-platoon model in 1964.
VanGorder signed Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams in 2015, then four more in 2016 — Devin Studstill, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Elliott.
When Elko landed the coordinator job in December of 2016, one of his very first orders of business was extending scholarship offers to safeties, both to finish off the 2017 cycle and to get a jump on 2018.
After spring ball and into the summer or 2017, Elko was still troubled by the skill sets of the safeties on the Irish roster that he inherited and was convinced Gilman, whom he helped land as a transfer, was the best fit and talent on the team at that position.
The only problem was the NCAA denied Gilman immediate eligibility, so he became a scout team piece, and Elko reconfigured his defensive scheme to try to avoid his safeties behind exposed.
That meant less blitzing from his linebackers, less press coverage and more cushion given by his cornerbacks, more field to cover for the linebackers on pass plays so that the safeties could just worry about balls not going over their heads.
It took until November for opponents to fully expose the position, but they eventually did.
The scheme continuity, upon Elko’s January departure to Texas A&M and Lea’s elevation to coordinator, helped the safety position improve. So did the new talent and Joseph’s arrival as the new defensive backs coach.
“He’s a great teacher. The players really enjoy playing for him,” Kelly said of Joseph, who came to ND from North Carolina. “He’s got a really good relationship with all of our players.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say Jalen has blossomed just because of Terry. He’s a mature player in that he has now taken all those snaps from last year, and he’s communicating extremely well. He’s very vocal out there.”
His actions spoke loudly as well Saturday night against Michigan. Elliott had five tackles, including a jarring hit on 6-5, 251-pound Wolverine tight end Sean McKeon for a modest two-yard gain.
Safety sidekick Gilman recorded seven tackles overall. His one tackle for loss against the Wolverines matched the season output of the entire safety corps in 2017. and his two pass breakups are three short of the safety position groups’ collective total last season.
“I think the physicality of the game is definitely showing in all of us,” Elliott said, “but we’re all just trying to take one week at a time and just get better every week.”
That improvement could include deepening the safety rotation eventually, even shifting Elliott to a key backup position.
Freshman Houston Griffith and senior Nick Coleman, the latter a former starter at safety who surged during preseason camp, could end up with larger roles at safety as the season progresses. But the immediate need was to work them at nickel last Saturday, after senior Shaun Crawford was lost for the season four days before the Michigan game.
“What makes most sense is to get him reps whenever we can squeeze him in,” Kelly said of Griffith, an early enrollee. “Right now it means at both positions (safety and nickel).
“I don’t think we have the luxury to settle him in at one positon, because there’s competition, so we made the decision to cross-train him in the hopes of getting him more playing time
“I think the only thing that he lacks is real snaps, so when we get these kinds of situations, we try to decide: Are you better off leaving him at one position or are you better off cross-training him? To get him more reps, we think he’s going to be a better player by playing.”
Griffith was one of five true freshmen to see action last week for the Irish against Michigan.
How ever the safety rotation evolves, Elliott seems fine just being a contributor to it. Somehow, someway, but decidedly better than he was.
“We’re all pushing each other, regardless of who’s starting, regardless of who’s playing,” Elliott said. “We’re all working on our craft to get better. That is the biggest thing,
“I think we all took the mindset that it didn’t matter about the reps we were getting, that when we got in there, we had to go hard, we had to push ourselves. So that come game time, whatever game it may be, we’re ready.”
BALL STATE at
Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT
Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN (101.5)