Mike Elko Won’t Rebuild Notre Dame Defense in a Day, or a Spring

The rebuilding of Notre Dame Stadium is nearing completion with the brand new jumbotron getting closer to lighting up with beautifully stunning replays every day.  It’s been a nearly three year construction project that we will finally see in all it’s glory this fall.  The reconstruction of the Notre Dame defense officially began a few weeks ago under the guidance of Mike Elko and while it might not be a three year project like the the Campus Crossroads, this spring is telling us it won’t happen over night or even over this spring either.

Spring football practice is always about teaching fundamentals, getting young players who were deep on the depth charts ready for prominent roles, and finding replacements for the players that are hoping to hear their names called in the NFL Draft – or in Notre Dame’s case sometimes headed to Capitol Hill.  This year at Notre Dame, however, it’s been back to the basics for the Notre Dame defense under first year defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

Elko, the former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, has not been stressing scheme or exotic blitz packages or introducing any crazy new terminology for the Notre Dame defense.  Instead, he’s started rebuilding this thing from the ground up primarily for one simple reason – he has to.

Under the guidance of Notre Dame’s last so called defensive coordinator, Brian Vangorder, we heard a lot about exotic looks, NFL schemes, and subpackages.  Vangorder tried to hit the ground running in the spring of 2014 with installing a NFL style defense that was supposed to be the missing link for Notre Dame football.  Instead, that defense sent Notre Dame back into the stone ages.

Vangorder, long removed from the college game and fresh off a tour of duty in the NFL, forgot that he was coaching college kids again. And college kids, especially at this time of year, need to have the basics drilled into them.  Basics like tackling.  Something Notre Dame has been atrocious at times over the last few years.

Is it any wonder that the first practice video of the spring that surfaced from the media viewing portions featured some very basic tackling drills?  And is it any wonder that that video showed some alarmingly poor fundamentals?  Now at the same time, it was the first time the defense was tackling live ball carriers in months and a lot of these defenders are still young, but it was still hard to watch that and not cringe just a bit.

Reshaping the Defensive Line

Listen to any podcast from some of the prominent Notre Dame pay sites this spring and you will not get a rosy picture of the Notre Dame defensive line.  It’s probably not quite as bad as it may seem right now, but you won’t come away from any of those podcasts feeling too great about the prospects of the defense this fall.  Knowing that scheme was emphasized over fundamentals the last few years, however, is that any surprise?

Notre Dame has recruited a lot of “projects” on the defensive line over the last few years out of necessity when they’ve swung and missed at their primary targets.  Players like Micah Dew-Treadway, Pete Mokwuah, Brandon Tiassum, Jonathan Bonner, and Adetokunbo Ogundeji were all raw prospects with high ceilings who needed to be developed.  Under the previous defensive coordinator, they were not.  The good news, however, is Dew-Treadway and Tiassum have three years of eligibility left, Ogundeji four, and Bonner and Mokwuah two.

Even defensive linemen that came in with better pedigrees have not been developed.  Guys like Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, and Daniel Cage were all 4-star players who simply haven’t developed over the last few years.  Even a player like Jerry Tillery who has started since his freshman year has gotten that much better since day one.   So while the defensive line may not be showing much now, I’m taking these reports with a grain of salt and waiting until some of them have a full spring under Elko’s guidance under their belts.

Hopefully that will all start to change, but it is not going to be an overnight process.

Getting Players in the Right Positions & Adapting the Scheme

Last week when Mike Elko was asked about how often he still thinks about moving players around, his answer was refreshing.  He said that it’s a constant evaluation process and while he feels pretty good about where he has most players right now after viewing game and practice film, he is constantly looking to move guys around and constantly thinking about adapting his scheme to the players he has to work with.

Whoa now, adapting the scheme to the players skills?  That’s just crazy talk.  You mean there’s a chance that we might not hear about a highly recruited or highly skilled player not getting on the field simply because they aren’t grasping the scheme or just aren’t a “fit”?  You know, kinda like how Nyles Morgan toiled on the depth chart with nary a snap in 2015?

Elko is practicing what he’s preaching too.  We’ve already seen Nick Coleman – a cast off at cornerback – moved to free safety running with the first team defense this spring.  Given Notre Dame’s dire need for help at safety, if Coleman can find a home there it will be a huge boost for the defense.

Coleman is still a young player with half of his collegiate career in front of him.  He had a very rough sophomore season and never fully recovered from a really rough night in Austin last year to start the season.  There was a reason he was on the field in the first place last year though.  He’s got talent.  Maybe, just maybe, that talent is better served at free safety.  We won’t know for sure, but it is nice to see a junior who has shown promise get a second chance instead of just falling down the depth chart and into obscurity.

Also note, this does not give Brian Kelly a pass on why the defense is in the state that is in.  The fact that Vangorder was allowed full control over the defense apparently without much oversight squarely on his shoulders.  Vangorder was his guy and he in some ways was an absentee landlord when it came to the defense the last few years.  Everything Kelly has done since November, however, suggests he has realized how deep of a problem it’s been and has worked to fix the situation.

New Drills Are Reinforcing Fundamentals

Mike Elko isn’t just doing a bit of depth chart engineering this year spring.  He has installed a number of new drills that Notre Dame hasn’t done in the past that are reinforcing the concepts that will lead to the kind of negative plays BVG talked about a lot but we hardly saw in games.  Listen to the players talk this spring and you’ll hear them talk about different types of drills aimed at causing turnovers.

