Photo By Joe Raymond
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If you want to hear first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko make declarative statements or provide in-depth analysis about the Fighting Irish personnel he inherited, this is not the spring to do it.
Meeting with the media on Friday morning, following the fourth practice this spring, Elko made it clear he was not going to speak about players in individual terms. It’s akin to last spring when head coach Brian Kelly was not going to declare a starter at quarterback until right before the season (and held off even then), no matter how much enquiring minds wanted to know.
With both Elko and new offensive coordinator Chip Long, this spring is as much learning for them as it is the players. On defense, the troops are trying to absorb their third different coordinator voice in the last nine months while installing a system. Just memorizing all the names/numbers has been its own undertaking to Elko.
“When you’re installing something new and kids are trying to figure out how to do it, there’s always going to be some slowness to it,” Elko said. “We’re trying to balance the world of making sure they get everything they need to know so that we can get ready for the fall without doing so much that we don’t get a chance to evaluate who they are and what they’re capable of.”
Like a couple that just started dating and perhaps developing a special chemistry, there is a combination of joy with the new prospects and the uncertainty that can come in any new relationship.
“Right now is an exciting time,” Elko said. “Learning what they can do, what their strengths are, learning what they can’t do. Trying to develop this thing in a manner that we can get them positioned to be successful.”
On several occasions Elko was asked if the defense is where he wants it to be. Each time the reply was an affirmative no.
“We’re not seeing anything to the level we want to,” Elko said. “If I was sitting here and telling you four practices in, ‘This thing is right where I want it,’ then you guys should walk out and think you hired the wrong guy.
“Do I see signs of it? Yes. Do I see a want-to? Yes. Are we pushing to get there? Yes. Are we there? No.”
Don’t expect it to all come together in one spring, either.
“If we’re going to be a good defense, it’s going to take a lot of work,” Elko said. “You don’t become a good defense in one practice, in three practices, a bunch of winter meetings. It’s not going to be a ‘short-term-become-a-good defense.’ It’s going to take time. We didn’t just become a good defense because I got here. We have to become one.
“I watch, I evaluate, I try to not yell and scream too much. I do it at times, but we’re just trying to get better every day. ... It would be unfair to assume that we would be up and running and fully executing right now.”
Here are three vital topics that could be taken from the interview:
1. Avoid Paralysis By Analysis
Like the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, the motto is to do your one job well. Don’t get into hamburgers, roast beef sandwiches, fish and chips … just know who you are and how you fit.
Thus, there is not going to be much cross-training under Elko.
“Just in general in college football, it’s difficult to cross-train kids,” Elko said. “We try to avoid that as much as we possibly can. Now, if you get into a necessity where you have to, then you have to.
“With our time limits [in college] and the time we get with kids, it takes every minute we have to teach them one position. To try to get them to understand two is obviously a challenge.”
Where Elko believes the staff might be a little ahead of the curve is a lot of evaluation was done in the past couple of months watching practice film, camp film and game film from last year. The objective was to match the personnel with the right spots in the new defensive system.
“It’s not perfect and we’re still pushing through that,” Elko said. “It’s easier as a kid to just settle into this is my spot, this is my groove, the angles, the leverage. … The body is always moving the same way and it just trains them to be good at it.”
There have been some tweaks but Elko doesn’t envision huge shifts in the personnel the rest of this spring. At the hybrid Rover position, it’s more about narrowing down what someone like junior linebacker Asmar Bilal or senior safety captain Drue Tranquill can excel at best versus a specific alignment.
“You just constantly evaluating," Elko said. "We never want to get in a groove where we can’t fix something that we don’t see is right. Sometimes coaches get in this groove where, ‘This kid is in this position’ — and then when you watch him, he’s not good enough to do that or he’s not capable or he’s not the right fit, and you [still] stay with it. We’re just trying to not stay with those things.”
2. KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid
This is self-explanatory and the natural progression in any coaching change.
Former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco (2010-13) was often considered too vanilla — despite winning the 2012 Frank Broyles Award as Assistant Coach of The Year — so naturally successor Brian VanGorder (2014-16), also a former Broyles winner at the turn of the century, had to be more exotic and complex.
The latter’s system collapsed, which led to his ouster last September. Thus, naturally, the theme is the familiar “back to basics” mantra.
“The biggest thing we want to achieve is we want them to understand how we play defense,” Elko said. “It’s not scheme. We want to be able to run to the ball hard, we want to be able to come off blocks, we want to be able to tackle, be able to disrupt the football, create turnovers… those things are as important as anything we’re doing right now and making sure we don’t lose sight of that stuff.”
That involves engaging in possibly more physical contact than recently, with even Kelly admitting earlier this week that practices might have been too “soft” last year.
“Part is physicality and part is understanding how to move our body,” said Elko of working on tackling. “We’ve got to learn how to move our body in space. That’s something you train. I don’t think that’s something you talk about, right? There’s this concept of trained muscle memory that the more you do it, the better you are at it. If you don’t do it, you’re not going to be any good at it.”
3. Beyond The Star System
At Wake Forest, Elko constructed a top 20 defense the past few years while working with mostly two- and three-star players. Although the Irish defense is replete with four-star talent that thrills Elko, he remains grounded in his approach.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” Elko said. “One is understanding that stars are not always accurate, right? There are two stars and three stars that are better than four stars and five stars.
“There is also the understanding that when this thing gets up and running, we believe [this defense] can be the best in the country. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I left Wake Forest to come here — we believe we can make this really special.
“It’s not going to happen just because I came here, though. It’s going to take work.”
The area considered maybe the most vulnerable is the defensive line. Not only did the 2016 Irish line finish last nationally in sacks among Power 5 Conference teams (3) and yield more than 170 yards rushing per game a school record third consecutive year, but their two NFL prospects, Issac Rochell and Jarron Jones, have graduated, and there might be some outside skepticism that there won’t be an upgrade.
“We have enough people in this room to be good,” said Elko when asked about the defensive line. “There’s enough to work with, there’s enough to go out there and be successful next fall. That’s our charge.”
What “successful” will be defined as is still to be determined.
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