Tag: Mike Elston

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt

Last looks: Linebackers


With a strong recruiting surge, some roster shuffling and some good luck (and hard work) in the health department, Notre Dame’s linebacking corps was rebuilt remarkably quickly. A season after question marks were everywhere, the Irish have a linebacking group that is among the fastest and most athletic we’ve seen in a very long time.

With an All-American star and a returning MVP as its heartbeat, new position coach Mike Elston is working with a group of talented and veteran players. They are also the key to the defense’s success against a schedule that features a variety of offenses and two difficult option opponents.

Let’s take our last look at the linebackers before the season opens this weekend.


Position Coach: Mike Elston



Mike: Joe Schmidt, Grad Student
Mike: Nyles Morgan, Soph.
or: Jarrett Grace, Grad Student

Will: Jaylon Smith, Jr.
Will: Te’von Coney, Fr.

OLB: James Onwualu, Jr.
OLB: Greer Martini, Soph.

Additional Depth:

Asmar Bilal, Freshman
Josh Barajas, Freshman



Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s most talented defender is ready to take a step forward and play dominant football. After a strong preseason camp and an offseason dedicated to improving key pieces of his game, Smith looks poised to match his world-class athleticism with a better grasp of the Notre Dame defense. Just as important, he’s ready to lead from the front, named a team captain, the only junior of the five wearing the ‘C.’

Capable of being Notre Dame’s best edge rusher and also an elite cover man, Smith can do so many things to help the Irish defense. In what is likely his final season in South Bend, dominance—and a full stat sheet—are just the beginning for him. Willing the defense to a complete performance is another.



Joe Schmidt. The team’s returning MVP and the captain who is the alpha of the unit, Schmidt’s Cinderella story is done and told. Now he needs to be an overly productive middle linebacker, building on a great first season in the starting lineup.

Schmidt’s injury was essentially the beginning of the end for Notre Dame’s defense last season. Now that he’s healthy, it’s even more important for him to take the core basics that allowed him to excel last season and use them to play championship-level football.

Schmidt’s limited physically. But no more than 30 or 40 other middle linebackers in the country, including Scooby Wright, Arizona’s all-everything performer. So it’s time to take the focus off of his size and two-star pedigree.

Schmidt runs well, he’s got plenty of heft at 235 well-sculpted pounds and he’s got a brilliant football mind. Now he’s got to learn how to impact a game more, making plays behind the line of scrimmage in addition to anchoring the unit in the huddle.



Where will Jaylon Smith spend most of his time? Yes, Smith is still listed as the starter at the Will linebacker spot. But there’s no doubt that Notre Dame will play Smith everywhere, hoping to get him into positions where he can best impact the game.

If Smith shifts outside, what does that do for James Onwualu? If the Irish need to go bigger against triple-option teams like Georgia Tech or Navy, who slides into the middle? One thing seems clear, Smith isn’t coming off the field. But mixing and matching around him is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle that’ll only be revealed once the games start.


How will Notre Dame’s linebackers adapt to the up-tempo attacks? It’s great to have versatile pieces of depth. But if you can’t run them on and off the field, you’re only as good as the three guys you have on the field.

On paper, the depth chart looks great. Onwualu is the perfect outside linebacker for teams trying to spread the Irish out. Greer Martini has more mass, capable of holding up in the trenches if team’s try to go big against the Irish. Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan will each have specific jobs in different packages.

But a versatile collection of weapons doesn’t do you much good if you can’t get them out of the holster.


How can this defense optimize their personnel?  I’m not sure how you do it, but I think it starts with Jaylon Smith. From there, it’s hard to see a grouping that doesn’t include Joe Schmidt. After that, Notre Dame’s defense will likely view the third linebacker as a swing piece, deciding if Onwualu is a better fit than Matthias Farley or an additional defensive back.

The loss of freshman Shaun Crawford likely tweaks this formula. So does the move of KeiVarae Russell to the slot and Devin Butler to the outside in nickel. It’s easy to see a Schmidt-Smith pairing, but beyond that, finding how best to use the linebackers is going to be key.



