How Jalen Elliott's perseverance went well beyond keeping his own Notre Dame dream alive

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Jalen Elliott walked into the Guglielmino Athletic Complex a couple of days before sitting through his first college class with a dream and a blueprint on how to make it come alive.

The now Notre Dame senior safety actually got a head start a couple of months earlier, soaking in a handful of spring practices in person in 2016, and showing off in the Irish safeties meeting room just how much of the Irish playbook he’d absorbed while still completing his high school spring semester at L.C. Bird High near Richmond, Va.

When it all started to go to pieces for the first of a handful of times in his Irish career, months later, Elliott refused to let go of the dream, refused to give up on himself, refused to remove what would turn out to be a key domino in a Brian Kelly/ND football renaissance.

In a twisted game of what-if, by Elliott channeling the pain into progress — instead of a list of potential transfer destinations — he touched more than just his own future, which suddenly has both a powerful legacy and an NFL reality within view.

Of course, Elliott doesn’t play the what-if game — even if this version is devoid of regret — because that’s never been who he is.

His focus is on the next step of his evolution. In fact, he barely paused Saturday to reflect on the goosebump aspect of being named that morning one of ND’s seven captains for 2019.

Instead, he pushes the practicality of the honor.

“I remind myself, the work is just beginning,” he said, with ND’s Sept. 2 opener at Louisville roughly 2 ½ weeks away. “I have to continue to push and I have to continue to lead, because that’s what my teammates and my coaches are expecting of me.”

For those on the outside looking in, Jalen Elliott is a reminder of why writing off a struggling, young player with an oversized heart can sometimes make you look silly.

Even though Elliott spent most of 2017, his first as a starter, constantly showing up in opposing teams’ highlight footage.

The turning point — well, one of several — came the following spring when Elliott started to grasp the big-picture points in coordinator Clark Lea’s defensive scheme.

“That kind of really helped me to turn my game, when I could start to explain the defense to other people,” he said. “There was less thinking and more just reacting to the play.”

Yet, months later, as recently as the middle of last August, the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder was losing traction on the depth chart and appeared set to open the 2018 season as a backup.

A season in which he ended up leading the Irish in interceptions (4), finishing fourth in tackles (67) and amassing seven pass breakups and a forced fumble.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is that the depth chart in training camp is fluid,” Elliott said. “If you string along two or three bad days, you deserve to get moved down.

“I wasn’t owning my end of the bargain. I wasn’t playing well enough. So when I got in that second group, I had to refocus. I had to think about what was important and get back to the basics.

“Once I did that, once I allowed myself to stop thinking so much, I stopped trying to think about making the big play and (instead) just did my job. That’s when everything started to come back to me.”

Without Elliott’s mindset, without that resilience, maybe Alohi Gilman picks a different transfer destination than ND after leaving Navy following his freshman season.

Elliott credits himself and last year’s All-America cornerback, Julian Love, as two big pulls for Gilman to choose the Irish after ND’s tumultuous 4-8 season in 2016 that included a loss to freshman Gilman and the Midshipmen.

Together Elliott and Gilman have since become so synchronistic, so interwoven into each other’s success and so close off the field that Gilman — also named captain Saturday — revealed that one wouldn’t have accepted the captainship without the other being one too.

“We both are leaders in different ways,” Gilman said. “He’s a loud guy. He pops off. People hear him a lot. I’m kind of the quiet guy, lead-by-example, passionate guy, fiery when I step on the field. But it’s a good combination.”

Actually, it’s one of the best turnaround stories in college football in recent years.

In 2016, when Brian VanGorder was purged as the defensive coordinator four games into his third season under Kelly, the facet of the Irish defense that scared successor Mike Elko the most when he was hired in December of ’16 was the safety position group.

With Gilman having to sit out the 2017 season because of NCAA transfer rules, Elko’s lone season as ND’s defensive coordinator was still scary, despite a seismic philosophical shift. But there was enough talent around the position group to help camouflage a lot of the shortcomings that season.

Still, 2017 was the first year since the inception of two-platoon football, in 1964, that the safety position group at ND collectively, starters and reserves, didn’t record a single interception.

“My brothers,” Elliott said, referring to his teammates, on what got him through the dark times. “I’m just so thankful for them and the friendships I’ve built over the years and how they’ve allowed me to push and be the player and person that I am now. “

Another benevolent bounce was the person who was assigned as Elliott’s football roommate during his freshman season. At the time, he was a struggling safety coming off two major knee surgeries in two years and who was being moved to a new position in Elko’s scheme — rover.

And Drue Tranquill never gave up on himself, either.

“So I started off with a great role model,” Elliott said. “Somebody that always showed me the right way. Somebody that always showed me how to be the best that I could be and was always there for me.”

And who kept Elliott’s eyes on the dream, which kept him from toxic thoughts.

Today that strength not only touches the young safeties on the current Irish roster and players at other positions, it impacted a running back in the Richmond area, who, to this day, considers Elliott a big brother.

And in the 2020 recruiting cycle, Chris Tyree, was the running back prospect at the top of the Irish recruiting board and a player with the kind of elite speed the Irish coaches felt they needed to attract to close the gap on Alabama/Clemson.

On May 23, Tyree verbally committed, and he offered his relationship with Elliott as an important building block in his eventual decision.

“In Richmond, if you can play, you’re going to the same guy to get your footwork,” Elliott said of how the two first met. “You’re going to the same field to compete against the best of the best. So he would come out. He was younger, but we could tell he could play.

“You always help the next person, like people helped me. When I heard he was being recruited, it was big for me that every avenue, every coach and every person I knew here, he knew as well.”

And now it’s Tyree who is starting to dream big — and put together a blueprint to make it come alive.

Jalen Elliott (21) rose from early struggles at Notre Dame to become a 2019 team captain.