Friday at 4

Friday at 4: National Signing Day’s Things We Learned & Things We Knew


From a pure numbers perspective, Notre Dame went above and beyond by signing 27 recruits this cycle. To a degree, that was expected. As soon as the Irish exceeded 23 recruits, the effect was the same, only increasing: Each signee meant another roster spot needs to be found by August. That was known.

It was not known the final piece of that boom would be consensus four-star cornerback Noah Boykin (pictured above). His 11th-hour and unexpected commitment put Notre Dame’s defensive back haul over the top, joining consensus three-star cornerback DJ Brown in choosing the Irish on Wednesday. Signing seven defensive backs in one class is a bit extreme, but considering a year ago included only two safeties and no cornerbacks, the overcompensation served a purpose.

Joe Wilkins (

To that point, Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght acknowledged Wednesday the influx of defensive backs could allow for some flexibility for the likes of consensus three-star Joe Wilkins, who excelled as a receiver as much as a defensive back in high school.

“I think there is going to be some two-way play for him when he first gets here,” Lyght said. “To really find out where his skillset is best served on this team, whether that be on the defensive side of the ball or on the offensive side of the ball, that’s too soon to be determined, but we’ll know soon enough.”

Lawrence Keys (

Not that the receivers exactly need another piece to consider, either. Consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys appeared to be trending toward the Irish before this week, but sealing the deal with him created a receivers class of four, equally balanced between speed and physicality. Keys and consensus four-star Braden Lenzy offer the breakaway speed that can single-handedly force a coverage adjustment, while consensus four-star Kevin Austin and four-star Micah Jones offer physical threats possibly ideally designed for sideline receptions.

“That’s the goal. Year-in and year-out you want to make sure you bring in a different skillset and that you’re not one dimensional,” Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander said. “We’ve got quickness, we’ve got speed, we’ve got size, we’ve got a little bit of everything. That’s what you should do each year you bring in a group of receivers.”

The Irish may have had that with or without Keys, but considering the numbers game inherent to college football, doubling up on speed doubles the chances of it making an impact down the road. (See: Stepherson, Kevin.)

This class’s depth of defensive backs and receivers will be cited for a time to come. Eleven of the 27 recruits fill the edges of the passing game, be it on offense or defense or, in the case of Wilkins, perhaps both. In a year when Notre Dame did not excel in defensive line recruiting, focusing on the pieces of the aerial game served as an adequate alternative. If this class leads the Irish to the bowls always mentioned as a season’s goal, those two position groups will almost certainly be heavily involved.

Pardon the second usage of the following quote just today, but it best underscores the Irish success this year in recruiting defensive backs and receivers.

“From an across the board depth standpoint on the back end of our defense and at the wide receiver position, an area that I feel is [as] good as any class that we’ve recruited here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “… When I walk away at the end of the day and take a step back, those two areas I feel really good about relative to what we’ve done there.”

Admittedly, what the Irish had done at those two positions was largely hit-or-miss. If looking at the last three classes via ratings, even just the top-end recruiting has yielded inconsistent results. Last year, Notre Dame managed only one defensive back (safety Isaiah Robertson) rated as highly as each of this year’s top two defensive backs (safety/cornerback Houston Griffith and safety Derrik Allen) and top two receivers (Austin and Lenzy).

In 2016, two receivers matched that ranking, Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley. The former broke out a bit this past fall while the latter has been hampered by injuries. A total of five defensive backs reached that recruiting ranking. The cornerbacks (Julian Love, Troy Pride, Donte Vaughn) have largely lived up to that billing while the safeties (Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan) have not, just like the rest of the safeties on the Irish roster.

Similarly, three receivers met that metric in 2015, and their careers covered the spectrum. Equanimeous St. Brown is already headed to the NFL, Miles Boykin may be a starter Sept. 1, and C.J. Sanders is transferring out of the program. The two defensive backs offer a similar range: Finally healthy, Shaun Crawford excelled this past season; Mykelti Williams never took a snap for Notre Dame.