Can this group hold up against the run? A former walk-on, a converted wide receiver and Jaylon Smith walk into a bar…

I’m at a loss for the punch line right now, but with the loss of Jarron Jones in the middle, Notre Dame’s undersized linebacking corps lost a very important protective barrier as this unit looks to be stout against the run.

In 2014, before the rash of injuries the Irish were tough to run against. And while Daniel Cage was praised on Tuesday afternoon by Kelly for his work in the trenches, calling on Cage and true freshman Jerry Tillery to play the nose and stuff the point of attack is a step backwards from a senior like Jones. There’s no questioning this group’s athleticism. But the war in the trenches will be one to watch.


Is Te’von Coney ready? A lot of freshmen have been discussed this August. But Te’von Coney has flown under the radar, interesting considering he’s in the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith.

Sure, Smith isn’t coming off the field. But he’s also not a full-time Will linebacker, either. So we’ll have to figure out if Coney’s just a plug-in name on a weekly release or a part of the plans on the inside. The Irish know they have contributors in Grace and Nyles Morgan, but having one in Coney would be impressive, too.


Is it crazy to believe that this group can be elite? Nightmares from November continue to run through my head. Watching Jaylon Smith get stuck behind a cavalcade of blockers against USC as the Trojans just ran the ball through Notre Dame’s injury-ravaged defense isn’t forgotten. Even in the Irish’s improbable victory over LSU, Leonard Fournette got his 2016 Heisman campaign started early, averaging 13 yards a carry as the Tigers ran for 285 yards and 7.5 a carry.

Yet the personnel at this position is talented, physical and extremely athletic. They don’t resemble the group that ran around like chickens with their heads cut off late last season. So while it’s tough to forget a terrible run of football that saw Notre Dame give up an average of 39.8 points a game over the final eight games of the year, this group looks really good both on paper and in practice.

Now let’s see what happens when the games start.




Elston ready to make his mark on Notre Dame recruiting

USA Today

Notre Dame landed three recruiting commitments coming out of the weekend’s Junior Day. And if it’s up to Mike Elston, there’ll be plenty more where that came from.

Elston spoke after Monday’s practice with the assembled media to talk about spring football, his role in the recruiting department and how Notre Dame’s efforts to continue to land elite talent are only going to be ramped up.

Along with Mike Denbrock, Elston is Brian Kelly’s longest-tenured assistant at Notre Dame, working with Notre Dame’s sixth-year head coach at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati before joining him in South Bend. After a few staff reshuffles and more than one opportunity to move to another program, Elston was promoted to recruiting coordinator while taking over the linebackers as Keith Gilmore joined the coaching staff.

Elston talked about returning to a job he held at Cincinnati, and his thoughts on what makes for productive recruiting with BlueandGold.com.

“I was the recruiting coordinator at Cincinnati. The biggest thing was just reorganizing, and making sure that everybody within the recruiting department knew and understood the roles that they needed to play, so that we could function at a really high level,” Elston said.

After Tony Alford left to join Ohio State, Elston takes over the position, previously held by Chuck Martin before that. While Elston’s reputation on the recruiting trail isn’t as celebrated as Alford’s, Elston has won more than his share of battles for good players. He also makes the very good point that being a great recruiter and being a great recruiting coordinator aren’t the same thing.

“Typically your best recruiters, if you take and tie them down with all of the constraints that you have as a recruiting coordinator… You take your best recruiters and put them in that role, then you’re limiting what they can do,” Elston explained.

“You don’t have to be the best recruiter on the staff to make sure that everybody is doing what they are supposed to. It’s about holding people accountable and having leadership for the people that are working under you for the recruiting department. I’m excited because I think those are my strengths. I think that I’m able to do those things. I’m excited about where the recruiting department is headed.”

We saw some of those organizational skills in action as the Irish hosted players from 11 different states, no small feat when you consider that travel on unofficial visits is paid for by the recruit.

