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Spring brings new challenges to Elston and defensive line

Apr 3, 2014, 1:44 PM EDT

Mike Elston

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.”


  1. irishwilliamsport - Apr 3, 2014 at 2:17 PM

    The D line will be a lot better than you think it will be after the loss of Nix and Tuitt. Tuitt should have stayed another year and would have been a lock 1st round pick.

    Only 5 recruits so far in the 2015 class, yikes…….cause for concern ?

    • mediocrebob - Apr 3, 2014 at 2:23 PM

      Worried about having only 5 recruits?

      It’s April.

    • dickasman - Apr 3, 2014 at 2:51 PM

      I dunno about that. A lot left to be desired unless he pulls off another lynch/Tuitt out of the bunghole.

  2. mediocrebob - Apr 3, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    I’m excited to see a few things. 1) Jarron Jones’ growth and development 2) Trumbetti and if he’s able to contribute 3) will Ishaq find a home with his hand in the ground and become a difference maker? Maybe less thinking will ignite him. 4) can Houndshell and Springman stay healthy for an entire season and provide quality depth and leadership?

    Elston seems like a helluva coach and must love ND to turn down a coordinator job (unless he feels Diaco will bust). Players appear to like him a lot. Looking forward to the evolution of this defensive front.

    • dickasman - Apr 3, 2014 at 2:49 PM

      Who’s that? Who’s that? Who’s that? I thiink we might have a problem here.

    • dickasman - Apr 3, 2014 at 2:50 PM

      I think Elston might be bit smarter and less desperate than Diaco.

  3. dickasman - Apr 3, 2014 at 2:48 PM

    Hey Keith, I’m gonna be out in redondo near you for couple months. Sushi dinner and romantic walk on the beach? Maybe I can help you replace your 1968 woody crown molding?

    • gbsk - Apr 3, 2014 at 6:25 PM

      You’re hitting on Keith?

      • papadec - Apr 3, 2014 at 10:40 PM

        You didn’t know that dick swung from both sides of the plate?

    • johnnybobanni - Apr 3, 2014 at 11:04 PM

      I get the feeling dickasman gets drunk in his grandmother’s basement every night trolling this site in his USC pajamas listening to “Goodbye Horses” with his nuts tucked and a wig on.

    • johnnybobanni - Apr 3, 2014 at 11:22 PM

      I think dickasman gets drunk every night, trolling this website in his grandmother’s basement, with nutz tucked and wearing USC pajamas listening to “Goodbye Horses”

  4. upthera44 - Apr 3, 2014 at 3:04 PM

    Sounds like iShaq continues to underwhelm…

  5. fnc111 - Apr 3, 2014 at 6:21 PM

    I’m going to get suspicious of Elston if we lose to Michigan again. That’d be a 1-4 record against them with this guy on staff. Elston is a Michigan grad.

    • irishdog80 - Apr 4, 2014 at 9:46 AM

      On a similar note, Tyrone Willingham, as a Michigan State grad, almost got to live every Spartan fan’s dream of an 0-12 ND season. Thank god he got fired before he strung together 3 straight mediocre to horrendous recruiting years. Poor Washington. What did Ty have against them? And to think Willingham is on the Committee that determines the 4 teams that will make the playoff, how did that happen? I will not respect Ty Willingham until he goes on National Television/ESPN and apologizes to ND and Washington for being a lousy recruiter…especially ND since he just sat back and let the media roast the Irish after ND had hired him in the first place. Ty and the resultant media firestorm after his rightful firing, set back the cause of African-American coaches for 5-10 years. If he had just owned up to the reasons he was fired…woeful recruiting efforts by him and his staff…it would have been OK–but I digress.

    • irishdog80 - Apr 4, 2014 at 12:18 PM

      And you can add Bob Davie to that list. I don’t have as much of a beef with him. He recruited OK, seemed to make a decent effort, he just didn’t ever “get” Notre Dame. Once he ran into problems, he seemed to lose his passion for ND.

      ND gets every team’s best game. To counter that, ND teams need to, at worst, match the other team’s talent level or, at best , exceed it, and play with the same sort of passion that every ND fan feels for Notre Dame. If the Coach is just doing his job at ND, they aren’t doing enough. They need to bleed ND Blue and Gold to get that same passion out of their players. And it can’t be faked or done for the paycheck.

      Clearly a coach at ND can come from a rival school of ND and have great success. That said, they will only have true success at ND if they had respect for ND before being employed by ND. If they didn’t respect ND or even hated ND, they will have a problem being successful as a coach at ND.

      • irishdog80 - Apr 4, 2014 at 12:24 PM

        And Bob Davie can thank Notre Dame for his career and paycheck as a broadcaster/color analyst.

        I can assure you, no one and I truly mean no one, would tune in to to hear the dulcet tones of Bob Davie, ex-Defensive Coordinator at Texas A&M.

  6. mtflsmitty - Apr 3, 2014 at 7:01 PM

    50% Faith: Day, Okwara, Jones and Williams are all freakishly athletic, highly recruited guys. Elston seems like he’s done a good job developing guys (not that I really have any insight).

    50% Fear: Only Day has meaningful experience at his position, and we’ve been snake-bit with injuries.

    100% Pumped to see what happens.

  7. mtflsmitty - Apr 3, 2014 at 7:05 PM

    For those interested in studying up a bit on the 4-3, Matt Bowen @ BR wrote a pretty solid article all about the 4-3. Has multiple examples and photos for chalk talk. You can find it here:

  8. getsome99 - Apr 3, 2014 at 8:08 PM

    Who still wishes we had Ronald Darby?

    • johnnybobanni - Apr 3, 2014 at 11:19 PM

      Not me! Read this:

  9. irishdog80 - Apr 3, 2014 at 10:18 PM

    Some guys respond to praise, some to being yelled at and some to being challenged to be as good as the Coach thinks they can be.Who knows? Elston might be trying to light a fire under Ishaq with his public comments. Williams is a Senior with plenty to prove. I’m optimistic he will.

    • ibleedirish - Apr 5, 2014 at 10:15 AM

      Your optimism is unfounded, but of course more power to you. He doesn’t like contact. You simply can’t be a good LB or DE unless you seek and thrive on contact. He is a bust, but he was a kid that was worth rolling the dice on, and I’m glad he chose to get a ND degree.

      • irishdog80 - Apr 5, 2014 at 11:51 AM

        I agree that you have to seek and thrive on contact to be successful at DE and LB and your assessment of Ishaq’s interest in contact may be true…I do not remember a single big hit or series of hits by him during his 3 years on campus. That said, a steady diet of contact like he is getting as a 4-3 DE operating against our stout OL in practice can develop an interest in contact…you learn that you have to fight back to have success and once you learn that it becomes habit. We will see. I am optimistic until proven wrong and we should find out as soon as the Blue & Gold game.

  10. ndnapa - Apr 6, 2014 at 12:19 AM

    I disagree Ishaq has the skills to be a dominant player. He hasn’t shown that in 3 years. He needs to produce-if not he needs to be benched.

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