Notre Dame defensive assistant has prepared for increased role

Notre Dame associate head coach and defensive line coach Mike Elston works with his players during training camp last August at Culver Academy. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame associate head coach and defensive line coach Mike Elston watches the Fighting Irish warm-up prior to a training camp practice last August at Culver Academy. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Then-Notre Dame defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston speaks with the media on National Signing Day at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame associate head coach and defensive line coach Mike Elston, right, and Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko speak prior to a training camp practice last August at Culver Academy. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame associate head coach and defensive line coach Mike Elston works with his players during spring practice last year at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)

On two separate occasions, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly viewed Mike Elston in such a respected and trusted light that he felt comfortable turning his football program over to Elston to manage when Kelly wasn’t able to.

The first was in 2009 when the two coaches worked together at Cincinnati and Kelly promoted Elston to the critical role of assistant head coach.

The second was just prior to the start of this season, when Kelly added the job title of associate head coach to Elston, in addition to his coaching the defensive line.

“I really want to give him the opportunity to grow across the board,” Kelly said during this past season of Elston, “preparing him to be a head coach. I think he has the ability to be a head coach right away, so he needs that kind of exposure.”

Whether Elston becomes a head coach or not in the near future remains unknown, however, before Elston becomes a head coach he more than likely is going to get consideration – again – to lead the Notre Dame defense overall.

With Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko leaving Thursday for the same position with Texas A&M, Kelly now is looking to hire his fourth defensive coordinator in nine seasons, and he said on Thursday that the search wouldn’t take long.

“With a young and talented football team coming back in 2018,” Kelly said in a release, “we’ll certainly add our next great defensive coordinator in very short order.”

Will that be Elston?

That remains to be seen, but obviously, Kelly has complete confidence in Elston.

A year ago at this time, Kelly was looking to replace the fired Brian VanGorder, who had served as the Irish defensive coordinator for just over two seasons, and he interviewed two people: Elko and Elston.

Elko got the job, but it wasn’t due to any dissatisfaction with Elston.

First of all, Kelly and Elston have worked together for 14 seasons, dating back to when Kelly was coaching at Central Michigan. Obviously, Kelly has kept him around for a long time because he is a very good coach.

“His position groups always play with a passion, a fundamental approach to the game” Kelly said.

Under Kelly, Elston has coached linebackers, tight ends, special teams, and the defensive line, as well as served as defensive coordinator at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

Secondly, Kelly made it clear to Elko that retaining Elston was a mandate, not an option, as Elko put together his defensive staff.

“That was the non-negotiable part,” Kelly said of keeping Elston on staff, “in the sense that I felt like he was ready for that next step (to head coach).”

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Elko and Elston worked alongside each other over the past 12 months and the Irish defense, as a credit to both coaches, as well as the rest of the staff, made significant strides.

Notre Dame cut its points allowed by almost a touchdown and Elston’s defensive line helped curb nearly 30 yards off of the Irish opponents’ run totals each game from the 2016 season.

“I think personality wise,” Elko said during the season, “you’ve just got a bunch of guys that want to win and want to do what’s best for Notre Dame. You don’t have a lot of egos in our room; you don’t have a lot of agendas in our room. That has made it really easy.”

“We just blended well to put a good product on the field.”

Three years ago, Kelly put Elston in charge of the program’s recruiting and he was ecstatic with the work that he did. However, handling that job, as well as serving as the associate head coach is too much for any coach, so Kelly gave that responsibility to special teams coach Brian Polian when he promoted Elston in August.

“He’s been one of our top recruiters,” Kelly said of Elston. “He took over our recruiting office and transformed that into a great operation.”

The increased role of associate head coach consists of a great deal of work and responsibility, according to Kelly. But it didn’t take away from Elston’s connectivity with the on-the-field instruction and game-planning, or his interacting with the Irish student-athletes, it actually enhanced it.

“He’s now handling a lot of the day-to-day responsibilities that head coaches need to,” Kelly said. “He works with the medical staff. He works with the strength and conditioning staff for me. He works as a great conduit for communication with the coordinators. He sits in all the coordinators’ meetings.”

What remains to be seen is if Elston will soon be leading one of those said meetings.

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

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