Stop me if you have heard this before, but the defense in South Bend may surprise you this year. Long gone is Brian VanGorder, who has ended up at Oklahoma State as a defensive analyst, and in steps new Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Elko comes over from Wake Forest after spending the last three seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Demon Deacons.
In 2016 at Wake Forest, Elko led a very good Wake Forest defense. The Demon Deacons’ defense ranked in the top-20 of the Football Bowl Subdivision in fumbles recovered (third), turnovers forced (10th), sacks (12th), defensive TDs (17th), red zone defense (17th) and scoring defense (20th).
Firing VanGorder was a must, the Irish started the atrocity that was last year, 1-3 with opponents averaging 33.5 points a game. WOOF! Also, to put this in perspective, through those four games Notre Dame was 103rd in total defense and 101st in scoring defense among 128 FBS teams.
From players being caught out of position, to the defense looking lost, at times, they seemed completely disinterested. Disdain grew, and Irish fans got tired of seeing yet another coach turning purple on the sidelines.
Once Greg Hudson (interim defensive coordinator) took over for VanGorder who was fired on September 25, 2016, took over the Fighting Irish finished 45th in total defense and 62nd in scoring defense over the final eight games. However Notre Dame finished 1-7 in one possession games. A sack, maybe a stop on third and six, even a lucky bounce, and maybe the Irish win a few of those ball games.
“Paging Mike Elko, PAGING MIKE ELKO!!”
Upon his hiring, Head Coach Brian Kelly had this to say about new Defensive Coordinator Mike Elko,
“Mike has consistently coordinated defenses that keep the points down, negate big plays, create negative plays, excel in the red zone and, quite simply, force opposing offenses to execute at an extremely high level to move the football, this rare combination of consistent success in those facets of defense, along with a proven ability to develop talent and fit it into his system, really places Mike in a class by himself among defensive coordinators across the country“.
I love this hire. I think that if he can be, even close to the second half Irish defense that finished 45th in total defense, along with the talent on the offensive side of the ball, this Notre Dame team could be dangerous. However, I truly don’t know how the Irish defense will respond this year, no one does, but it couldn’t possibly be worse than having VanGorder in charge.
Can the Irish be physical?
Let’s be honest, the Irish defense last year did not strike fear into anyone, for all the moxie VanGorder had, it just didn’t translate through the team on Saturdays. So, now that the Irish appear to have their man, let’s take a look at some of the talent Mike Elko has to work with.
Along the defensive line the Irish have two returning players in Jerry Tillery, (or Terry Jillery, perhaps he goes back to the alter-ego) and Andrew Trumbetti, along with a quickly rising star in, Daelin Hayes. Hayes could be a star by the end of the year. 6’4″, 284-pound Jon Bonner should start next to Tillery, Jay Hayes (no relation) and Julian Okwara will platoon at the Defensive End position. Michael Dew-Treadway and Daniel Cage will also get playing time.
At the linebacker position the Irish have two returning starters, in Nyles Morgan, and Te’von Coney. Morgan could be the voice of this entire Irish defense, he has the most experience to lead this group. With guys like Greer Martini, who very well may get the look ahead of Coney, (both will play a ton of football for the Irish). On the outside, Drew Tranquill, along with Asmar Bilal are battling for the job, again both will see a lot of the field. I really like Tranquill, I was in the stands when he landed awkwardly after the celebration, I just love the way he’s battled back since then. He could reach Zibby status by the end of the year.
Finally, in the secondary the Irish have some talent and a lot of questions. Cornerback seems to have it figured out, while the Safety position has talent and potential, it’s more of an unknown. The cornerbacks will likely be led by Shaun Crawford, who could be poised for big year coming off an injury. Crawford has big play potential and could be the difference maker they’ve been needing.
Behind Crawford is sophomore Julian Love (eight starts last year), opposite Nick Watkins. I’ve heard that Dante Vaughn is high on the list for Todd Lyghts group. Troy Pride may see the field as well. The safeties should be Jalen Elliot, and Nick Coleman, although Devin Studstill who started nine games last season could have something to say about that!
The secondary could be a fluid work in progress throughout the early weeks of the season, they are switching to the 4-2-5 scheme, so as the adjust to it, so may the lineup.
Look, Mike Elko brings a different scheme, nothing the Irish youth are used to, so it may take some figuring out on the fly. But it won’t be for lack of talent. They have a lot of guys who should see the field, there will be some bumps along the way.
Who knows maybe a few stars emerge, a few more align, and the Irish have a breakout year they need on the defensive side of the ball. It’s not inconceivable the Irish go from 4-8 to a nine or 10-win team. If they surprise us, and make that leap, Mike Elko will be the reason why.