Notre Dame defense takes a huge hit in wake of bowl win

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko speaks with a player prior to a practice in spring of last year at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)

The euphoria following Notre Dame’s come-from-behind Citrus Bowl victory over LSU didn’t quite last 72 hours.

That is because the Fighting Irish football program was rocked Thursday afternoon when it was announced that first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko was leaving the program to take the same position at Texas A&M.

“Mike Elko has made the decision to accept an offer to be the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly released in a statement. “We appreciate his work and effort over the last year with our program and wish him the best moving forward.”

The deal to land Elko was reportedly worth nearly $2 million in annual salary over three seasons and also included incentives.

Elko’s new position not only is financially more appealing, but also makes his task of recruiting talented athletes easier given the number of advantages that a Southeastern Conference program holds over Notre Dame.

From academics to weather, the job of selling Texas A&M and College Station versus Notre Dame and South Bend is easier to do in many instances.

Kelly’s next hire will be his fourth defensive coordinator in eight seasons, not including interim coordinator Greg Hudson, who filled in for the final two months of the 2016 season following the firing of coordinator Brian VanGorder.

“Notre Dame simply attracts people at the top of their profession,” Kelly said.

Elko’s impact on the Irish defense, despite his brief tenure, was significant in many ways, and improved a unit that was immersed in pure chaos the year prior to his arrival.

In 2016, the Notre Dame defense was ranked 103rd nationally after four games, three of which the Irish lost. Kelly fired VanGorder and following the season replaced him with Elko, who had managed the defense at Wake Forest.

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Elko made a number of alterations to the defensive scheme, most notably simplifying it for the players to a degree, and the results were measurable.

Notre Dame cut the amount of rushing yards allowed each game by nearly 30 yards this season, as well as trimmed the points scored each game by almost a touchdown.

“When you get into the complexities of offenses nowadays,” Irish senior linebacker Drue Tranquill explained this past season, “there are so many gizmos and gadgets and ways they trade motion in line. I think the way Coach Elko has gone about it has really been allowing each position to specialize in what they need to know for the week.”

Tranquill spent his first three seasons at the safety position, but Elko moved him closer to the line of scrimmage and created a linebacker position referred to as a “rover.”

Tranquill flourished in the new position and scheme, which fit his skill set much better than previously.

“I don’t have to know the adjustments and the checks that the strong safety or the whip safety is going to have this week,” Tranquill said. “I have to focus on what the rover checks are going to be and I have to know those in and out.

“So when we say simplified, I don’t necessarily know that the whole schematics of what he’s doing is simplified, it’s just that it’s more detailed and oriented towards what you have to do for the week.”

Elko’s defense brought pressure from a number of positions and that resulted in an increase of quarterback sacks (the number grew by 10 this season), pass deflections (16 more) and fumble recoveries (four more).

“I think just each player’s buy-in into their position,” Tranquill said, “understanding how they have to play to help our defense win has been the biggest key. Just being able to be successful, guys are doing their job on a day-to-day basis.”

For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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