Notre Dame defense getting a makeover from new coordinator

Credit: Becky Malewitz

Credit: Becky Malewitz

Coach Brian Kelly says visitors won't be able to decipher much about Notre Dame's defense this spring. With new coordinator Mike Elko aboard, that's kind of the point.

Elko, the 39-year-old hired from Wake Forest this offseason, has taken his Fighting Irish players into something of a time machine, harping on the basics early instead of scheme as the defense looks to rebound from a nightmarish 2016 that saw its previous coordinator lose his job in the season's first month.

"This guy just teaches the fundamentals," Kelly said of Elko. "And then when we come together, 11-on-11, 7-on-7, you want to see all those fundamentals come to fruition at the end of the day. So it's been about teaching the fundamentals. It's been about learning, right? We're not going to play a game on Saturday, so a lot of teaching."

That was made clear from Day 1 this spring.

Sophomore cornerback Julian Love described a simplified philosophy that will translate to the bigger picture once everything is fully installed — a notion that only make sense for a group of players that is taking orders from its third different voice in the past seven months.

"It is very refreshing," Love said. "Before the first practice, all (Elko) said to us was: 'Scheme is one thing, that'll take a little bit and that'll take some chemistry to get, but what you can control and what can make us great right now is effort and fundamentals.'

"So he really preaches on that: Swarming to the ball, breaking down, tagging off in the right way. That's something that, if we could perfect now, then when we start getting into the game-planning for each team and those games, that's going to be pretty special."

Kelly fired third-year coordinator Brian VanGorder after a 1-3 start last season, with the Irish's 149 points allowed at the time marking the most the program had ever given up through its first four games. Notre Dame ranked 100th or worse in the major categories of total defense (103rd), scoring defense (101st) and yards per play (104th), before Greg Hudson took over on an interim basis and improved those rankings to 42nd, 61st and 45th, respectively. Hudson is no longer with the program.

Elko established himself the past eight seasons at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Elko's last two units with the Falcons ranked in the top-10 nationally in both scoring defense and total defense, and none of his three Demon Deacons defenses ranked lower than 41st.

The high point came in 2016 when Wake Forest finished 23rd in scoring defense (22.2 points per game) and made its first bowl in five years. The Demon Deacons' 27 forced turnovers were tied for 10th nationally, and that's one area the new Irish assistant is looking for immediate progress. Notre Dame forced just 14 turnovers in 2016, tied for 104th nationally.

"The biggest thing we want to achieve is we want them to understand how we want to 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. We want to be able to disrupt the football and create turnovers. Those things are as important as anything we're doing right now, and (we're) making sure we don't lose sight of that stuff."

Kelly predicted more forced turnovers because it's emphasized every day at practice.

Elko is essentially installing a 4-2-5 defense that will utilize a "rover" — a linebacker-safety hybrid position that can provide more help closer to the line of scrimmage. For better or worse, Notre Dame returns seven starters from last year's unit. Elko had asked Kelly before taking the job if there was enough left on the roster to succeed. Kelly said there was, and Elko agreed with that so far, though he is quick to remind all just how much work needs to be done.

With less than five months before the 2017 season, there is a lot of learning left to do. The returning players are in "prove it" mode until then.

"It's an open competition," senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. "We're going to go out there and everyone wants to prove themselves. There's new energy, and so we want to go out there and we're not going to make every right play, but when you make those mistakes, just make them 100 percent."