Mike Elko is still settling in as the new defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, but it’s not too soon to start thinking about players who will benefit the most from Elko’s defense. Former defensive coordinator Brian Vangorder’s complex defense stopped working after about five games in 2014 leaving Notre Dame fans longing for a simple defense that produced results. Elko’s defenses at Wake Forest did just that.
Like Vangorder, Elko’s defense features a four man front, but where the two differ is in what Elko ran in 2016 at Wake Forest at the next level. Elko’s utilized a 4-2-5 in 2016 but also has used a 3-4 defense at times as well. In his 4-2-5 this year though, the 5th defensive back was called the ROVER. The position is more of a hybrid linebacker/safety position similar to Rick Minter’s APACHE position in 2005 and 2006. Hopefully Elko has better success with the position than Minter did.
That said, here’s a look at a few players who could benefit from Mike Elko’s defense more than others. Across the board, however, Notre Dame defenders should benefit from a simpler defense that has produced real results on the college level.
Drue Tranquill – The ROVER position in Mike Elko’s defense will greatly benefit a few Notre Dame players, but none more so than Drue Tranquill. Even when he was recruited there was a lot of talk of Tranquill being too much of a tweener. He wasn’t fast enough for safety and wasn’t big enough for linebacker. Enter the ROVER position in Elko’s 4-2-5. It would be a shock if Tranquill didn’t get a first look at the ROVER position for Notre Dame in the spring. It really is a position at which Tranquill could excel. The rising senior has already been named a team captain for 2017 and would provide some leadership on the field in the position.
When Bob Diaco installed his defense for Notre Dame in 2010, Harrison Smith made the reverse move from a hybrid linebacker to safety and excelled. Tranquill could have a similar transition this fall under Elko.
Asmar Bilal – Bilal is in a similar situation to Tranquill. After two seasons, he is still a bit of a tweener still in need of some size to play linebaker – especially in this defense – but not quite fast enough to be a defensive back. The only difference being Bilal has played at linebacker as opposed to safety. Bilal is extremely athletically gifted though and like Tranquill the ROVER position is one in which he could thrive.
Spencer Perry – Red rover, red rover, spend all your tweeners over. One more ROVER candidate. Ever since he was recruited, it was believed that Perry would likely out grow the safety position and into a SAM linebacker in the mold of James Onwualu. For that reason, the ROVER position might be the most suited for Perry long-term. The rising sophomore might not be quite ready to make an impact in 2017, but Elko’s defense could be a huge boost for Perry’s long-term collegiate career.
Devin Studstill – The safety position was a constant source of frustration for Notre Dame under Brian Vangorder. Did Notre Dame just lack talent or was the scheme too damn difficult? Probably a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. That said, the safeties should all benefit in Notre Dame’s new defense due to it’s simplicity in relation to Vangorder’s. Studstill was a quick study under Vangorder and got valuable experience in 2016. His baptism by fire this fall should pay off long-term as should a simplified defense in 2017.
Jalen Elliot – A beneficiary of all of the ROVER candidates could be rising sophomore Jalen Elliot. Should Perry and Tranquill settle in at ROVER, Notre Dame will be short on numbers at the safety position which could open the door for a starting role for Elliot in 2017. The same could also be said for DJ Morgan, but considering Elliot saw the field in 2017 while Morgan redshirted, Elliot will likely get the first look.
Josh Barajas – Maybe this one is a bit more of a hope, but Josh Barajas came to Notre Dame two years ago as a 4-star, All-American linebacker the Irish fought for tooth and nail with Ohio State. Two years later, we’ve barely seen the former prep star. Maybe a change in defense to a much more college friendly scheme will be just what Barajas needs to jump start his career. The talent is definitely there for Barajas, but so far he hasn’t been able to translate it into playing time. Hopefully Elko will be able to help facilitate that process.
Jonathon Jones – Notre Dame’s scout team player of the year in 2016 was one of my favorite recruits in the class of 2016. Jones could benefit from Elko’s defense as well. He figures to be Nyles Morgan’s understudy in 2016 at the MIKE position, but long term could thrive in Elko’s defense given Elko’s track record of working with undersized players such as the 5’11” Jones. Like Perry, we might not see a huge year from Jones in 2017, but over the course of their careers, Elko’s defense could maximize Jones’s career at Notre Dame.
Jonathan Bonner – For the last three years we’ve heard the name of Jonathan Bonner in spring and fall practice reports with frequency. For the last three years we haven’t heard Bonner’s name much during the season. Part of the reason has been a lack of a true position in Brian Vangorder’s defense – Bonner never seemed to quite fit a single position. Bonner’s spot in Elko’s defense is still not 100% clear either, but the hope here is that Elko helps find a permanent home for Bonner and he’s able to have his name called more on Saturdays than on Tuesdays.
These are just a few players to watch. The entire defensive line for instance should see a boost under Elko given the relative lack of production that Vangorder’s defense was able to generate over the last three seasons. Guys like Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, and Khalid Kareem should all see boosts in production but likely would have seen boosts no matter who Notre Dame hired.