The objective here is to reinforce a point Kelly made while discussing the incoming depth.

“They’re all young players, and they’ve got to prove themselves.”

That echoed both common sense and words from recruiting coordinator Brian Polian on the first day of December’s early signing period.

“Let’s be careful about who we are anointing the next stars,” Polian said then. “… Obviously we feel these young men can come in and compete at a high level, but sometimes it takes time, and we need to allow for that learning curve and that process before we start anointing guys as saviors.”

Jarrett Patterson (

Speaking of the early signing period, it stacked the deck for the Irish to close this strongly. Kelly described the last six-plus weeks as “extremely intentional.” Notre Dame knew it needed defensive backs, and it got them in spades. It wanted a couple more offensive linemen, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn made a strong first impression in retaining consensus three-star Luke Jones’ commitment and in bringing in three-star offensive tackle Jarrett Patterson. The Irish hoped for a running back, and consensus three-star C’Bo Flemister will help relieve some of the burden felt by a depleted position group.

But let’s not forget the two areas already known to be excellent.
Notre Dame signed 3 four-star linebackers. Two of them, along with consensus three-star Ovie Oghoufo, enrolled early. As strong as the Irish coaching staff finished in recruiting defensive backs and receivers, this linebacker group is the best in recent memory, to say the least. It is not beyond feasibility to envision three of them starting as sophomores, nor would that necessarily be a bad sign.

And any year in which Notre Dame signs the quarterback it initially targeted can be counted a success at that position.

So, if defensive back, receivers, linebackers and quarterback were all recruiting wins, and offensive line and running back filled the depth as necessary, then 2019’s goal is clear: Defensive line recruiting will be the driving priority.

Thus spins the never-ending recruiting cycle.

Friday at 4: The pros, cons and math of Notre Dame signing more than 25 recruits

On Wednesday, Notre Dame might exceed 25 scholarships in one recruiting class for the first time since 2006. Undoubtedly, the Irish coaches have thought about the ramifications such a large single-year group would have on recruiting in the next 12 months.

As is, Notre Dame has 21 signees in the class of 2018, one additional commitment already in hand and the possibility of multiple more by National Signing Day.

That is not to say the Irish will assuredly exceed 25 scholarships. Recruiting changes just like milkshakes melt. Yet, when considering prospects who were committed to schools before December’s early signing period but did not sign on the proverbial dotted line (consensus three-star running back C’Bo Flemister [Pike County High School; Zebulon, Ga.] and consensus three-star defensive lineman Derrick Eason [Norview H.S.; Norfolk, Va.], pictured above, as pertinent examples), they very clearly are on the market and considering current suitors.

One does not even need to read between those lines with consensus three-star cornerback DJ Brown (St. John’s College; Washington, D.C.), who de-committed from Virginia to weigh other options in Notre Dame, Cal and Northwestern.

Lawrence Keys (

Those three possibilities would bring the Irish to 25 players in the class, with distinct chances at consensus five-star offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (Berkeley Prep; Tampa, Fla.) and consensus three-star receiver Lawrence Keys (McDonogh 35; New Orleans), among others, still afloat.

RELATED READING: Whom might Notre Dame add to this recruiting class in [five] days?

For a thought exercise, let’s say Notre Dame enjoys a banner close to the recruiting cycle, pulling in four of those five, bringing the class to 26 total. (That still falls two short of the class of 2006, retroactively led by a trio of offensive linemen in Sam Young, Chris Stewart and Eric Olsen.)

Suddenly, the Irish could be looking at a class of 18 or 19 recruits next year. It would effectually be an inversion of the cycle seen in 2012 and 2013. Notre Dame signed only 17 prospects in 2012, including names such as KeiVarae Russell, Ronnie Stanley, CJ Prosise … and Gunner Kiel. That slim class allowed for 24 recruits in 2013, the nation’s No. 3 haul per, highlighted by Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller and Mike McGlinchey.

