Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 24, 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 18 of 55 SEPT. 24, 2018 19 munication or with the ball in the air. It was deemed the weak link of a vastly improved unit that finished 20th in the Fremeau Efficiency Index. The difference in 2018 was con‑ spicuous after the 2‑0 start this sea‑ son that saw Notre Dame rank 16th nationally in pass efficiency defense. • Junior Jalen Elliott, a standout quarterback who led Lloyd C. Byrd High to Virginia state titles in 2013 and 2014, intercepted not one but two passes against Ball State that set up 31‑ and 56‑yard touchdown drives. • Former Navy standout and junior transfer Alohi Gilman was equally clutch in the season‑opening 24‑17 win versus Michigan, breaking up a third‑and goal pass into the end zone to 6‑8 tight end Zach Gentry, having on‑body coverage on an incomplete fourth‑down pass directed his way, and knocking away another pass. • Senior Nick Coleman, a 13‑game starter with Elliott last year, has shifted to nickel, where his tipped pass resulted in Elliott' first interception, against Ball State, and his blanket coverage on a throw into the end zone also forced a field goal attempt by the Cardinals. • Then there is freshman Houston Griffith, who had his first career col‑ lege interception in his hands versus Ball State, before mishandling it. The top‑rated Irish recruit by Rivals (No. 43 nationally) in this year's class, Griffith and classmate Derrik Allen (No. 135) arrived with the most fanfare at safety since Smith (No. 144) in 2007. Even Devin Studstill, who started nine games at safety as a 2016 fresh‑ man, and senior Nicco Fertitta, one of the most improved players and a mainstay on three special teams, can't crack the two deep. The upgrade can be attributed to at least three factors. One is the natural evolution and learning curve of Elliott and Coleman, who enrolled as standouts on offense. "It definitely was a bit of an adjust‑ ment from always having the ball in your hands on offense," Elliott said. "Coming over to defense, it's a differ‑ ent skill set. Defense is all about mak‑ ing sure my eyes were right and mak‑ ing sure I wasn't looking at too much — just making sure I was doing my job. "You can sometimes be put in a position where you're the quarter‑ back on the defense. There's a lot of communication, and so you have to be confident with that and know that whatever you go with you just need to get everybody on the same page." Second was the hiring of Terry Jo‑ seph to specifically instruct the safety position after 2017 defensive coordina‑ tor Mike Elko left to take the same post at Texas A&M. Joseph is able to concen‑ trate on his position group rather than spreading himself thin with installing a new scheme as Elko had to last year. A primary preaching point has been assignment consciousness and not free‑ lancing, including on interceptions. "When you start fishing for plays and fishing for picks, you start to find yourself making the wrong plays," El‑ liott said. "What we're just trying to do is understand that if we do our jobs the plays will come. That's what Coach Joseph preaches to us every day." Finally, the arrival this spring of "The G Force" — Gilman and Griffith — ratcheted up the competition level. "It brings us all up," Coleman said. "We're still competing. Just because camp is over doesn't mean every‑ thing is set in stone." Griffith, who also is cross‑training at nickel, especially is ascending. "He obviously has a presence about him," head coach Brian Kelly said of Griffith. "As we evolve defensively and figure out who we want to put in what position, I think that position will continue to get better and better." The Irish have particularly excelled in the red zone, where Michigan and Ball State quarterbacks were a com‑ bined 2 of 14 for 18 yards (one touch‑ down by Ball State). "We're doing some things that we haven't done for quite some time," Kelly said of some tweaks in the red‑ zone defense. "In camp, we weren't really as suc‑ cessful as we wanted to be in the red zone. I believe that heightened the intensity toward the red zone and heightened focus," Coleman added. "We work a lot with rub routes and the pick routes in red zone. "We just bring a far greater inten‑ sity when we get to the red zone. When Coach says, 'Red zone!' in practice, we're jacked up." Having started at corner, safety and now at nickel, Coleman appreci‑ ates his "Swiss Army knife" role in the defensive backfield. "It also helps you understand the game more," he said. "I feel like I've grown my football knowledge from freshman year to now so much." It's a position group in 2018 that so far has provided a much better safety net to the overall veteran defense. ✦ Elliott notched his first two career interceptions versus Ball State Sept. 8, which is especially notable because Notre Dame's safety group as a whole accounted for no picks and only five passes broken up in 2017. PHOTO COURTESY FIGHTING IRISH DIGITAL MEDIA "When you start fishing for plays and fishing for picks, you start to find yourself making the wrong plays. What we're just trying to do is understand that if we do our jobs the plays will come." ELLIOTT

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