Mike Elko Hire Could Save Brian Kelly at Notre Dame

Mike Elko - Notre Dame Defensive Coordinator
Photo courtesy of wakeforestsports.com

Brian Kelly’s back is against the wall heading into 2017.  On the heels of a 4-8 season and in need of replacing the worst hire of his Notre Dame tenure this off-season, Kelly can’t afford another clunker of a season or bust at defensive coordinator.  The hiring of Mike Elko, however, could very well ensure neither of those happen next year and could ultimately save Kelly at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame officially introduced Mike Elko as their new defensive coordinator on Monday days after the news was first reported that Elko was coming to South Bend for more than just a visit.  Brian Kelly officially couldn’t have done much better in his search for his new defensive coordinator.

Brian Kelly Changing Course

In many ways, this hire by Kelly is the polar opposite of the hire he made three years when he tapped Brian Vangorder to replace Bob Diaco.  Other than both being defensive coordinators, the two don’t have a whole lot in common from a coaching and experience perspective.

  • Vangorder had coached for Kelly many years prior to joining the Notre Dame Staff.  Elko has never coached with Kelly.
  • Vangorder brought in a “NFL defense” featuring primarily a four man front.  Elko brings in a multiple front defense that featured more of a 4-2-5 look this year but a 3-4 in 2015.
  • Vangorder’s defense was described as complex with multiple sub packages.  Elko’s defense is described as sophisticated yet simple.
  • Vangorder had spent numerous years in the NFL prior to coming to Notre Dame.  Elko is a career collegiate coach.

When Brian Vangorder was hired, we heard a lot about the attacking style defense that he was bringing with him and how his time in the NFL will give Notre Dame an advantage with a pro-style system.  We didn’t hear much about Vangorder being able to get a lot out of a little.  Vangorder had success at Georgia with a talent rich roster and was uneven at Auburn with another roster stocked with talent.

That’s not the case with Mike Elko.

At Wake Forest, Elko’s defense was facing a stacked deck.  The depth chart at Wake is full of two and three star recruits with the occasional four star here and there. We even found out that opposing teams have been leaked game plans from a disgruntled radio analyst for the last three years.  Elko’s defense had to take those cards and find a way to stop some of the nation’s best offenses in the ACC.

Elko’s Defenses Among Elite Company

This past season Elko’s defense was one of just four in the entire country to rank in the top 20 in sacks, turnovers forced, and scoring defense.  The other three?  Alabama, Washington, and Clemson.  Hmmmm, those three schools all have something in common don’t they?

Obviously points allowed is pretty important success metric for a defense, but sacks and turnovers forced were the two most glaring weaknesses of the Notre Dame defense in 2016.  It took Notre Dame until the fifth game of the season to record their first sack.  On the year Notre Dame picked up just 14 total sacks – good enough to rank 118th in the entire country.   Only six teams in the entire country had fewer sacks than the Irish.

Elko inherits a defensive depth chart that at least on paper is head and shoulders above what he had to work with at Wake Forest.  Even with losing Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell, and James Onwualu to graduation and the NFL, Elko could very easily fill in his entire opening day starting line entirely with 4-star recruits.

Such fire power combined with Elko’s system and coaching should have Notre Dame fans excited.  Very excited.  Wake Forest produced some pretty good football players over the last few seasons, but they don’t compete with Notre Dame on the recruiting trail very often.  One of the most frustrating aspects of the failed Brian Vangorder experience was his inability to get much out of some supremely talented players.

Talent is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Notre Dame had some bonafide stars – and in some cases superstars – for Vangorder to work with.  Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Keivarae Russell, Nyles Morgan, Romeo Okwara, Cole Luke, Jones, and Rochell were all highly touted prospects who never seemed to improve much or never reached their ceilings during their times at Notre Dame.  Morgan for instance toiled on the bench for his first two years and finally started to thrive this year after Vangorder’s departure.

Instead of maxing out what the Irish got out out of these players, however, we’ve seen some of them improve after leaving.  Take Okwara for example.  He had some strong moments at Notre Dame, but it always seemed like he was on the verge of erupting without ever doing so.  In April he went undrafted in the NFL Draft but made the New York Giants roster out of camp and just picked the first sack of his career two weeks ago in his first career start.  Not bad for an undrafted rookie.