Quick, rough math explains the crunch without spending much time. Currently, the Irish roster has 84 players slotted for 2018, including consensus three-star offensive tackle commit Luke Jones (Pulaski Academy; Little Rock, Ark.). Add the aforementioned four yet-to-commit hypothetical surprises and that count jumps to 88.

The first piece of practicality here: The attrition of three more players before August has long-been expected and became a near-certainty when Notre Dame signed 21 commitments in December.

“It is a reality,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said then. “Our situation here at Notre Dame is we have not been at that 85, so we’ve been more aggressive this year with that. I never feel really comfortable with it, to be quite honest with you, but I’ve had to get over that.”

When he says “aggressive,” Kelly means he and his staff have needed to be more up-front with certain players about their futures within the program. Presumably, someone had a frank conversation with junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor, indicating he had been passed by multiple freshmen in the depth chart and would not likely see much playing time moving forward. Taylor then made the decision to transfer to find a better chance at contributing elsewhere.

There is nothing amoral or bothersome about that, as long as all parties are honest, but it is still an awkward and uncomfortable conversation.

To get from 88 to 85 by August, this thought exercise will presume an injury, a transfer and a suspension each occurs in the next six months.

Looking forward another whole year, the nine fifth-year players will all depart, obviously. Nine current juniors will, as well. Perhaps current sophomore cornerback Julian Love opts to turn a likely third excellent collegiate season into an NFL draft entry. Maybe one of those juniors, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, for example, is offered another season by the Irish coaching staff. An incoming transfer or two could arise, though an outgoing transfer or two inevitably will develop.

Those ebbs and flows would then create the opportunity to sign only 18 or 19 players in the class of 2019. If presuming another year of “aggressive” attrition, that could conceivably rise to 21 without much stress.

That may not seem to be a steep drop from the usual 24 or so, but it will alter recruiting strategies knowing there are that many fewer spots to hold open for the late-deciding, like Petit-Frere.

If possible, Notre Dame should absolutely find a way to make space for Petit-Frere on the roster. Not only is he a top-line offensive lineman to build around for a few years, but there is some credence to the thought of One in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Logic knows that is a decision being made already. It is made every year crucial class move past 22 commitments, though every signee more than 22 increases the magnitude of the effect in the years to come.

The roughest of math to settle on that figure of 22: It’s algebra, and it changes each and every year, but …

— If an average of one player leaves each year before his sophomore season,
— And another two leave before their junior years,
— And then two departs, be it for the NFL or transfer elsewhere, between their junior and senior seasons,
— And about a quarter of each class is invited to return for a fifth year, meaning 5-6 annually,
— And two transfers coming to Notre Dame every four years,

Then the average roster distribution is … [class size as freshmen] + [sophomores: class size as freshmen – 1] + [juniors: class size as freshmen – 3] + [seniors: class size as freshmen – 5] + [fifth-years: class size as freshmen / 4] + two incoming transfers = 85.

(4 x class size + class size / 4) minus seven = 85.

Average class size = 21.6, rounded up to 22.

That math is intentionally and admittedly conservative, so as to draw an inherent and hopefully-illustrative contrast to the “aggressive” tendencies needed to recruit these larger classes.

Friday at 4: Returning 9 fifth-years brings Notre Dame unteachable luxuries

Associated Press

It is a common saying in the spring while hyping practice performances: Speed can’t be taught. Frankly, it is a common saying anytime discussing football at length. Yet, to some degree speed can be taught — with the proper training and technique, players do get faster.

It would be more accurate to point to experience as an unteachable quality, one gained only with time.

This spring and coming fall, Notre Dame will have plenty of experience from the outset. Nine fifth-year players are expected back with the Irish for one more season, more than double last year’s four, which included a transfer in receiver Cam Smith. He joined left tackle Mike McGlinchey, offensive lineman Hunter Bivin and tight end Durham Smythe.

