The beauty in Mike Elston’s longevity at Notre Dame is his unrelenting drive to evolve and grow
Mike Elston knew Bob Elliott as a good football coach and a good man.
Elston observed that while the two worked together at Notre Dame from 2012 to 2016.
Elliott, who served as the Irish safeties coach, an outside linebackers coach and a special assistant to head coach Brian Kelly during his five seasons at Notre Dame, had plenty of experiences to share from a coaching career that started in 1976.
But it wasn’t until Elliott passed away in July 2017 at age 64 that Elston gained a better understanding of what Elliott meant to his players.
“I learned a tremendous amount from Bob Elliott in a lot of areas of coaching, but I probably learned more about him and what impact he had on his players when he passed away,” said Elston, who is entering his 10th season as an assistant coach at Notre Dame.
“I always pride myself on my love and care for my players and showing them that. But when Bob Elliott passed away, and I started reading articles on what some players were posting about the impact that he had on their lives, I couldn’t unequivocally say that they would say the same about me.”
Elston may have been too hard on himself in that self-reflection. He’s still in touch with players he coached at Cincinnati from 2007 to 2009. And while at Notre Dame, he’s been known to host pool parties and meals for players at his family’s home.
Still, Elston wanted to give more of himself.
“It’s less about me taking them to my house and more about just the relationship of showing them that I’m here for them and helping them through tough times,” Elston said. “Whatever it is, it can be a lot of things in that area. That’s what I’ve tried to do a better job of.
“I believe that I have. And in doing that, my guys and I have a much closer relationship, so that I can coach them harder now. I can be the tough guy on them when I need to, because they know I love them. They know I care.”
No current player has known Elston longer than senior defensive end Julian Okwara. He was in eighth grade when his older brother Romeo was being recruited by Elston to Notre Dame. Both Okwaras have now played for Elston.
“He’s definitely someone I trust,” Julian Okwara said. “He’s someone I come to if I have problems. I have a lot of respect for him.
“He trusts his players and is someone that everybody comes to if they need help. He is someone that helps a lot and cares about his job, cares about his team, cares about his players.”
Elston’s players also know that his family cares.
His wife, Beth, and three daughters — Olivia (13), Sophia (11) and Isabella (9) — always find ways to be involved. Beth bakes cookies for players who record sacks during the season. The daughters pitch in by decorating the brown bags in which the cookies are delivered.
The players give back too. In January of 2018, defensive tackle Kurt Hinish filled in for his coach at a Daddy-Daughter Dance. Elston couldn’t attend, because the Irish were hosting a recruiting event that weekend.
This June, Hinish and fellow defensive linemen Jayson Ademilola, Hunter Spears and Adetokunbo Ogundeji attended a field day at Isabella’s school, where they left with painted faces.
“His girls are awesome,” Okwara said. “His wife is awesome. She makes the best cookies. We care about his family. He cares for us. We show the same love, honestly reciprocating the same love he shows for us.”
— Mike Elston (@CoachMikeElston) June 6, 2019
Isabella even participated in Notre Dame’s youth football camp in June. She was one of only two girls at the camp.
“Being very visible with my family, I want them to see me as a father,” Elston said. “I want them to see me as a husband. We can be great role models for them in those two areas, because they’re away from their families. They’re away from their support system.
“Just the little things that my wife’s able to do for them, even though it’s small, makes a big impact on them. I’ve done more of that recently because of the development I’ve gone through as a coach and the impact that I know that I want to have on their life when it’s all done.”
Former Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand built a culture of success during his tenure with the Irish. In six seasons, from 2012 to 2017, Hiestand pushed the Irish offensive line to the forefront of the team.
The position group provided leadership to the team and also became a breeding ground for talent. Six of Hiestand’s former offensive linemen at Notre Dame have been selected in the NFL Draft including four — Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey — in the first round.
A key to Hiestand’s success, which included the 2017 offensive line being recognized as the best in college football with the Joe Moore Award, was his ability to convince offensive linemen to stick around the program.
Martin and McGlinchey both returned for fifth years under Hiestand. Even Nelson, who could have gone pro following his junior season, came back to play his senior year and graduate.
Elston may be on the verge of building something similar with Notre Dame’s defensive line. Following the 2017 season, he convinced defensive tackle Jerry Tillery to return for his senior year. With Tillery back, the Irish defensive line helped power the Irish through a 12-0 regular season and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem faced similar decisions following the 2018 season. Not long after the 30-3 loss to Clemson in the national semifinal, both announced they would be returning for their senior years. Now the Irish enter the 2019 season with an experienced defensive line oozing with talent.
When the Los Angeles Chargers drafted Tillery in the first round with the 28th pick in April, it provided Elston with more validation that he helped Tillery make the right choice.
