Winding path gives Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott perspective in his senior season

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Even Jalen Elliott’s father once wondered if his son could harness his athleticism on the football field.

Jalen, 10 at the time, was in his first year of organized football. His coaches lined him up at defensive tackle, but the early returns weren’t promising. Though he had the intangibles, Elliott looked uncoordinated. He had horrific technique, tripped over his own feet and unwittingly ripped off helmets.

“I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if this football thing is going to work out,’” said Anthony Elliott, Jalen’s father.

Jalen quieted those doubts once he could flash his hard-hitting nature in tackling situations. Similar questions lingered throughout the distinct ascension of Elliott’s football career, including in his time as a Notre Dame safety. It took until the 2018 season for the uncertainty surrounding Elliott to cease.

A younger Jalen Elliott, who played defensive tackle during youth football, poses for a picture.

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Elliott may be reminded of that when No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1) hosts No. 18 Virginia (4-0) this Saturday (3:30 EDT on NBC). The Cavaliers were one of several teams that thought of Elliott — a member of the 2016 recruiting class — as a wide receiver.

Anthony Elliott estimates that 30 percent of schools envisioned Jalen as a wide receiver. A couple programs targeted Elliott as a quarterback, the position he played for Chesterfield (Va.) L.C. Bird.

A few schools were uncertain about their role for Jalen. Yet they still offered him a scholarship with the intention of figuring out his position later.

“That was always funny,” Anthony Elliott said. “If you had asked me, I would have thought he was a wide receiver.”

Two moments altered Jalen’s trajectory during the recruiting stage. Elliott’s first time on defense — a first-round playoff game — came as a sophomore during his stint at Hanover High in Mechanicsville, Va. Elliott recorded his first interception that game, setting the slate for him to believe in a future at safety.

Having Notre Dame buy into the idea came later. Elliott convinced ND's coaching staff at the Irish Invasion recruiting camp in June of 2015.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting, and that’s over 25 years,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly told reporters four years ago. “His competitive spirit was unmatched.”

Mike Elko had also seen enough. The former Irish defensive coordinator told Anthony Elliott how he saw his son's career playing out. Jalen would initially fail, Elko thought.

Success would come starting in year three.

“I look back and find it funny,” said Anthony Elliott, “because that’s exactly how it’s played out to date.”

A team-leading four interceptions and 67 tackles last season helped launch Elliott into a team captain role for 2019. The NFL Draft buzz is becoming more palpable by the day for the senior. Elliott's upward climb seems far from over, at least for this season.

Irish defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph has been able to better utilize Elliott and fellow starting safety Alohi Gilman. Solid situational defense and improved depth have been a focal point for the position group.

ND’s dime package is its go-to defensive look against third down passing situations. The package comprises four defensive linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs. Through the first two games, the Irish recorded four pass breakups, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 25 dime snaps.

“The ability to give different looks, that’s huge for us,” said Elliott of the dime defense. “We are never stagnant. The quarterback may see a couple different things, and he throws it right to us because we shifted right back into where we were.”

Elliott did not allow a reception against Louisville or New Mexico — in dime or in base defense. The Lobos even targeted Jalen’s receiver on seven occasions. Six of those passes fell incomplete, while Jalen intercepted the other.

No. 3 Georgia took advantage of a hobbled Elliott, who suffered an apparent leg injury during the third quarter. Quarterback Jake Fromm finished 4-of-4 for 56 passing yards when targeting Elliott’s receiver. In nine snaps against the dime package, Fromm went 5-of-7 for 44 yards and a touchdown with four third-down conversions.

The absence of Elliott lasted a couple drives. His health going into this weekend is not in question. Losing Elliott — even briefly — would have meant trouble in 2018. With little depth at the position, Gilman and Elliott rarely took plays off.

The addition of five-star freshman Kyle Hamilton changed that dynamic. Every three or four drives, Hamilton replaces either Gilman or Elliott. When Elliott went down, Hamilton took his place and held his own.

Through the first three games of 2019, Elliott has played about 60 fewer snaps than he did at this stage last season. With 164 snaps so far — including only 47 against UNM and 44 versus Georgia — Elliott is on pace to play nearly 250 fewer snaps this regular season.

“They played too much,” said Joseph of Elliott and Gilman before the season. “I think when we looked back at the (2018) season, that was one thing I discussed with those guys. The next step for us is to get back by having them do less, play less.”

Recovery is now easier to attain for Elliott. The same goes with his confidence and leadership. By Monday afternoon, he joined the six other Irish captains for a players-only meeting. When speaking to reporters on the following day, Elliott seemed confident in ND’s chances going forward.

The winding path that brought Elliott to where he stands now helped provide him the perspective to remain positive. He's been through much worse things than losing 23-17 at Georgia.

Nothing may be more daunting than when he attempted to grasp football as an uncoordinated defensive tackle.

“We aren’t too worried about the future or past games,” Elliott said. “We have never been too tied into the rankings and all of the outsiders. It’s so important for us to stay locked into each other and make sure that everybody that’s within the program stays focused on the next week.

“Right now, that’s Virginia.”

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Notre Dame’s Jalen Elliott (21) celebrates after a tackle during the Notre Dame-New Mexico NCAA Football game Satrurday, September 14, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

WHO: No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1) vs. No. 18 Virginia (4-0)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium


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

LINE: Notre Dame by 12.5