Early Returns on New Notre Dame Defense Promising

It’s only been three games for Mike Elko as the defensive coordinator for Notre Dame, but the early returns are already promising.  Elko inherited a unit that had become a liability and a major factor in Notre Dame’s poor performance in close games over the last several years.  Three games into his tenure though, the Irish defense is showing signs of life despite lacking adequate depth at several key positions.

Disclaimer: While these are all encouraging signs, we should also consider the fact that three games into Brian VanGorder’s tenure at Notre Dame the Irish defense was giving up just 10 points a game and had shut out Michigan for the first time in program history.  That said, the improvement from 2016 thus far is impossible to ignore. 

The Notre Dame defense isn’t just keeping points down, it’s shown significant improvement in areas that it struggled the past three years.  And while the disclaimer above does state that VanGorder’s tenure started off promising as well, remember, BVG was following a defensive coordinator that engineer one of the best defenses, statistically speaking, in modern Notre Dame history.  Elko, on the other hand, is replacing a guy who gave up 50 points to a true freshman at Texas and 38 points to Duke at home last year.

Sudden Change Defense

This might be one of the most encouraging signs of improvement in the Notre Dame defense this year.  In each of the three games Notre Dame has played this year, the defense has been put in bad spots because of turnovers by the offense.  In each situation the Notre Dame defense has responded by keeping the opposition out of the endzone.

Week 1.  Against Temple Brandon Wimbush forced a throw that resulted in an interception in the third quarter giving the Owls a short field and an opportunity to get back into the game.  Temple took over at the Notre Dame 14 yard line, but after two short gains they faced a 3rd and 5 from the nine yard line. Tevon Coney came crashing into the Temple backfield to sack Logan Marchi.  Temple would miss the ensuing field goal and Notre Dame poured it on from there.  Before that missed field goal though Temple down just 18 points in the 3rd quarter with a chance to make things very interesting.

Week 2. Midway through the third quarter it looked like the Notre Dame offense was on its way to the endzone when Brandon Wimbush got sacked on 2nd and 10 from the UGA 35 yard line and lost the ball.  Georgia had just taken a one point lead a drive earlier and now they had the ball near midfield and the momentum.  Notre Dame’s defense responded by forcing a three and out.  Notre Dame got the ball back and marched down the field for what was, at the time, a go ahead field goal.

Week 3. Notre Dame’s defense rose to the occasion in two such instances this past weekend. Following Brandon Wimbush’s fumble to start the second half, Boston College took over at the Irish 23 yard line.  The Notre Dame defense responded again and held the Eagles to a field goal preserving the lead.   Notre Dame got the ball back and proceeded to go three and out and set up Boston College with the ball near midfield.  Boston College, however, ended up turning the ball over on downs when the Irish stuffed them on 4th and 1 from the Notre Dame 30 yard line.  Notre Dame outscored Boston College 35-7 from that point on.

In every game this year the defense has stepped up and mitigated mistakes from the offense.  That has not always been the case the past few seasons.

Eliminating Big Plays

The big play has plagued Notre Dame over the last few years under Brian Vangorder.  So far, that hasn’t been a problem for Mike Elko’s defenses.  This one could be a bit misleading to this point though since Notre Dame has not faced the kind of quarterback who will make you pay for mistakes and there have been several big plays left on the field by the opposition.

Through three games Notre Dame has only allowed two pass plays of 30 yards or more (both to Georgia) and the longest rush they have allowed was 40 yards.


Notre Dame was down right dreadful at forcing turnovers the last few years under Brian Vangorder.  In 2016, the Irish defense forced just 14 on the entire season.  Three games into 2017, Notre Dame has already forced six.  Against Temple, Drue Tranquill recovered a fumble. Tranquill was back at it against Georgia with an interception while Daelin Hayes made a great play on a botched handoff by Jake Fromm for a fumble recovery.  This past weekend Shaun Crawford was a one man turnover machine with two interceptions and a fumble recovery.

It’s still early, but seeing the turnover totals on the rise is an obvious encouraging sign for Notre Dame.  At this current pace, Notre Dame will record 24 turnovers on the season.  That would almost double their 2016 production.

