Blue and Gold Illustrated

May 2017 Issue

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

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34 MAY 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI T here is a story about how for- mer Notre Dame head coach and four-time national cham- pion Frank Leahy (1941-43, 1946-53) after a particularly poor practice gathered his players around him and started from square one by pointing out, "Gentleman, this is a football." That would seem to describe where first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko was most of this spring. "We're playing one or two fronts right now, and we're not playing a ton of coverages," head coach Brian Kelly said about midway through this spring. "We're more interested in technique and execution. It's more about creating a positive teaching environment and letting these kids play." Former Irish defensive coordina- tor Brian VanGorder (2014 through four games in 2016) had an elaborate, scheme-oriented, NFL-style defense that did not translate well into col- lege with its paralysis by analysis. Elko's calling card this spring was about simplicity and fundamentals. "Guys are just playing faster, more confident," summarized senior rover and team captain Drue Tranquill. "They're not worried about so many checks and they're more worried about, 'What's my job on this play and how can I best help my team?'" Nevertheless, this was not going to be a well-oiled machine at the end of one spring. "It's developmental football," Elko said the day before the Blue-Gold Game. "It's not, 'Here's where we were [pointing to his mid-section], hire Mike Elko, and now we're here [pointing above his head].' It doesn't work like that. … There's not a switch that you flip that gets you to the top of the elevator. You have to climb the stairs." Fundamentals over scheme was the overriding theme, so the trade-off is that Elko estimates maybe 50 per- cent of what he wanted to implement was in this spring — and that was mainly against the type of spread Notre Dame plays. "We're going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward," Elko said of the next step come August. "That's prob- ably where a lot of the learning curve still has to come. … We knew we were going to have to spend time with [fun- damental development]. That was go- ing to be the priority no matter what." For Elko, the baby steps this spring have included deriving satisfaction from incremental improvement that he detected on video from the first day of practice to the last. "We're disrupting the football bet- ter," he said. "We're leveraging the football better. We're playing harder. Those three things over the course of spring have gotten better for the most part every time we've gone out there. "Trying to strip the football. Run- ning as hard as you can. They're not rocket science answers. Put on prac- tice one and guys aren't running as hard as they can. Put on practice 13 and they are. I'm not trying to sim- plify it, but it's as simple as that." After giving up a 70-yard touch- down drive on the opening series of the Blue-Gold Game, the No. 1 Gold defense bounced back strongly. The starting defensive line — maybe the top question mark on the team en- tering 2017 — held its own and then some against the more veteran starting offensive line, including seven "touch sacks" of quarterback Brandon Wim- bush (some debatable) and two inter- ceptions, whose next TD drive wasn't until the shortened fourth quarter. "We're more physical, we're fit- ting the run better, we're rushing the passer better," Elko said the day be- fore the Blue-Gold Game. Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan is expected to do more downhill attacking in Mike Elko's system, which means he could top last year's team-leading 94 tackles. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND SPRING OVERVIEW: DEFENSE Simplifying, fundamentals and forcing turnovers were the points of emphasis

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