Another area of focus is connecting with recruits on social media. With just about every teenager and seemingly every bluechip recruit taking to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook to talk about their recruiting status, it’s critical that college coaches become as comfortable building relationships on those platform as they are in traditional manners, not necessarily the easiest thing for grown men of a very different generation.

Elston made it clear that the Irish have established a presence. And he believes it’ll be more proprietary and ground-breaking than just sending out updates in 140 characters or less.


“We’re taking this thing to a whole different level,” Elston said, not wanting to go into details. “One area of a massive improvement is our social media.”

You can see that effort when you follow Notre Dame’s assistants on Twitter. And as he does after every commitment, Brian Kelly took to Twitter yesterday to blast out #WeAreND, after accepting the commitment from Tony Jones Jr.

Even with spring practice midswing and important on field work taking place, Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts are just getting started for the class of 2016.

“We’ll be all over. We’re already talking about where we’re coaching this summer. We’re going to be at a few camps,” Elston said. “We got a bunch of kids coming in this weekend, a bunch of big players, so we’re excited about those guys. We’ve got our coaches clinic, so coaches will be bring players with them, and that will be great. We have a busy, busy, busy next couple of months.”

Reports: VanGorder staying, LaFleur going

Brian Van Gorder

Brian Kelly didn’t want to talk about any coaching changes on Wednesday. But he’ll have plenty of things to talk about next time he addresses the media.

Multiple reports have finalized Todd Lyght‘s return to South Bend, where he’ll join Kelly’s coaching staff as Kerry Cooks‘ replacement. The South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen caught up with Lou Holtz to get his take on the move. Holtz was understandably excited.

Tim Prister at Irish Illustrated reached out to some of Lyght’s college teammates at Notre Dame. All said great things as well.

On Friday, more coaching rumors continued to swirl. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder‘s name reemerged in Oakland, where Jack Del Rio was deciding upon a defensive coordinator for his new staff. VanGorder worked with Del Rio in Carolina, one of his first professional jobs, and a report out of Oakland had him one of two candidates.

A source inside the program denied that VanGorder was going anywhere. Similar reports surfaced with the Chicago Tribune as well.  Hours later, word broke that Ken Norton would be taking the job, leaving VanGorder to coordinate his second season in South Bend.

While VanGorder is staying, quarterback coach Matt LaFleur is going. He’ll be heading back to the NFL to join Kyle Shanahan’s offensive staff under Dan Quinn. LaFleur worked with Shanahan in both Houston and Washington and will be joined by his brother in Atlanta.

Irish 247 caught up with Brandon Wimbush’s mother, as LaFleur was instrumental in recruiting the quarterback to South Bend. In a story that seems to be taking place all over the country right now as coaches move from program to program with Signing Day complete, Heather Wimbush took a philosophical approach.

“I was a little disappointed about Coach LaFleur, but then I had to remind myself why we picked the school,” Wimbush told Tom Loy of Irish 247. “Coaches come and go. It was just weird getting the news on Signing Day. I know for a fact that Brandon was disappointed, but Coach Kelly was very reassuring and I appreciated that.”

How Kelly replaces LaFleur will be interesting. It’s fairly obvious to say that Kelly didn’t expect to hire LaFleur as a quarterback coach — a decision he put plenty of time into — with the expectations of losing him just a season later to the NFL.

Kelly also assigned LaFleur a premium state for recruiting, getting lukewarm results from the young assistant. In his first stint covering California, LaFleur and the Irish landed just Equanimeous St. Brown, missing on a handful of other targets.

Expect Mike Denbrock, hopefully much healthier after a bout with cancer, to return to the West Coast. Or expect the hiring opportunity to be a chance to find a recruiter with ties to either California or Texas, where Kerry Cooks led the efforts.

For now, that’s all that seems to be out there that’s official. But it’s rumor season and there are still job vacancies to be filled — like Ohio State’s running backs spot and the head coaching position at Central Michigan, where former Chippewas assistant Mike Elston could surface as a candidate.