Pass Rush

This one is still a major work in progress but considering Notre Dame didn’t pick up its first sack in 2016 until October, it’s worth mentioning here.  Notre Dame has six sacks so far this year which would pace them at 24 on the season.  Hopefully that pace picks up soon though because the pass rush is still not where it could be.  No Notre Dame defender has more than one sack so far with the six sacks coming from six individuals.

Romeo Okwara is really starting to flash his potential in this department while Daelin Hayes has been quiet on the pass rush front since his sack in week one against Temple.  Notre Dame has not been sending much pressure though either so we haven’t really seen just what this defenses is capable of in this department to date.

Individual Standouts

On top of the improved results by the unit as a whole.  Several players have seen huge upticks in individual production as well.

  • Jay Hayes – The senior SDE is playing by far his best football and has been setting the edge of the defense just like you want your SDE to.  Hayes was a monster specifically against Georgia
  • Drue Tranquill – He’s had a hand on a couple of Notre Dame’s turnovers and he’s really taken well to the new ROVER position.  Still a lot of room for improvement, but remember, Tranquill still has a year of eligibility left too. Tranquill leads the Irish with 3.5 TFL this season.
  • Nick Coleman – Coleman has really taken well to safety so far.  In fact, he’s taken so well to the position that when he momentarily was down on the turf with an injury last weekend, Notre Dame fans all held their breath.  He was fine and came back in a few plays later.
  • Shaun Crawford – Kid has been a playmaker coming off his second major injury.
  • Tevon Coney – He technically isn’t a starter but that didn’t stop him from picking up 13 tackles this past weekend against Boston College.  It hasn’t stopped Coney from tying for the team lead in tackles with Nyles Morgan at 25.

As state, it’s still early, but so far the early returns on the Mike Elko defense at Notre Dame are very promising.

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  1. Notre Dame has not been plagued by injuries so far like years past. Hopefully the Irish will have better luck in this area
    unlike past years under Kelly

  2. Duranko,
    One of my favorite College football books was by Forrest Gregg. He describes in detail when one of our Irish “pranksters” got Him in the end when the game was on the line.

  3. What’s been significant is the way the players, and specifically the captains, “own” the defense.

    Tranquill said after Georgia, that they gave up a big play once every 17 plays, short of their goal of one big play every 25
    plays. This is a level of awareness, commitment and buy in that did not exist under the prior regime.

    There’s something else at work. Elko and his merry pranksters have very specific player fits for their system.
    They walked away from those two linebackers at the end of the ’17 recruiting cycle in favor of “profile” safeties.

    This ’18 defensive class has been carefully selected to meet specific positional specifications. It is not the rankings so
    much as that these recruits fit the Elko/Lea prototype for the position.

    What’s encouraging is that it most often takes a year for a new defense to take hold. This defense may get better as the
    year unfolds. The defense that ND puts on the field for Stanford in Palo Alto may be significantly better than the one they put on the field against Michigan State. The commitment to depth virtually guarantees it.

    And, right now, only Morgan and Martini graduate from the starting lineup. Coney is Ready-to-Play, so they just need a Morgan replacement.

    This unit will put the “D” back in ND.

    1. Does ND have the replacement for Morgan? Is it a youngster like White or Adams? Does Coney move to MLB and Bilal play the WLB?

      1. There is some chatter that the younger Jones brother, Jamir, might, might be ready to play the position. Coney can
        play either position. We have yet to hear from Jonathon Jones. There is some chatter that the Elko/Lea axis is less than enthusiastic about White and Adams.

  4. I like what I see out of the defense for sure. It’s a work in progress but they are headed in the right direction. I’m not too worried about parallels with BVG. I really believe those first few games was just a holdover effect from Diaco’s coaching. You don’t get bad overnight. The only bright spot in BVG’s tenure was the shutout of Michigan–that was a golden day for sure.

    It seems to me at least the defense is handling the fundamentals better. And it’s not complicated schemes that has the players running around clueless. I wonder if Elko was there last year what would our record have been. There were so many close games last year that one defensive stop may have made a difference. Instead of 4-8 maybe we would have been 8-4.

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