For Notre Dame fans, the reports that Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko was soon to be hired in the same position at Notre Dame was a positive thing. After all, he couldn’t possibly orchestrate an attack as poorly as what the Irish Nation had to endure through the first month of the 2016 season.
The Notre Dame defense improved immediately under the guidance of interim coordinator Greg Hudson, who put a lot of bodies on the field, notably young athletes.
“There are a number of players that, you know, we were fortunate enough that in one sense got a chance to take a look at,” veteran Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said last month.
In the case of Elko, he’ll oversee a defense that loses five players off its defensive depth chart, but returns 25 guys off of that list, including 10 defensive backs, which is where Elko has expertise, as he coached safeties for the Demon Deacons.
He has spent the past three seasons leading an improving Wake Forest defense, and also mentoring one of the best young safeties in the country.
Former Snider High School standout Jessie Bates III earned USA Today Freshman All-America honors this season after having a magnificent first season under Elko.
Bates III started all 12 games and recorded five interceptions (which led the country for that class) and finished second on the team with 93 tackles.
Mid-season, the Demon Deacon defense shut down a potent Syracuse offense (it held the Orange to just nine points) and Elko was named as the National Defensive Coordinator of the Week by Coachingsearch.com.
Wake Forest played a four-down defensive front this past season, which is also what Notre Dame employed. However, Kelly has spoken on the topic of switching to a three-man front, but he said last month that wasn’t a philosophy that would be implemented all of the time.
“I think you’ll see a sense of three down,” Kelly explained, “but we’ll be in four down too. That gives us the flexibility to play both in three down and four down.”
Under Elko, the Wake Forest defense has made incremental improvement in terms of total defense.
The Demon Deacons ranked 38th in each of his first two seasons, but improved to 33rd this season. An area in which the Demon Deacons made significant strides – and this will excite Notre Dame fans – is the ability to effectively pass rush.
Wake Forest managed just 48 sacks combined in Elko’s first two seasons, but racked up 37 this season alone. That was the second highest amount registered by the Demon Deacons in program history.
In comparison, Notre Dame managed just 14 sacks this past season, which only had six teams nationally worse than the Irish.
Elko’s unit this past season was also effective at creating turnovers.
The Demon Deacons are tied for 14th nationally with a plus-8 turnover margin, which was tied with Miami (Fla.) as best in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Like the pass rush, that made huge progress this past season.
In 2015, Wake Forest ranked last in turnover margin in the ACC with a minus-13.
Elko has followed Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson for much of his career. He has served under Clawson at Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Green and Wake Forest. He has 17 years of experience at eight different programs throughout the Northeast, Midwest and Southeast.