There were many on the field reasons that the dismissal of Brian Vangorder in September was long overdo, but his lack of effort on the recruiting trail was just as – if not bigger – a reason that VanGorder simply had to go. Under his “leadership” Notre Dame’s defensive recruiting tanked after experiencing an upswing under Brian Kelly and then defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. It’s been less than two months with Mike Elko on staff as VanGorder’s successor but the early returns suggest that Notre Dame will not have similar issues on his watch.
Notre Dame’s defense under VanGorder rarely came up with late game stops to save games outside of a few ridiculous plays by Keivarae Russell in 2015. It couldn’t stop the run, it failed to develop its players, and it almost criminally wasted the talents of once in a generation type player such as Jaylon Smith.
But even if you got past all of that, defensive recruiting under VanGorder just wasn’t good. The Irish were able to land a few elite level players over the last few seasons, but those were usually the result of Herculean type efforts from assistants Keith Gilmore (Khalid Kareem & Daelin Hayes) or Notre Dame landing players right in their wheelhouse (Asmar Bilal). More often than not under Vangorder, Notre Dame ended up settling on the defensive side of the ball.
Since Brian Kelly completely remade his coaching staff this off-season and placed Mike Elko in charge of his defense, things have changed for the better. By the time Elko was officially hired and on the recruiting trail the Irish were just about to lose Paulson Adebo and Elijah Hicks – a pair of four star defensive backs – and had just 15 commitments. Elko along with new assistant Clark Lea and holdover assistants Mike Elston and Todd Lyght turned over every rock and helped Notre Dame land four more defensive recruits including three on Signing Day alone.
In the final week of recruiting Notre Dame added Jordan Genmark-Heath (S), Kofi Wardlow (DE), Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, and Jeremiah Owusu (ROVER) with the final three coming on Signing Day all in large part because of Elko. None of the four had Notre Dame offers prior to Elko’s arrival at Notre Dame. All four signed letters of intent and will be suiting up for the Irish.
It hasn’t stopped there though. Last week, Notre Dame landed a duo of top 100, 4-star defensive backs in CB Kalon Gervin and S Derrick Allen for the class of 2018. Gervin hails from the Detroit Public League that Notre Dame has been unable to recruit successfully since the days of Jerome Bettis and Allen is a Top 50 prospect from the state of Georgia – the heart of SEC country. While there’s still a year to go before Signing Day – and we saw what can happen last year – that is extremely encouraging.
What is equally encouraging though is the activity on Coach Elko’s twitter feed while he is on the recruiting trail. Complain about or make fun of Twitter all you want as a recruiting tool (I know many Notre Dame fans will) but top recruits are on Twitter and are active. Brian VanGorder was not. Mike Elko is.
Here is the only tweet I was able to find from Brian VanGorder during his time at Notre Dame.
The Predator is on the hunt.
— Brian VanGorder (@CoachVanGorder) December 12, 2015
That came in December of 2015. He was employed by Notre Dame from January 2014 through September 2016. Why Brian Kelly didn’t demand his defensive recruiter to be active on the platform is beyond me. Hell, they could have had an intern manage the account and no one would have been the wiser, but at least someone would have been updating the account.
Now lets contrast that with the Twitter activity of Mike Elko in the last two weeks.
When Kalon Gervin committed last Monday, Elko tweeted.
#IrishBouND18 ?????. The D-Boys just got better this morning!
— Coach Mike Elko (@CoachMikeElko) February 13, 2017
When Derrick Allen joined Gervin in committing to Notre Dame, Elko tweeted.
Man them Irish D-Boys are on a roll. Coming from all over the country to join something special. #IrishBouND18 ??
— Coach Mike Elko (@CoachMikeElko) February 14, 2017
Elko hasn’t contained his tweeting to defensive recruits either. When wide receiver Braden Lenzy committed to Notre Dame on Wedesday, Elko was at it again.
#IrishBouND18 is at again! Another special addition to a great class! Who's next? ?
— Coach Mike Elko (@CoachMikeElko) February 23, 2017
Notre Dame is really in unprecedented territory here with their early recruiting success and it cannot all be attributed to one individual assistant coach, but the positive influence and breath of fresh air that Mike Elko has delivered to Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts simply cannot be denied.
In a Q&A with NDInsider Tyler James earlier this week, Elko was the one new assistant coach James was willing to comment on already while holding out judgement on the others until there is a larger body of work. “The recruiting industry loves to throw around praise, but I’d prefer to see more results first before I cast my votes on who is better or worse. But I’ll make one exception: Mike Elko is a recruiting upgrade at defensive coordinator. I have little doubts about that,” James said.
There is still a little under a year left until Signing Day 2018 and a lot can happen between now and then, but at this pace, Notre Dame could be in store for a monumental recruiting class – especially on the defensive side of the ball. Mike Elko is a big reason for the recent upswing and if he continues to display the kind of effort we’ve seen and backs it up with results on the field in the fall, none of this early praise will seem like hyperbole. It will seem like an understatement.