Examining the Elston effect on Notre Dame's pass rush and D-line development

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — That Daelin Hayes’ lingering nerve injury isn’t the focal point of angst for the Notre Dame football fan base this week is a testament to defensive line coach Mike Elston.

And the other Irish defensive linemen who have worked so hard to meet his exacting standards.

There is still a chance that Hayes returns from a one-game absence to play Saturday in a Notre Dame Stadium matchup between the fifth-ranked Irish (6-0) and Pittsburgh (3-3).

“Those typically clear up, in most cases, immediately. Some linger,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of Hayes’ stinger, suffered in the days leading up to last Saturday night’s successful 45-23 road test at Virginia Tech.

“He is getting better. He’s got good strength, which is a great sign. Generally, if there’s weakness associated with that, that could be a longer-term kind of injury. He’s got great strength. Now it’s just a matter of getting that full feeling back in his arm and hand, and he was reporting progress in that regard.”

And if the progress stalls, Elston is ready with another wave of defensive ends to complement the core group of Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Ade Ogundeji.

Converted inside linebacker Jamir Jones and true freshman Justin Ademilola combined for five tackles and in some high-leverage situations against the Hokies, with Hayes out and Okwara missing the second half because of a targeting ejection.

Twin Jayson Ademilola has stepped into the void created by the long-tern injury to interior line reserve Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who still may be back from a broken foot for the last handful of games this season.

It’s all added up to a sneaky effective pass rush and the best run defense ranking (40th) since the 2012 team finished 11th.

Sneaky in the pass-rush numbers, because 48th nationally doesn’t scream elite, though it’s the best national standing of the nine-year Kelly Era beyond 2012 (22nd).

What does at least hint at the elite label, or suggest a ceiling that would include that, are the other numbers around sacks that reflect pass rush progress.

The current tackles-for-loss ranking is at a Kelly Era best (31st). Pass-efficiency defense (15th) is hovering just ahead of the 2012 standard (16th). Turnovers gained (22nd) is at a Kelly Era high. and while total defense is a modest 49th, a telling yards-per-play-allowed ranking is 17th, 11 spots ahead of Alabama.

“There’s been a consistent rush on the quarterback in the sense that he’s been under duress,” Kelly said. “We’re much more interested in quarterback hurries and getting them out of the pocket and getting them out of rhythm, much more than anything else (including sacks).”

“Today the passing game is a three-step passing game. Pass deflections are also part of that, getting your hands up. The escapability of quarterbacks make it much more difficult, obviously, the ability to run.

“We’re much more interested in disruptions, hurries, pass deflections, and getting the quarterback out of the midfield, getting out of it, so he’s only in one quadrant of the field. If we can get him to escape to one third of the field, get him out of the pocket, we’re affecting the pass.”

And the constant has been Elston, through three different coordinators (Bob Diaco, Mike Elko and current DC Clark Lea) and two very different schemes. Elston was shifted to linebackers coach for the Brian VanGorder years (2014-16), and it shows up big time in the numbers.

Kelly Era worsts in sacks, tackles for loss, pass-efficiency defense, total defense, turnovers gained and rushing defense were all logged within that three-year window. The most condemning stat was how little pass rush the defensive line itself generated.

In 2016, the Irish got three sacks — worst among the 65 Power 5 schools — from its starting front four AND their backups combined. In 2017, that number spiked to 16½. The 12½ from the defensive line so far this season projects to 27 over a 13-game season, which the Irish assured themselves of with win No. 6 on Saturday night.

“I think the first word would be patience,” Kelly said of Elston’s effect on the defensive line in his second tour of duty there. “I think the next would be what you just mentioned; there has to be development in our model on the defensive line. Very rarely is it plug-and-play.

“We’re fortunate that we’ve had some players over the years (Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch), but there has to be a level of patience in developing our players from a (cultural) fit standpoint, and then obviously having the ability to go out and impact the game. and I think we’ve seen that with a number of our players.

“I think Mike has done a great job of, in that room, creating a culture that when it’s your time, you’re playing at a high level.”

And he’s done it despite some significant attrition and around some recruiting peaks and valleys at the position group, with the 2011 class and the 2019 class being assembled as the high points.

Former Notre Dame nose guard and San Francisco 49er Ian Williams, who played his final college season under Elston, recently shed some light on the uneven recruiting dynamic when it comes to recruiting defensive linemen to ND.

“Well it’s hard. The school’s hard,” Williams said on the Tribune’s Pod of Gold Podcast. “There’s nothing around that. (With) schools like Notre Dame, Stanford, Duke, the top guys might not have the greatest of GPAs, and SAT or ACT scores, so it’s maybe a little bit difficult for them to get in.

“Also, I’ve gone on the recruiting visits where they tell you, ‘Do you really want to go to Notre Dame? Do you know how hard it is?’ So I know how other schools and cultures at other schools recruit and negatively recruit.

“I know how that is, and being a 17-, 18-year-old kid, you have the aspirations of going to the NFL. So you want to take pretty much, school-wise, the easiest route to get there. But that’s not always the best way.

“You need to be challenged. and that’s what Notre Dame does. It challenges you to be the best academically and athletically. It makes you the best out of both words.

“Notre Dame’s such a big brand, such a great brand, so people know about it. But people are afraid of the school, of how hard the work can be and what you’re going to have to do. I was one of those guys, but when I came up for the visit, I’m like, ‘OK, I can do this.’ ”

Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes (9) levels Vanderbilt’s Cam Johnson (7) during an Irish win, Sept. 15 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame defensive linemen Julian Okwara (42) and Justin Ademilola (19) listen to associate head coach/defensive line coach Mike Elston during an August practice.

Who: No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) vs. Pittsburgh (3-3)

When: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 20½