McGlinchey turned down the chance to be a first-round NFL draft pick to return, and both Bivin and Smythe had options to transfer elsewhere for a final season with more playing time and perhaps more prominent roles. Instead, McGlinchey led the Irish on and off the field, Bivin provided the only semblance of depth along the offensive front and Smythe had a career season.

The nine in 2018 will represent the opposite end of the seasoning spectrum when compared to 22-25 freshmen. The nine may not warrant dramatic and desperate pleas for playing time. More often than not, they do not even land in headlines. The fifth-year options are known quantities, while the freshmen stand out as potential and hypothetical greatness.

In time, some of the freshmen will certainly surpass the fifth-years’ ceilings. Using such a declarative verb and tense in the previous sentence even holds up when considering the sheer numbers at hand.

In 2018, though, the fifth-years will be Notre Dame’s backbone. They provide experience, consistency and depth the freshmen simply cannot match. That is not a knock on the newcomers. All-Americans and likely first-round draft picks McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson were not ready to contribute as freshmen. Neither were the likes of Mitch Trubisky (at North Carolina), Deshaun Watson (at Clemson) or Christian McCaffrey (at Stanford), three of the top-12 picks in last year’s NFL draft.

The freshmen’s time will come. For defensive end Jay Hayes, tight end Nic Weishar and receiver Freddy Canteen, the only remaining time is now. To some degree, that ticking clock adds a sense of urgency to the qualities they bring to the locker room.

The experience, consistency and depth are just a bit more tangible. There will be few situations those nine have not seen, few offenses linebacker Drue Tranquill has not already watched film on. If that allows him to pick up on a play a second earlier, it could be the entire difference in getting the defensive line properly lined up before the snap. Similarly, there will be few blitzes center Sam Mustipher has not had to already diagnose. If that removes one more duty from the quarterback’s pre-snap checklist, it should allow him (whomever it is) to focus on the coverage presented that much more.

The Irish roster was always going to have a punter on it. If that is a fifth-year or a freshman, it equals one roster spot all the same. By keeping Tyler Newsome around, a consistent and strong leg remains a field position weapon.

Losing a consensus All-American in McGlinchey and a unanimous All-American in Nelson is enough of a challenge. Getting Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars back will do a lot to ease the task of replacing the left side of the line for newly-promoted offensive line coach Jeff Quinn.

Cornerback Nick Watkins’ physical stature makes him an ideal boundary coverage option to start with, but keeping him in the mix with the four sophomore cornerbacks also makes Notre Dame’s secondary deeper than it could ever deploy at once. Even if current sophomore Julian Love spends some time at safety, the Irish could still trot out a dime package with four stout cornerbacks. Without Watkins, that luxury would hinge on the quick adaption of a freshman such as Tariq Bracy.

Without Jonathan Bonner, Notre Dame’s depth at defensive tackle could have quickly turned concerning if multiple newcomers did not prove themselves early. With Bonner returning for a fifth year, the position is one of the deepest on the Irish roster. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa would have been a good starting defensive tackle in his second season, if not more than that. The return of Jonathan Bonner means Tagovailoa-Amosa will be a great backup, if not more yet, nonetheless. Either way, the return of Bonner raises the overall quality of play at the position. The same goes for Hayes at defensive end and his effect upon the possibilities of the current sophomores filling the position group.

Experience, consistency and depth. They cannot be taught, only gained with time.

While Alabama made it fashionable to insist freshmen are universally ready to play by relying on first-year players at quarterback, running back, receiver and left tackle on its national championship-winning drive, those were anomalies. Even at that, they were mixed-result anomalies. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made greater and more mistakes than exceptional plays; his positive moments simply proved more decisive. In addition to the title-winning touchdown pass, he also jeopardized the game by throwing an interception on a running play, using a timeout when trying to drain the clock and taking a sack on the opening play of the Tide overtime drive. That sack was initiated when freshman left tackle Alex Leatherwood blew his block, forcing Tagovailoa to move into more pressure.)