Spring brings new challenges to Elston and defensive line

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.”


Practice Report: Day Thirteen update

Stephon Tuitt 1

Apologies on falling behind a day with the practice reports. (If you didn’t notice, simply carry on…) As the Irish defense deals with the voluntary departure of one of the team’s most talented players, in seasons past, this could have been a death sentence.

Yet the loss Aaron Lynch has overshadowed a lot of the impressive depth the Irish have put together along the defensive line, and while it’s foolish to say Lynch won’t be missed, there are capable back-ups ready to take the field.

Almost on cue, the guys at UND.com gave us a look at defensive line coach Mike Elston’s troops. Led by fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore, who is all-the-way returned from a knee injury that ended his season early, the Irish should have plenty to offer along the defensive line.

As usual, here’s the practice report, with some thoughts and observations along the way.

  • 0:13 — While Jack Nolan tees up the particulars of this weekend’s Blue-Gold game (watch it live on NBC Sports channel, where you’ll get an appearance from some schmuck blogger…), you see the Notre Dame stadium crew putting in new field turf — just kidding, they are finishing up some drainage repair and laying new sod along the outside of the field.
  • 0:48 — It’s amazing to see the transformation of Kona Schwenke. The guy is just a monster now. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s merely one of those spring all-stars, or if this momentum carries into some significant stats next season, where he’ll likely benefit from the loss of Lynch.
  • 0:56 — We’ve already seen this play, but it’s impressive work by Kapron Lewis-Moore against Zack Martin. KLM looks all the way back from his knee injury.
  • 1:05 — “The Irish defensive line is a position group that remains one of the deepest and most talented units on the Notre Dame football team,” Jack Nolan unequivocally states (while sticking needles into his #19 voodoo doll).
  • 1:15 — Nothing not to like about Mike Elston. Smart guy, good guy, and a coach who took some lumps last year for the Irish special teams, maybe for reasons outside of his control.
  • 2:12 — Gotta love Kappy pushing to get blocker duty in special teams drills. Seniority is still seniority even in major college football.
  • 2:40 — Exchange of the video: “I don’t have swag?” Elston says (to what I’m guessing is linebacker Jarrett Grace). “What are you talking about? I’m dripping with swag. You don’t even know me.”
  • 2:52 — Of course, you’ve got to get defensive coordinator Bob Diaco into it. The guy might as well be the king of swag.
  • 3:06 — A good look at the two dog linebacker candidates, with Ben Councell and Danny Spond working some basic leverage drills. They both certainly look the part.
  • 3:56 — The transition “from speed to power” is a good fundamental to see in action. Especially with a 6-foot-7, 300-pound defensive end.
  • 4:10 — It’s amazing that Tyler Stockton, at six-foot, 285, looks small out there. He’s a product of a different recruiting system, and looks a little bit like strolling out  a Walkman instead of a iPod when you match him up with Tuitt.
  • 4:26 — Great to see Chase Hounshell back out there, after missing practice earlier with an injury. With Lynch gone, Hounshell,who many thought would redshirt last season, will now be a contributor if he can work into the regular rotation.
  • 4:40 — Elston coaching a basic sled drill, but drilling in the practical usage to Tuitt. Nicely done.
  • 5:07 — Seen this already, but Louis Nix does a great job beating Mike Golic, then tackling Cierre Wood.
  • 5:45 — Looks like we’ve got to work on the “club and slip” move again.
  • 6:20 — KLM puts Nick Martin on roller-skates.
  • 6:40 — Freshman Sheldon Day looks like he’s more than holding his own out there, doing some good work against Tate Nichols.
  • 6:52 — Call me crazy, but if I had to lose one defensive end out of Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, I’d rather lose Lynch. For the scheme the Irish run, Tuitt is more than the prototype, he’s next generation. Coming off the edge and snatching up that football is pretty ridiculous athleticism, as even Elston (and the UND.com slo-mo replay) acknowledged.