Fiesta Bowl notebook: Elston's play-calling duties on defense is not his first time

Tyler James
ND Insider
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and defensive line coach Mike Elston during the Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. —  The last time Mike Elston was calling plays for Notre Dame’s defense, he wasn’t exactly doing so from a position of strength. 

Even though Greg Hudson was given the title of interim defensive coordinator four games into the 2016 season after Brian VanGorder was fired, behind the scenes Elston was given play-calling duties for the remainder of the season. 

More:Former Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly isn't unpopular to Tommy Rees

The job should be a bit easier for Elston during Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl (1 p.m. EST on ESPN) when No. 5 Notre Dame (11-1) takes on No. 9 Oklahoma State (11-2). Elston will take over the play-calling lead from Marcus Freeman in his transition from defensive coordinator to head coach. 

Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston before a practice in 2015. (Tribune Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)

Both Freeman and Elston have described Freeman’s previous play-calling responsibilities as a collaborative effort among Notre Dame’s staff that ended with him making final decisions on game day. Elston will do the same thing with input from Freeman, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and safeties coach Chris O’Leary. 

“It’s great,” Elston said. “I love that opportunity. It’s been fun. I did it back in 2016 for eight games. It’s fun to get back into that.  

“It’s collective. Everybody’s going to have an input. It’s certainly not anything I can do on my own, and we have a very talented defensive staff as you’ve probably seen throughout this year.” 

Freeman hasn’t been in as many of the defensive staff meetings since taking over as head coach, but Elston wouldn’t install any dramatic scheme changes without consulting Freeman. 

“It’s much of the same, but minus Coach Freeman at times. Obviously, he has other duties, but we haven’t changed what we do,” Elston said. “We game plan certain things at a certain time and we’re pretty consistent to what we’ve done all season. We just run things by him.” 

Continuity has been a major theme of Notre Dame’s transition from head coach Brian Kelly to Freeman, but giving up the play-calling duties was one change Freeman felt he couldn’t avoid. 

“I would be doing a disservice to our defense if I said, ‘Nope, we are doing exactly what I say. I'm the one that's going to call it. I'm the one that's going to do it.’ Because I haven't had as much time to prepare for Oklahoma State's offense as those guys.  

“This gives our group a better opportunity to have success. That's why I made this decision and said, these guys have spent more time preparing for Oklahoma State than I have in terms of just our defense versus their offense.  Let's let those guys, those individuals, and specifically Mike Elston, have the opportunity to call it.” 

Elston, who has never been hired as the only full-time defensive coordinator for a staff in his 23 seasons as a college coach, has been calling plays in practice in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s game. 

“When coach Elston took over, there wasn’t any fall off, because he understood that the guys in here just want to play,” said senior defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. “Put the ball down anywhere and put us in the perfect position to make the best play. That’s pretty much what it’s always been. Coach Elston has done a great job of putting us in great positions to be successful.” 

Tagovailoa-Amosa and nose guard Kurt Hinish might be a bit biased having played for Elston as their position coach throughout their careers. But they’re confident Elston can lead the defense to success against the Cowboys. 

“It’s been cool to see him step into that role and take on that responsibility as a play caller,” Hinish said. “I have full confidence in him to do that and so does everybody else on the team. I’m excited to see how he does. I know he’s going to do great.” 

Cam Hart limited in practice

Starting cornerback Cam Hart was limited in Notre Dame's practice Wednesday. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior was walking gingerly with a heavily taped upper right leg when reporters were allowed to observe the first portion of practice.

His availability for Saturday's game remained unclear but appeared doubtful based on the way he was moving. Freeman will be asked to provide an update on Hart at Friday's press conference.

Hart started nine games and played in all 12 during the regular season. He led the Irish with seven pass breakups, intercepted two passes against Wisconsin and totaled 41 tackles and four tackles for a loss.

In Hart's absence, senior TaRiq Bracy would likely be asked to join sophomore Clarence Lewis in the starting lineup. Freshmen Philip Riley and Ryan Barnes lined up as Notre Dame's backup cornerbacks during Wednesday's practice.