Most freshmen are not ready to provide consistent and constant production. For every Robert Hainsey, there is a Mike McGlinchey. For every Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, there is a Jonathan Bonner. For every, nope, Notre Dame has not had a strong freshman linebacker showing since the otherworldly Jaylon Smith in 2013. One could argue that underscores the importance of Tranquill’s return, as it is somewhat unlikely any of the early-enrolled or incoming freshmen linebackers make an impact this year.

And if one of them is, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will readily embrace it. Someone still has to join Tranquill and current junior Te’von Coney on the defense’s second level.

Friday at 4: What a defensive difference two weeks makes

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The college football offseason is approximately 33 weeks long, from the national championship game to Labor Day Weekend. Obviously, for 127 teams each year, that stretch is at least one week longer.

It is vital to remember how interminably it lasts when overreacting to each and every personnel development. Consider just two weeks ago, the sky seemed to be falling in on Notre Dame’s defense. Coordinator Mike Elko had left for the same position at Texas A&M. The odds were, at least, 50/50 he would take linebackers coach Clark Lea with him. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery had not yet declared for the NFL draft, but the coaching change made both departures appear more likely.

The news cycle moved so quickly, this weekly spot published 12 hours early so as not to risk a development usurping the intended premise.

Now, that defense returns 10 starters and stability in coaching. Its reserves show such promise, those 10 will not all start against Michigan on Sept. 1. The only position group with depth concerns is also the one bringing in four highly-touted linebackers as freshmen.

What a difference two weeks makes.

That “Friday at 4 a.m.” included quick mention of the concern regarding Coney and Tillery.

“Like Tillery, [Coney] is considering heading to the NFL. If he does so specifically because of Elko’s exit, that may be the costliest result of this coaching carousel for the Irish.”

Just a week ago, it was possible, even likely, only defensive end Jay Hayes (93) would return from this trio, but defensive tackles Jonathan Bonner (left) and Jerry Tillery (99) burgeoned the Irish interior depth by returning for one more season at Notre Dame. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It is unlikely Coney and Tillery both returned only because head coach Brian Kelly promoted Lea to defensive coordinator and retained Mike Elston as defensive line coach. What matters is they did. It is also unlikely any of those factors were the deciding aspect for senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner opting to reverse course and enjoy a fifth year at Notre Dame. What matters is Bonner did.

With those luxuries, Lea will have eight players who started all 13 games this season to steer his way as a first-time coordinator. He will also have current senior cornerback Nick Watkins and sophomore Troy Pride, who combined for 13 starts as Pride filled in for an injured Watkins in the final month, and Coney, who technically started only seven games, though he split time with graduating senior Greer Martini all season.

That makes 10 veritable returning starters. If nothing else, sophomore safety Alohi Gilman will force his way into that mix now that he’s eligible following his transfer from Navy.

Compare those 10 to the recent past. Heading into 2017, the Irish returned two 12-game starters, Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill. Seven total returning defenders had started at least seven games in the dismal 2016 season.

Speaking of that 4-8 debacle, Notre Dame started that year with even less experience. Cornerback Cole Luke had started 13 games in the Fiesta Bowl-concluding 2015 campaign; defensive end Isaac Rochell claimed 12. After them, linebacker James Onwualu had started nine games and defensive tackle Daniel Cage had notched seven. That was it for playing time worth acknowledging.

Starts are somewhat arbitrary, though, as perhaps best illustrated by Coney technically having only seven to his name despite finishing as the defense’s leading tackler this season.

