The Great Escape: The remaking of Notre Dame's defensive line template

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In a locked room, designed to simulate the Alcatraz Penitentiary experience, Mike Elston got his first chance to test his premonition that Notre Dame’s defensive line wasn’t broken. Its developmental template was.

The bottom line at the end of the 2016 Notre Dame football season suggested both were true.

In a 4-8 seemingly lost season, that would later be marvelously contorted into a program reboot, the Irish defensive line — starters and reserves — combined for three sacks on the season, the Power 5 standard that year for pass-rush ineptitude.

And while the sack total was 65th out of 65 among the Power 5, the run defense wasn’t much better — 72nd nationally for a third straight season among the 128 FBS schools that year.

At a position group that defines teams that reach the College Football Playoff and wins games there, Notre Dame’s defensive line couldn’t have been much more statistically removed from the coveted archetype.

Its journey that started in the escape room in Mishawaka a few months later, at $28 a head and stuffed beyond the preferred capacity of 12, is a big reason why No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) is on college football’s biggest stage Saturday in AT&T Stadium at Arlington, Texas, with a fighting chance to not to stumble off it.

Elston was the Irish linebackers coach in 2016, and eventually the clandestine interim defensive coordinator once Brian VanGorder was cut loose four games into his third season by Irish head coach Brian Kelly. But Elston, out of the corner of his eye, marveled at what could be at the position group he coached at ND from 2010 through 2013.

“I saw them in practice every day, the defensive line,” Elston said. “They’re all very talented. You knew with the right mindset, the right development, good things would happen.”

There were layers that led to making that happen, not the least of which was returning Elston to defensive line coach. Equally foundational, there was a schematic and philosophical makeover under, first, Mike Elko, then current coordinator Clark Lea.

There were seismic changes in the strength and conditioning program that made developing five-star talent a viable alternative to routinely recruiting it. The Irish, for instance. swung and missed on all three of Clemson’s D-line All-Americans — high school five-star interior line prospects Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, and high-four-star edge rusher Clelin Ferrell.

The Irish offense gets to deal with them Saturday in the Cotton Bowl/College Football Playoff semifinal when they clash with the No. 2 Tigers (13-0) at 4 p.m. EST (ESPN). That is, at least Wilkins and Ferrell. Lawrence is awaiting final word on a possible NCAA suspension for a banned substance.

Another key piece in the realignment of the vision of the defensive line position group was a revamping on how to identify the diamonds in the rough in recruiting from the just plain rough that too often kept filling up the Irish depth charts during VanGorder’s 30-game run.

And cookies. Yes cookies. The best cookies Irish All-America defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, among others, has ever tasted in his life.

“I don’t say that lightly,” said the 6-foot-7, 315-pound senior, who admitted that the cookies do come to mind when he is making a sack in a game.

Elston’s wife, Beth, bakes sacks of them as a reward for quarterback sacks in a game.

“Once the cookies in the bin are gone, they’re gone,” Elston said of the weekly supply. “But if you get your sacks (in the game), you get your own private stash of cookies.

“The guys love it, and it’s good incentive. I’m not allowed to pay them for sacks, but if I can feed them and rub their belly every once in a while, then they get excited.”

The statistics bear that out.

The two players who accounted for the three sacks in 2016, end Isaac Rochell and nose guard Jarron Jones, moved into the NFL after the 2016 season. Without them, the Elston-inspired group hiked the D-line only sack total to 16.5 in 2017. It’s 23.5 so far this season, led by Tillery’s eight, heading into the Clemson game.

“Everything we do is calculated. Everything we do we do for a reason,” Elston said.

“They’re not the most talented players out there, so they have to hang their hat on something — it’s in that process. And so that process is attention to detail. It’s focus. It’s a lot of things that when you’re going through a game plan — and every game has had its adjustments — these guys are intelligent.

“I mean, they can pick it up and they know why we’re making (the adjustments). And they ask the question, ‘Well, why would we want to do that?’ Well, here’s why: ‘Because they’re doing this, we’ve got to do this.’ They’re great learners, they’re great listeners and they work hard.”

But none of that is maximized if you flunk chemistry.

“So year one (2017), you go into the meeting room, first spring, and they’re like, ‘OK, who’s this guy?’ ” Elston said. “ ‘What’s he about? How’s he going to coach us? Is he going to be a screamer? Is there going to be any depth to it? Is there going to be a relationship that we’re building?’

“So the first thing you have to build with them is trust, trust that you’ll take care of them and you love them. And two, trust that you know what the hell you’re talking about as a football coach.”