Mike Elko’s background and pedigree suggest that those cases will be the exception not the rule under his guidance at Notre Dame.  In fact there are a lot of players on the Notre Dame roster who should be down right giddy with the addition of Elko.  Morgan, Tevon Coney, Asmar Bilal, Drue Tranquill, and Jay Hayes are just a few upperclassmen who could thrive under Elko after not maxing out under Vangorder.

Learning from Charlie Weis’s Mistakes

Charlie Weis was in a similar situation to Brian Kelly in 2008.  Weis was coming off a disappointing 2008 season and his job was on the line.  In that case Weis handed over the keys to his defense to Jon Tenuta and essentially demoted then defensive coordinator Corwin Brown.  Weis went with the flashy, blitz happy Tenuta with his job on the line and the fans loved it because everyone envisioned a high flying defense.  Yeah, that didn’t happen.

This hire is not that.  While Elko’s defense generates turnovers and sacks, it doesn’t do it through crazy, exotic blitzes that never get home like we all came to know under Tenuta.

Weis went with a big name retread to run his defense for 2009.  Kelly went with an up and coming coach who has been described as one of the brightest defensive minds in all of college football.  Weis’s route resulted in a pink slip – and a monumental buyout – and opened the door for Brian Kelly to come to Notre Dame.  Kelly is hoping that his route keeps the door to his tenure open at Notre Dame.

What Kelly needs to still sort out however is how Elko interacts with the likes of Mike Elston and Greg Hudson (assuming both return).  Both reportedly interviewed for the position and some players openly campaigned for Elston.  That could be a rather interesting dynamic.  You know, kind of like the one Weis created by giving Tenuta the keys but telling Corwin Brown it was still his car.  Kelly has to avoid that if he doesn’t want to suffer the sam fate as Weis.

A Homerun Hire for Notre Dame

Brian Kelly needed to absolutely nail this hire and he did just that.  When news broke that Elko was interviewing, I described it as a potential “homerun” and got some pushback here and on Facebook.  Make no mistake, this is most definitely a homerun hire for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly. Some fans may still be clamoring for a bigger name or someone more “proven” but there were very, very few other candidates as good as Elko who were realistic opportunities for Notre Dame.

Had Notre Dame had a solid – not even great just solid – defense the last two seasons, Brian Kelly wouldn’t be entering a make or break season.  In fact, with a solid defense, Notre Dame goes to the playoff last year and is probably preparing for a New Year’s 6 Bowl game this year.  A team with a solid defense this year wins most of those one possession games that Notre Dame lost this year.  Notre Dame hasn’t had that, but with Mike Elko they have a chance to be that and more.

Mike Elko has a lot to fix on the Notre Dame defense starting from the ground up.  Notre Dame was a fundamentally poor defense in 2016 (and 2015 and 2014 for that matter).  That said, this hire has the chance to reverse the course of the Notre Dame defense in a hurry and set up Notre Dame for a potential big bounce back in 2017.

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  1. I see Elko decided to stay for Wake’s bowl game as DC. And so far, this Wake D has swarmed to the ball against a very good Temple team that’s averaged nearly 35 points their last six games. I know Temple’s coach left before the bowl game and they only played USF among its last 6 wins- but Temple had back to back ten win seasons and Wake does have an aggressive D’ scheme -and Elko deciding to stay for Wake’s bowl game does show his loyalty to his players. Looking for some way to keep hope alive.

  2. SteelFanRob
    October 23, 2010 at 11:42 pm
    To All ND Fans:

    According to C-Dog, we must now have somekind of ND ID card to be real fans or have graduated from ND herself. Yet, he claims not to be arrogant. Wow!

    Are you serious?! Who are you to question why any of us are ND fans? I’ve been an ND fan long before the late 1980s, my friend. I didn’t need to grow up in S. Bend or have my grandfather tell me about ND lore. I learned it all on my own as a first generation immigrant to this great country. Immigrant. You know? Like the people who first ND what she was. Her loyal sons went well beyond S. Bend. Of course, you’d know that if you were a real ND fan, you arrogant tool.