How vital were his, Tillery’s and Bonner’s return to Lea’s future? With the three of them, 10 of the leading 12 tacklers will be back in 2018. Looking backward once more, the Irish returned four of their eight leading tacklers entering the season opener against Temple. Want the quickest summary of the 2016 failure? Realize Notre Dame had only one of its top-five tacklers from the College Football Playoff contender the year before, and two of the top 10. NFL dreams, suspensions and injuries left that defense with neither experience nor production.

To anyone wondering if these statistics diminish a secondary’s impact — considering most defensive backs do not rack up tackle totals — the trends all apply there, as well. The Irish return six defensive backs who saw genuine playing time this season, plus Gilman. The safety play was inarguably disappointing, but that position will presumably not get worse. For thoroughness’ sake: Only two defensive backs had seen notable playing time heading into 2017, and only Cole Luke could claim such entering 2016.

Barring a rash of injuries or suspensions, this defense will be better in 2018. It returns too many pieces to propose otherwise, and experience this broad benefits all involved.

The easily-tracked indicators for coming success hardly even factor in the likes of freshman defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and his development. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

That can be said before even expecting increased contributions from current freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, without pinning hopes to the quartet of incoming linebackers, including three who enrolled early, and without projecting further development from sophomore defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara.

Two weeks ago, this defense faced the prospect of learning a new scheme with only two of its top-six tacklers returning. It may have needed to claim the secondary as its most-experienced position group, the only position group ever lampooned in 2017. Resetting despite a strong defensive season highlighted by back-to-back weeks of stymying top-flight offenses in mid-October was a disappointing prospect, to put it mildly.

Now, this defense has a chance to enjoy growth in consistency and excel at every level. Performances like those seen against USC and North Carolina State could conceivably become the norm.

Friday at 4: Notre Dame not at fault in Mike Elko’s departure, but the next decision could determine 2018

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Today, it certainly seems like defensive coordinator Mike Elko left Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly holding the bag, exactly how much cash was within it notwithstanding. Elko’s departure for Texas A&M after only one season with the Irish comes as a surprise because the defense improved so drastically in his one season, because it was only one season, and because Kelly felt assured enough of Elko’s permanence for at least another year to say so publicly just a week ago.

Then the Aggies and Jimbo Fisher called Elko again, apparently upping their offer to the point Notre Dame was either not willing to match it or too bothered at being asked for a second raise in two weeks to indulge the conversation. Exactly which of those reasons was the reality hardly matters. In many respects, they are one and the same. In all respects, the result does not change.

There comes a point when paying an assistant coach an average of $2 million per year — a figure reported by ND Insider’s Eric Hansen as what Elko will receive at A&M — is counterproductive to a program’s broader goals, no matter how well that coach improved a defense both individually and as a unit in just one season.

People change. Milkshakes melt. Football staffs turnover. These are realities of life. At some point, Elko was always going to leave Notre Dame. There was an unavoidable chance it would not be on good terms.

Perhaps Irish Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick would opt to dismiss Kelly after a middling campaign. Paying the required balance of the head coach’s salary would get the headlines, but being on the hook for millions on millions to an assistant coach would be just as painful to a bank account. Maybe that would result in the next head coach feeling the burden of being encouraged to retain Elko. That relationship would be doomed from the outset.

Perhaps Elko and Kelly’s thus far harmonious relationship would sour with time. That is not a reflection on either individual. Again, people change. Such a rift could lead to a gossip mill of rumors as a buyout is negotiated as has been the case for weeks at LSU while head coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Dave Canada try to quietly part ways, though tied by millions of dollars.

Those are the obvious financial concerns to forking over such money to an assistant coach, even if an overly-ambitious offer from a school free of state income tax has set the market that high. (Quick, rough, only somewhat educated math estimates Notre Dame would have needed to outdo a $2 million Texas bid by a bit less than $100,000 to make the net incomes match.)

There is also a clear logical piece of management at hand. Whether it be Kelly, Swarbrick or a power further up the University ladder, any employer wants to avoid an all-out bidding war. It sets an unrealistic and costly precedent. Every coach considering leaving the Irish in the future would have indicated he may stay for more money. That counteroffer could then be turned around to bilk more from the prospective next employer.

