Mike Elston

Spring brings new challenges to Elston and defensive line


Not many position coaches in the country lost more than Mike Elston. The departure of Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two-thirds of a starting lineup that might both be first round draft picks, could turn any assistant coach’s hair grey. Add to that the loss of key back-up Kona Schwenke and hybrid defensive end Prince Shembo, and Elston’s position group is the most rebuilt on the roster.

The timing was right for a renovation. In addition to ripping things down to their studs, Elston has been tasked with pouring a new foundation as well, with Brian VanGorder installing a new, attacking system that the young defensive line has been tasked with learning.

Elston was made available to the media on Wednesday, giving his first progress report on how things have gone. And as you’d expect from a youthful two-deep and a lot of installation, the efforts are ongoing.

“We’re being multiple this spring, so there’s some carryover, but there’s also a lot for them to learn,” Elston said. “The frustration comes from repetitive mistakes. We want to try and eliminate those mental errors. Each practice we get closer to doing that.”

Just about every viewing opportunity this spring has revealed the Irish in a four-man front. Outside linebackers Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams are now defensive ends. Sheldon Day is lined up on the inside with Jarron Jones. Elston gave updates on how that group looks, holding high hopes for a resurgent season for Day, who spend most of 2013 battling an ankle injury.

“Hopefully you’re going to see a guy who’s dominating,” Elston said. “He’s got the ability if he stays healthy. His production will be very high and he’s a tough guy to block. He plays with great leverage against the run and he’s an excellent pass rusher.”

Elston sounded as if he was hedging his bet a little bit more when asked about Williams. The senior has the frame and skills to be a dominant player, but he’s also going through a transition this spring, working exclusively with the defensive line.

“He has a long way to go, but he’s moving forward every day,” Elston said of Williams. “He needs to play with consistency as well as with grit and a toughness in there. A year ago he played on the edge of the defense, but now he’s lined up on a 315 or 320 pound tackle every single snap. So just having that consistency of playing with true grit and being a tough, physical player.”

Another player Elston spoke about was Jones. After looking like the heir apparent to the nose guard position after playing impressive football in place of Nix, Jones won’t have to anchor the defensive line in a four man front. But with his size and strength, Elston has set a high standard for the rising junior, expecting to see him take a large step forward next season.

“With his size, you’d like to see him dominate in there,” Elston said. “What he’s really been working on is his lower body leverage power and playing with leverage. He’s very good at block destruction with his hands and he’s really improved his pass rush. Jarron is a very improved player right now and we’d like to see him continue each practice getting better and better.”

Last season’s defensive line never had the opportunity to play to its design, a trio of Tuitt-Nix-Day had the highest ceiling of any defensive line since the Holtz era. With only Day returning (and doing so at a different position), there is little certainty at the position group.

But Elston is an excellent teacher. After reportedly turning down an offer to head to UConn as Bob Diaco’s coordinator, a new syllabus to work from has added some energy to spring drills.

“We had to reset some things that they haven’t done in a long time,” Elston said. “But it’s been good and exciting and they’re enjoying it. We’re pushing them hard, but there’s a lot for them to learn.”


Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”