A lot of these drills have nothing to do with the scheme that Mike Elko will ultimately run this fall for the Irish.  Instead of forcing a scheme that is harder to learn than Mandarin Chinese down a bunch of young developing players throats, he is rebuilding the foundation for a Notre Dame defense. That foundation is cracked and crumbling after relying too heavily on the star power of the likes of Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day for years before finally collapsing on itself last fall.

Because of this basic, foundational work, there is a good chance we are all going to hear some more “horror” stories about the defense trailing the offense and the defense getting beat up in practice and that’s OK for now.  Elko’s past results at both Wake Forest and Bowling Green speak for themselves.  So if the offense makes some big plays in practice videos or even looks unstoppable in the spring game, don’t get too worked up.  Instead focus on how the defense is tackling, on how the defensive line is using their hands,=, and on how fast the  defense is playing.

This spring is about getting back to the basics for the Notre Dame defense.  Scheme will be secondary and that is a beautiful thing right now.  The work being done by Elko and his defensive staff now will pay off in the fall.  It might not be evident in April and you may hear some more “the sky is falling” reports about the defensive line between now and then, but when Temple comes to town in September the work being done right now will pay off big time.

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  1. Let’s see: no live tackling??? A dc from football powerhouse wake forest? Pagano goes to Oregon? A focus on a Jumbotron? It’s all a sad pathetic joke. Fire Searbrick. FirebKelly and go get a leader.

  2. I think there’s a tendency among us fans to underestimate the contribution that poor fundamentals and lack of physical conditioning had on our defense, because of a bit too much focus on the complexity of VanGorder’s defense. Elko and Balis are obviously not doing that. My feeling is that the obvious significant improvements in conditioning and the strong emphasis on fundamentals will create a more-than-expected improvement in our defense. Yes, it will take a while to learn a new scheme, and it’s probable that people will be making some mistakes. But they won’t be letting RB’s run through them three yards past the line of scrimmage for 40-yard gains very often, either. I think solid tackling and improved turnover ratio will be good for a few more wins over last year by themselves. And I’d say that those problems can be turned from a liability into an asset by the fall.

  3. Guys, last year is gone. Flush it and move on.

    Actually, Hudson and Elston improved the defense after Van Gorder was sacked.

    Good defense is built on habits. Agreed?

    Habits comprise a trinity of elements:

    Everybody got this so far?.

    Since Elston-and the key cog Lea (learn this equation: on a smaller scale Lea/Elko = Pagna/Parseghian), they have been
    installing and instilling Attitude. This is getting leverage from the Balis/Ballou work in conditioning.

    They are resolute in building individual skills through drills. These drills will be practiced throughout the summer (though
    live tackling is out).

    Finally, Elko has a very precise design on what he wants from his defense, beginning with tighter position descriptions
    (rover/Buck) to more specific rules of engagement (narrow parameters for when and when NOT to try to strip the ball).

    The improvement, by inches or not, has been ongoing since Elko and his cohort began meeting with the players.

    There are more than 5 months, half of spring practice, summer workouts, June walkthroughs, and Fall practice until we
    take the field against the Bulldogs, after the scrimmage against Temple.

    Remember, this does not need to be a suffocating defense. Just strong enough to slow down the Bulldog rushing onslaught and Eason’s passes while Wimbush’s offense scores 31 points.

    Elko, Lea, Lyght, Elston and their charges have got this.

    There is no room for chicken littles and nervous nellies in their meeting rooms.

  4. We all know it. “Offense plays games; defense wins championships.” Last year’s defense, um…well, it sucked. The offense, though, did not do its part. But it’s time to MOVE-ON. (- and win!)

  5. Lou moved some people around too. One guy was moved from tight end to tackle. Another was moved from fullback to linebacker. They ended up being All Americans on a NC team, if my memory is correct. Keep up the good work Coach Elko!

    Bruce G. Curme
    La Crosse, Indiana

  6. Don’t check out the tackling portion of that practice video unless you are prepared feel sick to your stomach. Just be aware there are big problems and hope the new coaches can address them.

  7. I hope that the defense is ready when Temple comes to town, but even that may be optimistic. Not only are the fundamentals necessary, but experience against opponents is usually necessary for a defense to gel. It may be well into next season before we see significant improvement if there is going to be any.

  8. I don’t expect the defense to be elite right now. If the offense does it’s job with the tools it has, a competent defense should be enough to win games. If they just re-learn the fundamentals of tackling that should result in improvement right there. When you grab a guy, bring him down. Start with that. Make stops when you have to.

    It’s sad that its come to this. That experienced players have to be taught things like tackling. But glad to see Elko is aware of the poor state of the defense and he isn’t trying to push his scheme down players throats before they are ready. It’s good to see that he realizes he basically has to start from the beginning with these players.

    Build a competent defense first.

    1. Didn’t BK notice the last three years that tackling was a problem?
      Even if wasn’t watching the D’ during practice, didn’t he notice while watching game film?
      ND O’ going to have to score TDs, not just FGs, to keep up!
      Copy and get ready to re-paste this, Burgundy.

      Tackling Haiku : BVG Blues

      Why would they notice
      Missed tackles every series
      Try a new pro scheme

      1. Well BK did can the D-Coordinator mid-season. Maybe most of the players just aren’t any good. It’s actually possible if you think about it. Seems like we regularly hear about players on this team who do not make football a priority.

    2. I’m with you Damian. How many times last year did we see arm tackling above the waste? A big strong Division I running back will blow through those tackles most of the time – and they did last year.

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