Notre Dame wrapped up its final spring practice Friday morning, leaving just Saturday’s Blue-Gold game left before a long offseason.
New defensive coordinator Mike Elko, tasked with improving a unit that regressed in recent seasons, is taking a step-by-step approach to building a defense that can complement what is expected to be a high-powered offense.
“It’s developmental football,” Elko said of the progression this spring. “(That’s) the common theme when we get together and talk, it’s not, ‘Here’s where we were, hire Mike Elko, and now we’re here.’ It doesn’t work like that.
“If this is where we were in terms of rushing the quarterback and run defense, we’ve got to steadily climb. That’s just development. There’s not a switch that you flip that gets you to the top of the elevator. You have to climb the stairs.”
Improvement is being made, yes. That much is clear to the 35-year-old Elko, who said he just has to flip on the video from practice to see how far the Irish have come this spring in terms of effort level.
Elko hopes the fans inside Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday see a defense that is flying around, disrupting the football and executes at a high level. Individual performances will be highlighted by fans, but Elko insists on speaking broadly about his defensive scheme and the strides the players are making.
Very rarely will Elko, who coached the past three seasons at Wake Forest, mention players by name. He chooses to talk in general terms.
“Everything’s a ways to go,” he said. “You build a house and the house is going to get done Sept. 2. You can’t move in before then, it’s just not ready.”
Elko wants the spring game — which will pit the first-team offense (Blue) against the first-team defense (White) — to just be a continuation of what the team has been working on this spring.
“To go out there and continue to run the defense and continue to work on the fundamentals and continue to disrupt the football and play hard,” Elko said. “We’re trying to start the concept of understanding that game day is not different. If we’re doing the things we’re supposed to do in practice, game day’s not going to be different.”
Hired by head coach Brian Kelly, Elko is expected to run his 4-2-5 defense from the press box. He said at this point about 50 percent of his defense is installed, though that is based just on what the Irish see against their own offense.
As Notre Dame game plans for specific opponents more scheme will be added, and that’s where Elko said a lot of the learning curve is still to come.
“As they get comfortable in it they play faster,” Elko said. “That speed at which they play allows them to be disruptive and productive. That’s where in the beginning it was hard to even judge, because they’re still trying to figure out where to go, what to do and how to do it.
“As spring has gone on and they’ve gotten more comfortable with those questions, it’s been easier for them to play faster.”
The team’s new Rover position — a hybrid linebacker/safety — has been a big focus this spring. Elko said Friday that senior Drue Tranquill, junior Asmar Bilal and senior walk-on Robby Regan are all getting time at the position.
“As spring as gone on we’ve gotten a feel for what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them,” Elko said of the Rovers. “We’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out and who will be there doing what.”
Even junior cornerback Shaun Crawford, who is still recovering from a torn Achilles, could factor in at Rover. Crawford has participated in spring practice on a limited basis, but Elko sees the 5-9, 175-pounder as a candidate against certain teams.
Even juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White could see work at Rover, Elko said.
“A lot of that is dictated on who that guy is lined up on and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see some really talented slot receivers. If we’re trying to match up and cover them well, there’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position.”
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