The subject of a bidding war also prompts natural wondering from colleagues. Is he there because he wants to be or because the paycheck had just enough digits?

Irish coach Brian Kelly did not expect to spend the week following a Citrus Bowl victory trying to find his next defensive coordinator. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

None of that would be healthy for a Notre Dame team with lofty expectations in 2018. Those aspirations began with the thoughts of the defense growing even further under Elko. Now, they hinge on Kelly’s next hire, likely the most pivotal of his Irish tenure.

In the long view, the success of Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator will dictate the telling of Elko’s quick departure. If Kelly finds a staffer that improves the defense even more in 2018, then the University will be applauded as prudent, thoughtful and principle-driven. If not, then that narrative shifts to cheap, short-sighted and foolish.

Neither view will necessarily be correct. Elko’s decision and Kelly’s choice are not inherently tied beyond the former creating the moment for the latter. Yet, Elko’s time ably developing the Irish defense presents two obvious options for Kelly to consider and likely spent the night already pondering.

Entering the 2017 opener against Temple, Notre Dame’s defensive line was seen as a great weakness ready to be exposed. If it was indeed a barren wasteland, it would ruin the integrity of any scheme Elko would try to deploy.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s development this season provided a backbone to what was expected to be a spineless defensive line. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Instead, the Irish defensive front was a source of strength. Senior tackle Jonathan Bonner became a stout point of attack to close a career previously filled with little-to-no contributions. Junior tackle Jerry Tillery consistently showed an ability that had long been seen only in spurts, such that he now has to genuinely consider heading to the NFL. Freshmen tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish excelled to the point that losing both Bonner and Tillery this offseason should no longer spark panic in the hearts of Notre Dame fans.

Senior ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti became realized contributors. Sophomore ends Daelin Hayes (no relation) and Khalid Kareem continued to progress promisingly. Defensive line coach Mike Elston deserves much credit for every piece of that growth.

He also deserves credit for the Irish managing even four wins in 2016. As interim defensive coordinator for the final eight games, he turned a disjointed unit into one that could at times be described as serviceable. Included in those eight games were a contest played in a literal hurricane and two option-dependent opposing offenses. In the five other, normal games, Elston’s defense allowed 135.8 rushing yards per game. That mark would have been the No. 30 rushing defense in the country. The opponents were not exactly patsies, either, including Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech and USC.

Kelly interviewed Elston for the job that eventually went to Elko last offseason. The defensive line’s development and the performance in 2016 create enough of a résumé to consider him again.

If looking at the 2017 defense, the other instances of rapid development that jump off the page would be those of senior linebacker Drue Tranquill and junior linebacker Te’von Coney. Tranquill finally found the role he was designed for at rover, Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle. His continuing there provides Notre Dame’s defense a dynamic and physical playmaker always pursuing the ball.

The leap by Coney, meanwhile, exceeds most describing. Like Tillery, he is considering heading to the NFL. If he does so specifically because of Elko’s exit, that may be the costliest result of this coaching carousel for the Irish.

Kelly should not turn to linebackers coach Clark Lea in hopes of retaining Coney. If it played out that way, it would be a nice side effect, but pinning the staffing decision on the thought process of a 21-year-old would be far too risky.

Rather, Kelly should consider Lea because the linebackers showed much progress in 2017, and because Lea would continue to implement Elko’s system, having come with him from Wake Forest. That scheme worked this season. It should continue to work next year. Maintaining that stability could further those College Football Playoff thoughts.

There are other options across the country Kelly should and undoubtedly will look into. Some of them may demand the paycheck Notre Dame was not willing to write for Elko.

Whether the Irish land one of them, promote Elston or hand the keys to Lea, the defense is still better off than it was 12 months ago. Elko deserves credit for that much.