    No one made you the conscience of ND football, C-Dog. Thank God for that! I for one want nothing to do with the likes of you, ND supporter or not. You’re an embarrassment to ND. Stick to drinking the Kool Aid and living in the past, fossil.

    1. Hey, “Burgy,”

      What does this prove? Only that C-Dog and I haven’t always agreed. So what?! It’s far more intellectually honest to sometimes agree to disagree.

      My guess is this is some kind of lame attempt on your part to pit me against C-Dog. So be it. Lame is as lame does.

      “Burgy”: Why don’t you dig into your selectively-culled archives and find the ones where I apologized to C-Dog if I went to far. My guess is you somehow can’t retrieve those. How strangely selective your Nazi files are, “Burgy”!

      So, “Burgy,” a desperate attempt by a desperate loser to end up a desperate failure.

      If you weren’t so ridiculous you’d be merely pathetic, “Burgy”!

      1. Moreover, “Burgy,” how’s your lover Mike Tomlin been treating you of late with all the stress about what Bradshaw said about him? Not getting any, are you?!

      2. Yeah, that’s just downright creepy to be pulling comments from 6 years ago. I know I’ve disagreed with people and later agreed with them. We don’t all agree with each other or disagree with each other 100% of the time.

        I sure couldn’t be bothered looking for comments from people that they made 6 years ago. There’s not even any context for the comment from back then so it’s pretty meaningless.

      3. Burgundy keeps meticulous filea of everyone’s posts as a great ‘weapon’…..and never posts any of his own thoughts because he thinks some other sick troll might have the sane demented mentality.

        Creepy eejot.

    2. Look, the more I think about this, the more I’m convinced that “Burgy” is the alter ego or fabrication of Frank V. or someone else officially linked to this site. How else do you explain “Burgy’s” access to this site’s archives?! Of course, it is possible that “Burgy” is a real person and a real loser, who has nothing better to do with his time/life than index our posts. He certainly sounds like just such a loser, and thus I wouldn’t out it past him to spend his time in his mother’s basement archiving our posts.

      But I really think that Frank V. or someone else on here invents these characters like “Burgundy,” “Duranko,” etc. to generate some sound and fury to promote their site to their sponsors (for instance, by showing the volume of posts on different topics).

      If my conspiracy theory is remotely true (and, of course, I can’t prove it), that’s very sad. Shame on you Frank or whomever! We have enough honest debate on this site that we don’t need the likes of “Burgy” or “Duranko.”

      1. @ Subway,

        Yeah, that’s another character for you. But I do think Shaz is a real person. Plus, although we’ve gone at it from time to time, he’s a ND guy and does make sound observations, unlike “Burgy,” who is either digging up ancients posts from his Nazi secret files or making some inane comment only he and Shaz seem to find amusing.

        As for “Duranko,” he’s a real piece of work that one. That tool actually sent an unsolicited email to my friends asking them to “spiritually intervene” on my behalf. Most thought it was a bad joke. When I explained, they all agree that “Duranko” is delusional and a sick man.

        Happy New Year!

      2. @ Steel… he takes his name from the lead in the 2004 movie “Anchorman’, but more to the point, his responses are what he thinks the character Ron Burgundy would say to our posts. He waits for an opening, like an outrageous comment or even a mistake, then he gets his ‘jollies off’ by pretending to be Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy. Help is needed, fast.

    3. Holy Crap, Burghy, or should I say Scarlet and Gray?

      You had to dig back 7 years or so? You must have some real problems. I mean real problems.

      SFR have disagreed but truly he offers comments that provoke thought and he also has the courage to offer an opinion for critique.

      You, Burghy have never offered your own thoughts you don’t have the courage. You only make snarky comments. You waste space. Since you are obviously doing a research project on posts why don’t you look at the percentage of snarky crap you’ve posted relative to a real and specific post about Notre Dame. Football. You chance nothing. But realize we still have no respect for you and now frankly I feel sorry for your obvious psychological issues.

      1. Hey, C-Dog,

        Glad to see you didn’t take, “Burgy’s” lame bait. What a loser. I just really have to wonder if he’s real or a simulacrum created by someone on this site. No one can be that unoriginal and have access to past posts, some going back 7 or 8 years. That’s just crazy, c-Dog.

