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.”