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.