Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott embracing leadership role

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

An encompassing faction of Notre Dame football teammates heard their strong safety, Jalen Elliott, slip the word “bro” 12 times into his 58-second speech.

Their impassioned, shirtless workout leader donned an Irish headband — almost as if it signified his newfound SWAT captaincy. The cloth’s navy blue hue, juxtaposed by its white, central Under Armour logo, darkened from Elliott’s sweat, which by then had descended upon his body.

Matt Balis, ND’s strength and conditioning coach, drained this batch of players through another grueling winter workout at the Loftus Sports Center. That didn’t prevent Elliott from challenging them further.

Preaching a message of brotherhood, Elliott referred to his teammates as “bros” and called on them to push each other this offseason.

“We’ve got to have a why,” said Elliott in a video via Notre Dame’s football Twitter account. “Why am I getting up at five or six in the morning? Why? It is to come in here and fight for y’all. It’s to come in here and fight for our family, who is at home. I got their name on my back. Think about it like that, bro.”

Elliott understands his final year will require more if the Irish wish to reach the next level. But had he sang the same tune last year, 12 “bros” and all, there would not have been as much, if any, “yes sirs” echoed by teammates.

Dial back the clock to March of 2018, and those players might have wondered if Elliott would hold onto his starting role.

Starting all 13 games across 2017, Elliott’s sparse confidence and playmaking ability contributed to ND’s struggles at the position. Former defensive coordinator Mike Elko endured an interception-less effort from his safeties that season. The Irish even removed Elliott late in the 2018 Citrus Bowl after he whiffed on a sideline tackle.

Last season featured a revitalized Elliott — one who surged with the confidence and wherewithal to dissect and react to plays before they developed. He placed first in interceptions (four), third in pass breakups (seven) and fourth in tackles (67) on the team. Elliott’s voice became increasingly heard as the Irish relied on a defense that finished sixth nationally in pass efficiency.

“As far as talking in front of the team, I feel like that’s something that has to be earned,” Elliott said. “Guys have come to me and said that I have earned that. Just continuing to make sure that I continue to earn it is going to be big for me. And just continuing to lead by example, as well as being a vocal leader.”

Elliott’s development took a turn for the better once seasoned safeties coach Terry Joseph entered the fold. The Irish safeties began with a clean slate, helping Elliott grow from mistakes while accruing confidence.

Alohi Gilman expunged ND’s woes at free safety, a position that previously had been manned by Nick Coleman. Eventual All-America corner Julian Love and steady play from Troy Pride Jr., ND’s field corner, eased Elliott’s load as well.

“Jalen’s leadership has been fantastic,” defensive coordinator Clark Lea said. “I think the thing for him is first being a tone-setter for us. But beyond that, it’s also policing the standards that coach Kelly set forth, that I set forth defensively. He’s shown a willingness to do that, and that’s been fun to see, too. I’m doing less talking because Jalen touched it before I get to it.”

Once considered among ND’s least promising position groups, the Irish safeties transformed into a team strength. So much so that Elliott will be called on to assist with ND’s question marks elsewhere on defense.

Like with Houston Griffith, who moved to boundary cornerback this spring. And Avery Davis, the former running back who also switched to corner. Elliott aims to groom both young players as they transition.

“We have a younger secondary, so I’m making sure that I’m leading by example every day,” Elliott said. “Making sure that I’m pushing those young guys, and making sure that I’m also not losing myself while doing that. I want to make sure I’m pushing myself in every aspect of the game, whether that’s lifting, off the field or film.”

Elliott and Gilman shared a high percentage of snaps last year. The Irish rarely rotated in backups at the position. Derrik Allen spent all season on the sideline. Paul Moala didn’t see the field before earning a role on special teams for the final eight contests.

Blue chip safety signee Kyle Hamilton, as well as fellow incoming freshman Litchfield Ajavon, will enter the mix in June. All four underclassmen could learn from Elliott’s collegiate rise. However, he still has work to do.

“I think physically for Jalen — as a veteran player, it’s not necessarily about the complex things,” Lea said. “It’s not the raw schematic things as much. It’s more about reverting back to the minutiae.

“ ... Now you go back to that starting point, and I think that’s where you find the advantage. When you start cleaning up things like eye transition, footwork — as rudimentary as that sounds, better starts lead to better finishes. And that’s kind of where his challenge is now.”

Leading isn’t new for Elliott. He captured two states titles (2013, 2014) as Chesterfield (Va.) Lloyd C. Bird’s starting quarterback. He’s assisting the Irish in recruiting their most coveted 2020 target — Virginia running back Chris Tyree.

At the college level, though, it took time before Elliott built confidence and earned a vocal role. The Irish defense’s need for such a player became more pressing once linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and Love departed for the NFL.

Elliott’s post-workout speeches, “bros” and accountability should continue. The Irish defense now encourages it.

“I would say safety is like the quarterback of the defense,” Elliott said. “Being able to elaborate what I want to say and put guys in the right place was something I did at quarterback. I think it translated to safety.

“As far as techniques go, that took some time. Making sure that I was in the right place at the right time. Making sure that I was using the right techniques in different situations. That came in time and that’s come in time.”

"I'm gonna fight 'till the end, it's my last ride." -

— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) March 12, 2019

Jalen Elliott in the last fourth quarter of 2017 vs. Jalen Elliott in the first fourth quarter of 2018...

— Carter Karels (@CarterKarels) March 12, 2019

Notre Dame’s Jalen Elliott (21) celebrates making a stop in Notre Dame’s 31-21 victory over Northwestern on Nov. 3, 2018.