On the day that Brian Kelly introduced his coaching staff to Notre Dame nation, Mike Elston was absent, out with the very legitimate excuse that his wife was delivering their new daughter.
Since then, the defensive line coach jumped head first into recruiting, helping to solidify recruits like Prince Shembo, Justin Utupo, Louis Nix, and Bruce Heggie. As the Spring approaches, he’ll be in charge of turning around a defensive front that was much maligned last year, as well as a special teams unit that showed a vast need for improvement.
When it came time to talk about his goals for the defensive line, Elston didn’t mince any words.
“We’re going to be the best defensive line in the country,” he said. “That’s what my expectations are. A year ago, I coached a defensive line and they had very little playing experience. They were undersized. No one liked them. I moved over from tight end to defensive line. We led the Big East in tackles for loss, we were second in sacks, eighth in the country in sacks, third in tackles for loss. I expect them to be the best in the country. We’re striving to win a National Championship. I’m not going to coach them and say, ‘Hey guys, we can finish in the top 50 or we’re the 50th best defense in the country.’ We’re going to be the best.”
Obviously, everything right now is lip service, but Elston’s message is good one. The Charlie Weis era felt too much like a team that was dedicated to playing elite offense and just good enough defense. That’s not a way to build a championship team. While its tough to look at the defense Cincinnati played and say that they did things much differently, the stats that Elston cites are important ones, and are key points of emphasis for this defense.
Moving to special teams, I also think the Irish have a chance to do much better. Too often Notre Dame found themselves on the wrong side of field position battles, and even after removing the horrific punting they got for most of the season from Eric Maust and Ben Turk, Notre Dame had far too good of skill position talent to lose on special teams each Saturday. For as much of an asset as Brian Polian was recruiting, he was never thought of as much more than an above-average special teams coach. When asked about his still to be defined role working with the special teams, Elston had this to say.
“I can’t say that we’ve won every game because of special teams, but we haven’t lost one because of special teams. With my experience and the help of the staff, I think that we can be very strong… At the end of the day, I’m going to coordinate special teams. I will do the game planning and the organizational practices and communicate to the team what their responsibilities will be. I will coordinate all six unites: the punt return, the kickoff, kickoff return, and the field goal PAT and field goal protection teams.”
That’s quite a responsibility for a coach that also wore the hat of the recruiting coordinator for the Bearcats, and also spent time as the tight ends coach under Kelly.
While all that might sound great, some Irish fans might be happiest with Elston’s goals for his alma mater, the Michigan Wolverines.
“I can’t wait to beat them,” Elston said.
After last year’s game in Ann Arbor, who can?