And so into the escape room they went for the first team chemistry experiment. Groups pay to have to get through a series of puzzles and riddles that lead to clues on how to escape from the locked room. There is a one-hour time limit.

“It was very challenging, because I’m a take-charge guy,” Elston said. “I actually had to step back and blend in — and it was a disaster.

“That was within the first month of me taking over the defensive line, and I was able to point to actual moments inside the escape room that we have such poor chemistry. We have very little trust in each other. And it was actually really good, because we didn’t escape.”

What they did was buy in, and to a vision that was much different from the one Elston coached in the BCS National Championship Game in the 2012 season.

Notre Dame had landed three elite edge players (and several other impressive D-line prospects) in the previous recruiting class — Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams for its then 3-4 look.

Lynch left six months before ND’s title game run even started. Williams couldn’t evolve into an impactful role. Only Tuitt contributed in his sophomore season from that entire group, teaming with junior nose guard Louis Nix and fifth-year senior end Kapron Lewis-Moore.

Lewis-Moore’s ability to affect chemistry was something that stuck with Elston, particularly in the 2013 season when the production of Tuitt and Nix both ebbed without Lewis-Moore’s influence. Elston also learned that he wanted depth to be a defining trait if he ever returned to the defensive line.

“Nobody wanted to go 4-8 again,” Elston said of why that concept was received with open minds with this current group.

So in a typical game, the Irish play 10 across the four positions. And the reserves play in high-leverage situations, just as starters Tillery, nose guard Jonathan Bonner and ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem do.

The quarter in which the Irish have recorded the most sacks this season is the second, when the D-line rotation is in full use. The second-most is the fourth quarter, when fresh starters can wear down opposing offensive lines.

“We know that it takes a lot of guys in order to play at a high level for 60-70-80 snaps a game,” Tillery said. “And so the message from the beginning is that a lot of people are going to play.

“And I think that influences the work ethic of guys in the offseason and fall camp, when they know they’re going to get a chance — because that hasn’t always been the message here. That definitely changes and affects the development of some people, and we’ve had a shift here.”

The most seismic shift involving the defensive line, though, may have been Tillery himself. And it was a necessary one, for both his NFL aspirations and in catalyzing another quantum leap forward in the overall Irish defensive line development.

The Shreveport, La., product until last January, when he pushed off the NFL dream for a year, rarely had passion that matched his potential. Since then, it’s been a constant, and it rubs off.

“He’s matured a lot in his study of the game, and his preparation,” linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill offered. “He’s a guy who used to come in at 1:30 or 2 o’clock, just before we needed to be here. And now he’s in here at 11-12 watching film, getting practice corrections and evolving himself into the best player he can be.

“He kind of just became less of an introspective kind of guy and more of an ‘about the team’ kind of guy.”

And the Irish defensive line has been in the middle of every major story line, every big moment in the close games, every defining step of the way of Notre Dame’s climb into uber-relevance.

The funniest twist about the escape room misadventure — funny, now that it’s so far removed from who the defensive line is today — is that one of the players had the key for the final stage of escape in his pocket all along.

But as a group, as coaches, as a program, they’ve found a bigger, better key. A key for the present and the future. A key of sustainability, it would seem.

A key and a plan that is intended to end up like Clemson’s and Alabama’s but one that takes a different path to get there.

“It takes a great strength-and-conditioning program,” Kelly said. “They can’t be sawed-off, overachieving kind of players. They’ve got to have some length. They’ve got to stay in our program. But you can develop the three- and four-star defensive linemen into five-stars.”

An amusing postscript to that vision trying to merge with reality Saturday night against Clemson is that the ND defensive line actually has run a drill intermittently during the season called, “Clemson.”

“It’s called Clemson, maybe because they were the first team to do it or whatever,” Elston said.

Does Clemson run the Clemson play still?

“Not as much,” Elston said with a laugh. “But we’re ready to defend it if they do.”

Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery (99) chases down Stanford’s Bryce Love (20) during the Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and defensive line coach Mike Elston redefined the D-line position group at ND and its recruitment/development model.
Notre Dame’s defensive front (left) was a consistent force throughout a 12-0 regular season.
Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian talks with defensive line coach Mike Elston during a recent practice in preparation for Saturday's playoff game with Clemson in Arlington, Texas.

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0)

WHEN: Saturday, 4 p.m. (EST)

WHAT: CFP Semifinal/Cotton Bowl

WHERE: AT&T Stadium; Arlington, Texas

TV: ESPN

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Clemson by 13