Jalen Elliott was a three star recruit out of Chesterfield, Virginia who mainly played quarterback as a senior. He was pegged for safety immediately and his position coach Todd Lyght was down right giddy when talking about his potential on signing day. (Although to be fair, this is a thing that happens on signing day.) (Point is, he was bullish.)
He saw extended time his freshman season during the latter half of the year, right around the time the season had fallen apart. He showed flashes of athleticism, but frankly was not ready for a major role on defense. As was mentioned during the Asmar Bilal installment, Elliott arrived at a pretty bad time, especially for someone who needed to be developed. The defense was in turmoil, the defensive coordinator was fired mid-season and his coach was splitting duties between corner and safety. Honestly, it was a disservice to Elliott, but it is what it is.
He earned a starting role in 2017 and was a steady, if unspectacular member of a top 25 defense overall. He clearly improved from his freshman to sophomore season, and he notched 43 tackles and two passes defensed, and two quarterback hurries. Again, steady but far from a playmaker.
He enters 2018 as the presumptive starter heading into fall camp, but with some talented freshman arriving as well who will be breathing down his neck from the opening drills. He will have to raise his level of play again in order to keep his spot on the field, or else he risks being passed by a younger player with his path to the field likely cut off.
Reasons For Optimism
Elliott had only a modest stat line last year without many numbers to account for the amount of snaps he played. No interceptions, no fumble recoveries, no forced fumbles. But, speaking from experience, there are times at safety when you play a great game and there are no stats to back it up. The previous season, guys were turned loose all over the field. Little things like covering your zone, and engaging in solid man to man defense, which didn’t happen in 2016, were common place in 2017. If the quarterback wants to throw the corner route and the safety reads it, jumps it, and the quarterback looks somewhere else, what stat does Elliott get for that? The point is, there is something to be said for competence.
Elliott also showed improvement following the spring in the final spring scrimmage. He intercepted a Wimbush pass, and jumped a crossing route by Finke on another Wimbush throw that he should have intercepted. Two instances of him placing himself around the ball and allowing an opportunity to be a playmaker, which is the next step in his development
The issue with Elliott appears to be more of an experience thing, and not an ability problem. He is an athletic player. But, he arrived having not played much of the position in high school, had no one on the roster to show him how the safety position should be played at the college level (by contrast, imagine how helpful it was for all of the Rover candidates to watch Drue Tranquill go about his business last season). He needed reps and the right kind of reps where he was doing the right things. He is getting that now, and all of the evidence shows he is developing the way the coaches want.
Reasons For Pessimism
Unfortunately for Elliott, there are some dudes coming down the pike who are just as athletic, if not more so, and have played the position he wants to play for the entirety of their high school careers. There is a scenario where Elliott makes strides in his development and it doesn’t matter. Personally, I don’t see that happening, at least not immediately. Elliott is good enough to where he is at least on equal footing to the young players, and his experience, in not just games, but really big games, should carry the day in week 1. If Elliott doesn’t start against Michigan, that more than likely means freshmen Derrik Allen or Houston Griffith are playing at a very high level on a consistent basis. None of this is bad for Notre Dame, by the way, but it would for Elliott.
The biggest concern for Elliott, though, is that lack of playmaking ability, because while players can improve there, it is the difference between steady starters and star players. And while he was still learning, he had chances last year and those plays didn’t happen. The fear is Elliott remains just a steady player, the freshmen aren’t totally ready to handle the load, and safety remains a weakness, in a safety led defense. I think we are going to know very early the way Elliott’s career is going to go, and I couldn’t say one way or the other how I think it’ll turn out. The light could come on, or 2017 is just who he is.