How Marcus Freeman has changed 

Kurt Hinish was more than prepared to empty his mental notebook when asked Wednesday how former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has changed in his transition to head coach. 

The fifth-year nose guard and captain has been giving Freeman a hard time for the subtle differences he’s noticed over the past few weeks. 

More:A chronological look at Marcus Freeman's journey to head football coach at Notre Dame

“He’s changed, and I tell him he’s changed all the time,” Hinish joked. “I keep him held accountable and I let him know how he’s changed.  

“For example, the defense rides on Bus 2, and the defensive coordinator rides on Bus 2. The first day we got down here, he was not on Bus 2. I FaceTimed him while he was on Bus 1 and let him know that he’s changed.  

“During the bowl prep, there were some questionable calls with the ball being spotted past the first-down marker when we were going one-versus-ones, offense-versus-defense. I told him he’s changed there.  

“Then there’s multiple instances of me getting to the quarterback and him not blowing the play dead. The old coach Freeman would have blown the play dead. He’s changed. I tell him that all the time.  

“Get on him about that. I’m kidding. He’s great. He’s doing a great job. I’m just busting his chops.” 

When asked the same question, fifth-year linebacker and fellow captain Drew White led with the bus assignment too. 

“That’s been the hot topic as of recently,” White said. “He’s moved on, but he sent his kids back to Bus 2. I don’t know what that means.” 

“He’s changed in ways. He’s definitely busier. You can tell he has a totally different operation from that standpoint. Maybe less personal time with the linebackers. So, selfishly we want him and his influence as much as we did before, but we also know the influence he can bring to the team as a whole.  

“He’s spent more time with offensive players and the rest of the defensive unit as well. As a linebacker standpoint, a little bit less time in the meeting rooms and stuff like that. He still comes around. He always says he’s a linebackers coach, so he makes that known.” 

Nick Lezynski’s impact 

In Freeman’s absence, senior defensive analyst Nick Lezynski has taken over the lead of Notre Dame’s linebacker group. The former Irish walk-on who has been on staff since 2018 has also taken the role of special teams coordinator departed by Brian Polian (LSU) for the Fiesta Bowl. 

After his playing career at Notre Dame (2007-11), Lezynski started his coaching career at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and spent time at UConn and Lafayette College before returning to Notre Dame. Defensive players have cited Lezynski’s impact in recent seasons. Now he’s getting to step into a more prominent role this month. 

“Coach Lezysnki has been a shadows guy that we’ve talked about the last couple of years in this program,” White said. “He’s had a major influence and spent countless hours – one-on-one meetings, group meetings, hotel meetings – constantly as the hardest worker in The Gug. He’s done it for years and now he gets an expanded role in this bowl prep to meet with the linebackers and coach us up.  

“He’s really running the meetings. It’s been great. He’s doing special teams as well. I’m excited for him. I’m excited for the opportunity. I can’t wait to see what comes.” 

No decision from Isaiah Foskey 

After recording 10 sacks in the regular season, junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey has put himself in a position to consider leaving Notre Dame early for the 2022 NFL Draft. 

Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey (7) celebrates during the Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

He didn’t provide any hints Wednesday on what his decision will be after the Fiesta Bowl. 

“My decision time, I’m not really focusing on that since we’re getting closer and closer to the bowl game,” Foskey said. “But it’s definitely going to be before Jan. 17, that’s the deadline. It will be well before that.” 

Instead, Foskey has spent a lot of time focusing on Oklahoma State’s offensive tackles to help him on Saturday. It’s a lot easier to pick up on the nuances of an opponent with a few weeks to prepare rather than a typical game week during the season. 

“We’ve been watching film over and over,” Foskey said. “Just watching Oklahoma State, their offensive line, quarterback and running back trying to perfect everything that we’re doing against them. We have a better read on what Oklahoma State’s doing.”