Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2017

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

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24 FEBRUARY 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED the current defensive coordinator at the University of Houston. Notre Dame did not qualify for a bowl game in 2016 for the first time since 2007. The defense is expected to return seven starters in 2017, including rising senior Nyles Mor- gan, who led the team in tackles (94) and sacks (four) this past season. Irish fans might be famil- iar with Elko from Notre Dame's matchup with Wake Forest in 2015. The Demon Dea- cons were the lone team to hold Notre Dame to less than 400 yards in total of- fense (282) in a 28-7 Irish victory. Before arriving at Wake Forest in 2014, Elko was the defensive co- ordinator under Clawson at Bowl- ing Green (2009-13) and Hofstra (2006-08). In his last two seasons at Bowling Green, Elko's defenses led the Mid-American Conference in scoring defense, total defense, rush- ing defense and passing defense. His 2012 unit was particularly impres- sive, finishing the season ranked sixth nationally in total defense (296.6) and 10th in scor- ing defense (16.7). The Falcons ranked 11th in sacks (38). Elko also coached un- der Clawson at Rich- mond (2004-05) and Ford- ham (2002-03). He briefly took the defensive coor- dinator job at Tennessee- Chattanooga in 2009 before reuniting with Clawson at Bowling Green two months later. Elko's first coaching job was at Stony Brook in 1999, where Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator Mike Elko isn't overly compli- cated. He doesn't overload his players with information. He's not trying to impress people with his football knowledge or campaign for other jobs. According to those who have coached with and against him over the years, simple works best for Elko. "He's really smart, but he keeps it really simple for the kids," Temple as- sistant Ed Foley said, "and that's a dying art in our profession that he's really, really good at." Blue & Gold Illustrated spoke with three coaches who know Elko's defenses and asked them what makes the New Jersey native so effective. Foley was a Penn assistant when Elko was being recruited as a safety for the Quakers. He also worked alongside Elko on staffs at Penn and Hofstra, and coached against him at Temple when the Owls played Bowling Green. Foley said he wouldn't be surprised if Elko became an NFL head coach, but he could also see his former colleague content just working as a college defensive coordinator. Elko is a great fit on any staff, Foley said, because he's not going to "act like a superstar." After two-plus seasons of Brian VanGorder's defense at Notre Dame — which was widely criticized for being too complicated and difficult for col- lege players to pick up — Elko appears to be a stark change in the opposite direction. "To me, it's uncommon to have a guy who works in physicalness defeat- ing blocks, using the players' abilities and not trying to out-scheme a lot of people," Foley said. "The guys get aligned and they play really hard. He's a scheme guy in that he defends very well, he's super smart, but he's not super smart to the point where he's trying to show you what his knowledge is and the kids can't keep up with it. "He's not going to try to tell the kids, 'We're going to beat them with this scheme.' He's going to say, 'Hey guys, I'm going to put you in place to make plays.' When it comes down to it, when you see offensive plays and forma- tions that you haven't seen before, you have to have something that you can hang your hat on. I thought he was tremendous at that." Foley said when he watched Elko's defenses at Hofstra and Wake Forest, he saw players that knew where to align, which builds confidence in the plan. "There's never any issues in the base on where to get aligned," Foley said. "It's just basically, 'I know where I'm aligned.' They know how to fit all the different sets for anything they could see, and that allows them to play faster and with a lot of confidence. "We see so much 'defense of the week,' where we'll see something we haven't seen in three weeks and then all of a sudden a team is real, real heavy on a blitz or real heavy on an overload. That's not him. He'll blitz, and he blitzes effectively, but you can't predict it. You've got to be able to run the ball or at least be sound against the base, then he's got about 30 percent wrinkles and stunts within the base that makes it look like he's not doing that much, but no one's really moving the ball on him." Al Bagnoli was Elko's head coach at Penn. He also hired Elko as a young assistant right out of college. Elko was a standout safety/utility man for the Quakers, somewhat of a coach on the field. Bagnoli, now the head coach at Columbia, said Elko not only understood both safety positions, but he also played nickel for the Quakers. Elko knew what the linebackers and defensive linemen were doing on each play. That applied to special teams, where he played on every unit and knew what each player should be doing as well. "He's had this ability to kind of look at a big picture and conceptually un- derstand what you're trying to do," Bagnoli said. "It came very naturally to Mike, and that's an unusual trait. When you combine having some academic pedigree with that kind of big picture, you're going to get kind of a unique product. I'd put Mike under the unique product category." That knowledge has translated to his time as a college coach. Bagnoli said Elko keeps his defense simple for those that don't have an Ivy League education. "Mike has a unique ability to look at things, explain it very carefully, explain it very logically, make it simpler than what it actually is and can communicate it to his kids very well," Bagnoli said. "He doesn't feel the need to where he has to make everything so complex that he's the only guy that can under- stand it. "It's great that you understand it, but if your kids don't understand it, it re- ally doesn't matter and you can't execute it. He's done a great job of making sure that he keeps concise, he keeps things clear, he keeps things consistent." Akron offensive coordinator A.J. Milwee coached against Elko twice (2012 and 2013) while Elko was at Bowling Green. Elko's defenses were impressive in both games, holding Akron to just 10 and 14 points, respectively. What Milwee remembers most is the difficulty in preparing for Elko's defense. "He does a good job of adapting things to his players and adapting his game plan," Milwee said. Milwee was the quarterbacks coach on the 2012 team and said Elko's defense — which is able to disguise blitzes and coverages very well — was difficult to get a read on prior to the snap. "They presented a lot of blitz, which is a little easier to do out of a three- man front to get those outside linebackers walked up and you can kind of drop them into those throwing lanes pretty easy," Milwee said. "That was something he did a good job of that, probably got us a little bit. You've got all those underneath defenders, but you present a look of pressure before the ball is snapped and you drop right out of it, that can give quarterbacks fits sometimes. "Their guys don't give away what they're doing, which to me is always a sign of a really good secondary. If you can just give the quarterback the exact same look every single play pre-snap and then move on him late, I feel like that's always difficult for guys to see." — Matt Jones Coaching Colleagues High On Elko "WE HOPE TO DICTATE THE PACE OF THE GAME WITH AN ATTACKING AND AGGRESSIVE STYLE OF DEFENSE, MIX PHYSICALITY AND TOUGHNESS WITH EXCEPTIONAL FUNDAMENTALS AND, LASTLY, PLAY WITH GREAT EFFORT AT ALL TIMES. I CAN'T WAIT TO DIVE IN AND HELP THESE PLAYERS ACHIEVE THE STANDARD OF SUCCESS NECESSARY TO WIN AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL." ELKO

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