        Happy New Year!

  3. A lot of talk about Elko saving BK’s job. My bet is if next season turns out that good, Kelly walks. Maybe Elko is the next head coach, maybe not.

      1. Didn’t you already use that one Ronnie? So Ron. When are you going to actually initiate an original thought and actually have some courage. Your comments over the past couple of years have exposed you as the most craven coward. Too bad for you.

      2. At times, “Burgy” has made some insightful comments. Sadly, C-Dog, they are few and far between. Instead, he seems to revel in archiving our threads, albeit selectively, since he’s never been able to reproduce a post when I’ve asked him to do so, and in inane comments, like the one above you chide him for, C-Dog. Apparently, he doesn’t archive his own posts, since now “Burgy” is repeating himself, making him even more unoriginal and uninteresting.

        I’m still waiting on “Burgy” to come to the defense of his paramour Mike “Dumblin” Tomlin and attack Terry Bradshaw for his spot on comments about the affirmative-action poster-child in charge of my beloved Stillers!

  4. Notre Dame vs Texas would be a good bowl game to watch tonight. Even though both teams could only get 9 combined wins. Rubber match. Winning coach gets to stay one more year. Losing coach gets canned.

      1. No Shit Sherlock. Just thought it would be good drama to see both shit the bed coaches Kelly and Strong competing against one another for the coaching lives. Look at the bright side we get Hawaii vs Middle Tenn St.

  5. This story is pure propaganda from the bk or dept.
    another second rate coach to go with a ma level fool paid like a genius by the greatest fool of swarbrick.
    Pray for lightning,

  6. If Elko could just get the defense to keep containment from the ends, olb’s and cb’s, he’s worth it.. If he can get them to actually hit and wrap when they tackle he should be inducted into the ND HOF. Now if someone could please take the offense out of Kelly’s finesse style zone blocking delayed handoff loving self and become a bruising power run team, with that gigantic o-line, that would be grrrreeeaaat..

  7. @Damian…they say confession is good for the soul, so truth be told…last year, after the second loss…I rooted for Kelly to lose concluding that he and his bluster would be on a bus out of So Bend… I’d like to think I was that influential (8 losses), but reality hit, from the start and throughout the season, exposing him as a borderline dangerous (to ND) HC. From previous seasons, we saw his 4-stars become 2-3 stars after time spent under his tutelage. Pre-season his players started getting arrested for illegal activity. Past digressions surfaced… cheating. One of his prized possessions kicked a helpless potential concussion victim in the head while on the ground. Why is he still here? Yes I rooted for losses, but for the better good… (of ND).

    1. problem with that is according to nfl, witj beamer retired, no one has had more 2 and 3 stars drafted than BK.

      ND had one less drafted than OSU in 2015..

      The rest is spot on…

      1. Exactly. 2015 was the most talented team ND has fielded in three decades, and they still lost three games including yet another massacre in their bowl game.

      2. @Brian…your comments support my case that these 4/5 star-ers are actually that talented when they arrive at ND and when they are drafted into the pros. It’s just that under Kelly they play like 2/3 stars. Could it be his lack of development?

    1. I agree. I see too many schools make that mistake, including ND. Now if somehow they win a NC under BK, maybe….maybe we can talk about a raise.

      1. Burgy…i smell something else coming from you…it ain’t bacon and it ain’t pleasant. Flush Burgy, flush!

  8. Does Elko save BK’s bacon? Despite my loss of faith in BK I am a ND fan and yes, I hope he does. Why? Because that means ND is winning games again. That’s all I want and I don’t care what coach that happens under.

    I’m not confident that will happen. The proof will be in the pudding for me. BK is coming back next year. That’s a definite. But I will wait to see what they put on the field next year before I change my opinion.

    I am happy to see BK is going outside his normal comfort zone with some of these hires if nothing else. While I won’t go as far to say I’m cautiously optimistic at this point, it does give me just a little flicker of hope that we might have a better year next year.

    1. @Damian…”Does Elko save BK’s bacon?…Because that means ND is winning games again.”

      But winning what? 8 and losing 4, even 9 and losing 3…what does that get the ND faithful who are starving for a NC? I don’t believe Kelly can go through a season with no more than 2 losses, so again…no NC.

