SOUTH BEND – There are a lot of areas in which the Notre Dame defense can improve its performance in 2017, one of which is creating turnovers by its opposition. And there are few defensive coaches in the country that can teach that aspect better than new Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.
While leading the Wake Forest defense last fall, Elko's players were one of the nation's best at forcing opponents into making mistakes, while the Notre Dame defense was one of the worst. According to veteran Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, Elko's influence is already being felt in that regard this spring.
“I can tell that we are already doing some things that we haven't done in the past that are going to be reaping benefits for us,” Kelly said following a recent spring practice.
A year ago, the Demon Deacons' defensive unit ranked 10th nationally in forcing turnovers (27 total), while Notre Dame's defense created just 14 turnovers and that paltry amount put the Irish behind 103 other college teams in that category.
Kelly said that Elko's teaching this spring hasn't been complicated; it has simply emphasized the fundamentals of creating turnovers.
“The defensive line will be batting down balls and I think you guys are going to see guys stripping the football and getting the ball out,” Kelly said.
WakeForest recovered 15 fumbles last season, as compared to six in which the Notre Dame defenders did so. The Irish players aren't just getting that message in practices, but also in position meetings.
“They are working on (stripping the ball) in their individual periods,” Kelly explained, “and it is being coached in the meetings, which I like the most.”
In turnover margin, WakeForest created eight more turnovers than it committed itself a year ago, which was the 18th best ratio in the country, while Notre Dame's negative four ratio was 93rd. Given that Notre Dame lost seven of its eight games last season by one score or less, curbing that negative statistic just slightly may be the difference between a successful season and a beyond terrible one (such as last year).
“The thing that you'll also see,” Kelly said of his more fundamentally sound defenders, “is that we are not jumping. We are not leaving our feet. We are staying on our feet.
“We see it all the time, guys leaving their feet and losing containment. I just think that the fundamentals are being taught to a level where I know that we are going to profit from that.”
Redshirt junior safety Drue Tranquill is in the process of playing for his third defensive coordinator (including an interim one last season), but he has totally bought into Elko and the instruction that he has received.
An added bonus is the fact that Elko also specifically coaches Tranquill's position group. The Notre Dame defense only intercepted passes eight times last season, which should increase with a more sound defense, as well as more experienced defensive secondary.
“It has been good,” Tranquill said of learning under Elko. “Coach Elko is a real personable guy and specifically, having the defensive coordinator as your safeties coach, a lot of the guys like that. It's been a positive experience.”
Tranquill explained that Elko isn't just emphasizing fundamental techniques, he is also stressing having the right attitude to play good defense and that starts even before a practice gets underway.
“It comes down to an attitude,” Tranquill said. “Sprinting on to the field and having a desire to get out there. When guys are jogging out there, maybe they are thinking about a later period and 'Maybe I need to save myself,' that is not how coach Elko rolls. He wants to see us sprint on the field and give it all that we've got.”
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