Former Notre Dame safeties Elliott, Gilman vying for versatility title at NFL Combine

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — They started the last 26 football games next to each other at the back end of Notre Dame’s defense.

Safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman were practically inseparable. They rarely left the field as juniors in 2018. Only five-star freshman Kyle Hamilton’s undeniable talent allowed the senior captains to find some respite in a limited rotation during the 2019 season.

Now Elliott and Gilman are tagging along with each other through the pre-draft process. They were roommates during January’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. This week, they’re roommates again at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

They’re trying to find a way to stand out on their own even if their pitches to NFL decision-makers sound the same.

“I just want to show these guys I’m the most versatile safety in this draft class,” Gilman said on Friday. “I’ve told a bunch of teams that. I’ve told a bunch of coaches that. I’m confident in that.”

Less than an hour after Gilman met the media, Elliott was asked what he wanted people to know about his game.

“Just continue to talk about my versatility,” Elliott said. “It’s not just one spot where I’m going to go in and that’s the only spot I can play. Any (defensive back) spot on the field, I feel like I can go in and make an impact.

“I just want people to continue to talk about that relentlessness when it comes to being versatile on the field and that I’m going to come out and make plays for a team.”

Elliott wasn’t surprised when told Gilman also highlighted his versatility. But it didn’t sound like an argument that they’d carry back to their hotel room.

“As he should,” Elliott said. “You should always come to be humbly confident in your abilities. I feel like I am the most versatile safety in this draft class, but I can only speak for me.”

Both Gilman and Elliott trumpeted their leadership abilities, too.

“Coming from two great schools (Notre Dame and Navy), it kind of bred me into the leader I am today and helped me become the best leader I can be,” Gilman said. “Especially at Notre Dame, being a captain my last year and learning how to work with people more on a personal level, it means a lot just because you impact so many people on and off the field.

“That’s something you need on a team. That’s something you need to rally guys behind you. At the next level, I’ll be able to do the same thing.”

Said Elliott: “I’m going to lead in any situation. Any time I come into a new situation, I’m going to be that outgoing person that’s going to reach out to somebody. I take pride in knowing my guys, knowing how to lead my guys.”

Even if the talking points are the same, Sunday’s workouts in Lucas Oil Stadium will offer Gilman and Elliott opportunities to draw distinctions between their games. They played in sync for the No. 5 pass efficiency defense in the FBS in 2019, but Gilman and Elliott played different roles. They’ll likely find different niches in the NFL too.

The 6-foot, 205-pound Elliott started fielding questions about playing cornerback in certain situations after dabbling as nickelback option at Notre Dame and after an impressive week of practice at the Senior Bowl. Elliott believes his range from the middle of the field and ability to cover will allow him to adapt to whatever he’s asked to do in the NFL.

“I hope that it just continues to show that I am that versatile DB that I keep talking about,” Elliott said. “If a team needs me at corner, I’ll come in and do the best of my abilities to be that corner.”

That would be a sight to see for former Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr., who will also participate in the combine workouts Sunday. Pride said he’d definitely have to tune in to watch a game with Elliott playing cornerback.

“Jalen was a captain of our defense, so he knows just about every position,” Pride said. “So I would not be surprised if the dude can line up and play corner as well. Very smart guy. An amazing competitor as well.”

The 5-10, 210-pound Gilman is more likely to draw comparisons to a linebacker than a cornerback, even though he can match up with tight ends and isn’t necessarily a liability in coverage either. Gilman cited Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu as a player he tries to emulate.

“I can play in the box. I can play deep safety. I can play in the slot as well,” Gilman said. “Run packages, blitz packages. Being able to show these guys that I’m a guy that can change a secondary back there. I have rare instincts and a physicality that a lot of guys may or may not have. I bring that to the table every day.”

Gilman could have returned to Notre Dame for another season, but the allure of the NFL was too much. When Gilman transferred out of Navy following his freshman season, the motivation came from a blocked path to the NFL. He put himself in a position to make the jump to professional football this offseason and made what he called a tough decision to leave the Irish.

“The ultimate decision for me — you can break all those things down — it really just came down to what my heart was saying,” Gilman said. “What your heart says never goes wrong. That was something I felt. I felt right. It felt good in my heart and where I was at in my life.”

It’s fitting that both Gilman and Elliott departed Notre Dame at the same time — though Elliott didn’t have a choice with expired eligibility. In the last two seasons together, Gilman tallied 169 tackles, six tackles for a loss, six forced fumbles, seven pass breakups and three interceptions. Elliott recorded 116 tackles, nine pass breakups, six interceptions, one forced fumble and one tackle for a loss.

Gilman insists they’re not sick of each other yet.

“He’s a guy that helped me get to Notre Dame,” Gilman said of Elliott. “We’ve grown a great relationship over the years, and the chemistry that we have together is amazing. I always want the best for him and can’t wait to see him do his thing.”

Seeing each other throughout the week is a reminder of how far they’ve come.

“It’s a sense of comfort,” Elliott said. “You can relax a little bit, but we know we’re still here to really lock in and be the best we can be.”

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Safeties Alohi Gilman (left) and Jalen Elliott are trying to stand out on their own at the NFL Combine after playing together for 26 consecutive games.