“If they are truly a first-round draft pick and they have their degree, I’m going to do whatever I have to to make sure it’s a great decision for them,” Elston said. “Sometimes it may be to go. But if they’re not and they can get their degree and make more money on the front end with the first-round draft pick, I’m going to encourage them to come back.
“Having that love and respect for each other, which we’re building, goes a long way. I believe Harry had that with his guys. They trusted that he can get them another step. I think my guys feel the same way right now.”
Elston doesn’t yet have the list of protégés in the NFL that Hiestand has. Elston’s most successful former player is actually a linebacker.
Elston served as the Irish linebackers coach in 2015-16 and coached Jaylon Smith in which Smith’s junior season. That’s a season in Smith was a consensus All-American and the Butkus Award winner as college football’s top linebacker.
Elston also recruited Smith, who was selected in the second round of the 2016 draft, despite suffering a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl less than four months earlier.
In June, Elston had an NFL reunion of sorts on campus with some of his former Irish defensive linemen. Stephon Tuitt, Romeo Okwara, Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell all returned to work the Lineman’s Challenge recruiting camp.
“I’m excited because I really wanted to show the young people, and even my current players, what we’re developing,” Elston said. “It’s a great nucleus of fine, young men that have had an opportunity to go play in the NFL, that want to give back. And I believe we put a great product out here.”
Elston’s building can’t be done without hard work on the recruiting trail. Notre Dame’s best defensive lines of the Brian Kelly Era included some of its best defensive line recruits.
The 2012 defensive line consisted of one five-star recruit (Tuitt) and a pair of four-star recruits (Louis Nix and Kapron Lewis-Moore). The Irish still haven’t had any recruits sign and play at Notre Dame with a higher overall Rivals ranking at defensive end than Tuitt (No. 22) or at defensive tackle than Nix (No. 85) since they signed in the 2011 and 2010 classes, respectively.
Last season’s defensive line included three four-star recruits: Tillery, Kareem and Okwara. Nose guard Jonathan Bonner was only a three-star recruit. But backup defensive end Daelin Hayes received a five-star rating from Rivals as an outside linebacker in the 2016 class.
Elston has quality reinforcements on the way, too.
The freshman class joining Notre Dame this year includes three consensus four-star recruits, in nose guard Jacob Lacey, defensive tackle Howard Cross III and defensive end Isaiah Foskey. Tackle Hunter Spears received a four-star rating from Rivals. Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah was pegged as four-star recruit by 247Sports.
The 2020 class already includes verbal commitments from three defensive linemen — Jordan Botelho, Rylie Mills and Aidan Keanaaina— that have at least one four-star rating.
The difference in the recruiting projections for Notre Dame’s defensive line has improved dramatically. In the 2014 and 2015 classes, the Irish signed 12 defensive linemen. Only four finished with a four-star rating from either Rivals or 247Sports — Tillery, defensive tackles Jay Hayes and Elijah Taylor, and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
The 2014 and 2015 classes were the first recruiting classes seeking fits for Brian VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme rather than Bob Diaco’s 3-4. That kind of transition between defensive coordinators can make recruiting a little more difficult.
The opposite happened when the Irish transitioned from Mike Elko to Clark Lea at defensive coordinator. Lea sticking with the same scheme as Elko has allowed Elston to keep working ahead.
Elston received his first verbal commitment in the 2021 class from four-star defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio during the Lineman’s Challenge camp in June.
“I’m not afraid to say that I’m doing a better job than I was back then of identifying guys earlier and knowing what we need,” Elston said. “The continuity of keeping the defense the same does help. You can work ahead easier for sure. I didn’t do as good of a job in evaluating and turning over every stone and making sure the guys were fits like I am right now.”
Of course, recruiting projections mean nothing if the players don’t produce at Notre Dame. Elston remains confident in his evaluations. He’s learned from recruiting misses and successes.
He knows the culture he’s building with the Irish and what he needs to find in recruits that will thrive at Notre Dame and embrace the athletic and academic challenges they will face.
Elston spends more time trying to identify recruits that will fit at Notre Dame than trying to sell recruits on Notre Dame who won’t end up fitting. He’s done trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, he said.
“We always recruited the physical traits. I wasn’t on the right guys,” Elston said. “There’s a lot of guys that could sack the quarterback that I wanted, that I tried to recruit that were never going to come here. Now it’s about making sure that I’m pouring my efforts into the right kind of guys. That’s where we’ve had the most success.”
Mike Elston remains as the only assistant on Brian Kelly’s first Irish coaching staff still at Notre Dame. The two have worked together for the past 15 seasons including previous stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
Yet while four of the other eight assistant coaches on Kelly’s 2010 ND staff have worked for at least two schools since then, Elston has stuck around South Bend. College football coaches usually don’t last that long in one place. Kelly has had 28 different assistant coaches at Notre Dame alone. Yet Elston couldn’t be happier with his current situation.