      1. Quick reality check! “Just the facts, M’am” Joe Friday, Dragnet
        NC? Don’t you have to get to the playoffs to have a shot at NC?
        In 1990, after four consecutive consensus elite (mostly #1 rated) recruiting classes, ND, even w/ St. Lou as head coach, despite beating Michigan, Michigan State and the reigning national champs, Miami, lost to SEC champ Tennessee and PAC-10 champ SC to finish 9-2. From 1994-2014, when playing Michigan and SC each year, they beat both of them just once (2012) in the same year, which ND will attempt to do again in ’18 and ’19, along with w/Stanford and at Va. Tech, and most of the last 5 games in ’18 on the road and w/Fla. St. being the lone home game in Novembers. Then in 2019 include road games at Louisville, Georgia, Michigan and Stanford. Brutal scheduling!
        If it takes 12-0 or 11-1 to get to the final four, good luck with that- ND has lost at least three games in 21 of the last 22 seasons.
        Bottom line: 1) measuring ND season’s success in the near future based on getting to the college playoffs will likely be an exercise in futility and irrational expectations, and 2) hope for an eight-team playoff sooner than later if ND is to have a realistic chance at being among those chosen to compete for the national championship this decade.
        All that makes next season NDs best shot at getting there.
        And winning 11 next year won’t be easy or expected. But if not then, not soon!

      2. @ Michael…first, glad to see someone responding to my entry. Had heard that on some sites one’s comments could be banned from all except what you see yourself. So, thanks.

        In response, you are preaching to the choir. I’m the pessimist here. I believe, and have stated it many, many times the uniqueness of the disrespect ND engenders usually means we have to go 12 and 0 to get a spot in the playoffs. But i start the season with the expectation that… we could, maybe. Then the first loss, but we’re encouraged by say tOSU losing to a nobody, so maybe we could get in with a loss because after all, their games get harder at the end of the season (UM, MSU).. Then the 2nd loss. Now we’re hanging by a thread. Then the crusher…the 3rd loss. It’s over. Over except to the pollyannas who believe ND had a good year when all they had was 3 losses. I’m not in that camp. What follows after the 3rd loss…Brian Kelly winning at any cost just to protect his reputation and job status. Here is what I want…a new start with a new HC. BK has proven that he is incapable of delivering the Holy Grail. But what gets him out? I don’t wish to suffer through another humiliating season or even a mediocre season. It should be…3 losses following a year of 8 losses – pink slip.

      3. I think BK has to get ND into contention again for a playoff spot for me to consider it a success. I don’t believe BK is capable of making that turnaround anymore.

        But we are stuck with him for another year, so despite my doubts, I am hoping he proves me wrong and we somehow win 10+ games next year.

        What I won’t do is root for ND to lose just so BK gets fired. That’s not a road I can travel (note: I’m not saying subway alum is rooting for them to lose).

  9. His biggest mistake was hiring BVG. His hope is this guy can fix his shitty defenses. I like the fact he went outside his coaching friends to pick this guy. Now he needs to look within himself and make changes in how he does things

    1. @Jack…yes a big mistake in hiring him…but an even greater mistake was to not fire him sooner.

      In 2015, what did we need, an average of 40+ points to win games…barely ??

  10. If he fixes the D, he’ll be a head coach somewhere by 2018 and ND will be forced to hire a new coordinator.

    If he fails, Kelly’s ass is gone.

    I don’t know what I want 2018 to look like.

  11. Who else has “heard this story before”? Well, actually I don’t remember if I’ve heard out before. But I’ve had hope in the past. (remembering: “It’s pronounced ‘Ta-NOO-ta'”) And I’m having more hope, now. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I AM A SHAMELESS NOTRE DAME FAN. And I’m not fooling. Go Mike Elko. Finger (raise you middle finger to) the nay-sayers. And GoIRISH!

      1. “HURLS” needs a “spiritual intervention.” Perhaps “duranko” can perforn the exorcism himself. At the very least, he can hijack “HURLS'” email account and send out an unsolicited email to the former’s friends informing them that “HURLS” has anger issues and needs spiritual correction this Advent season.

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