“There’s a couple reasons for that,” he said. “No. 1, I love and respect working for Brian Kelly. He’s been very loyal to me. He’s allowed me to grow in a lot of areas — a lot of titles that I’ve carried for him.
“Right now I’m having the most fun with coaching the defensive line and the associate head coaching opportunities. I’ve taken a lot on with that.
“No. 2, the university itself. It aligns with what I want my family to be a part of. The pillars of the university totally align with what my family and I are looking for, so my family is immersed in Notre Dame.
“My kids go to a private Catholic school. My daughter swims here on this campus. My other daughter fences here. It’s something that I want for my family to be a part of, and then I’m trying to develop continuity for my family.”
At this point, Elston said he’s willing to work for Notre Dame until they ask him to leave. As he sees it, there are two types of coaches — “Those that have been fired and those that are going to get fired.”
Elston interviewed for Notre Dame’s open defensive coordinator spot following the 2016 season, but Kelly chose to hire Mike Elko.
That’s when Elston was promoted to associate head coach. Elston essentially ran Notre Dame’s defense through the final eight games of the 2016 season, even though Greg Hudson was publicly appointed interim defensive coordinator, after Brian VanGorder was fired in late September.
Elston has now held the titles of associate head coach, defensive line coach, recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach at Notre Dame. Working under defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who replaced Elko following the 2017 season, has been a smooth transition.
“I love where we’re at right now, because Clark is very comfortable in his own skin and very comfortable with what we’re coaching and allows me to give great feedback and allows me to develop the defensive line in a way that I’m proud to do,” Elston said.
“He and I have a great working relationship and communication. He doesn’t try to suffocate what I’m trying to do.”
Lea leaned on Elston for advice when he first came to Notre Dame in 2017. He’s come to value Elston’s insight on the university and working with Kelly. But Lea also welcomes Elston’s feedback on defensive strategies. They work together to figure out how the defensive line can best operate within Lea’s gameplan.
“When you start having an assistant coach that functions within the package that way, it’s an incredibly liberating thing,” Lea said. “Because it’s not that he’s trying to change the defense, he’s trying to change techniques within the defense to make the defense more effective. That to me is what being a great assistant is all about.”
Nearly 10 years into his stint as an assistant coach at Notre Dame, Elston must be doing something right. As long as he’s positively impacting the lives of his players and family, Elston is content.
“For me to be able to stay here as long as I possibly can to grow my family the way that my wife and I want to is very critical to me,” Elston said. “It’s less about my next jump in this profession and more about me developing young people that I can put out into this world that I’m proud of.
“Notre Dame, this area and Brian Kelly and my continuity here allow me to do that. There have been tough decisions over the years to stay, but when I think about my family and what I can do for them by staying here, it makes it a lot easier. That’s why I’m still here.”
The ND Insider 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview
Our annual season preview magazine can now be purchased online and in stores locally. You can order copies here to be shipped to you. If you'd like to pick up a copy, you can find them at these local stores.
But what exactly will you be getting in this year’s magazine?
• Our cover story is on senior defensive end Julian Okwara. When he first came to Notre Dame, he wanted to make his own name and not live in the shadow of his older brother, Romeo. Now he has his sights on setting the Irish single-season sack record.
• Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool is on track for a big season in a new role. Learn how a meal with offensive coordinator Chip Long changed their relationship and set the table for more success.
• Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton arrives at Notre Dame as a five-star talent with a three-star mindset. That combination made him the perfect match for the Irish in the pursuit of top prospects.
• Encore seasons haven’t been great for starting quarterbacks at Notre Dame in recent years. Quarterback Ian Book and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees plan to break that trend even if they weren’t aware of it at first. Get an inside look at how the two are preparing Book for an even better senior season.
• In his first months at Notre Dame, Lance Taylor had to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail. The new Irish running backs coach appears to be the right fit on Notre Dame’s coaching staff and in its offensive scheme. Hear from Taylor for the first time since he was hired in February.
• Mike Elston has created a culture of caring with his defensive linemen. The decision to connect so deeply with his players has positively impacted the product on the playing field. That’s just part of the reason the Irish defensive line coach has stayed so long in South Bend.
• Notre Dame’s quarterback recruiting has shifted, with accuracy taking top priority. The attributes of Ian Book can been seen in the quarterbacks the Irish have taken commitments from in the past two recruiting cycles.
• Brian Kelly goes one-on-one with Eric Hansen on a variety of topics, including retirement and karaoke.
The rest of the magazine includes our annual staples: predictions from our staff, an analysis and player feature for each position group, profiles on the freshman class, a recruiting roundtable with national analysts, breakdowns of all 12 opponents and much more.
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The following story appears in the 2019 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. Copies of the magazine can be purchased here.