It’s been a challenging two years for Mike Elston at Notre Dame. A serious illness derailed his first season in South Bend, forcing the Irish’s special teams coordinator and defensive line coach to step away from football during the season to focus on his health.
In 2011, Elston’s unit was the one that suffered health ailments, with major injuries plaguing returning starters Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson and nagging ones limiting Sean Cwynar. A unit that looked to be one of the deepest on the team was turned it a group anchored by first year players Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Aaron Lynch.
Elston’s defensive front did improve in it’s second season, allowing less than four yards per carry for the first time since the Irish’s BCS appearance in 2006, but the front didn’t dominate the way many believed that it could. Combine that with subpar special teams efforts in the coverage and punt return game, and Elston’s units were almost a microcosm of the 8-5 season.
Turning the page shouldn’t have been easy. The offseason’s biggest headline for Elston’s group was a negative one, with Aaron Lynch packing his bags and heading home to Florida. The loss of Lynch certainly will be a blow to the unit’s pass rush, but Elston doesn’t seem to be sweating it.
Focusing his attention on his position group after handing off most of the special teams duties to new position coach Scott Booker, Elston entertained the Evansville Downtown Quarterback Club and gave some updates on the defensive line.
After the Irish struggled to deal with elevated expectations last season, Elston believes the third season in the system will be a promising one.
“The guys are finally understanding what it takes to buy into the whole process — from the start of June with summer conditioning all the way through a January bowl game,” said Elston, according to the Evansville Courier & Press. “They bought in last year but not consistently through the entire season.
“You get tested when adversity hits and obviously we had some adversity and didn’t respond the way we needed to respond. But I believe the guys have grown up a lot and we learned a lot about them.”
Another interesting takeaway was Elston once again referencing a comment he made early in his tenure, when he set the bar incredibly high for his defensive front. Back in 2010, expecting the best defensive line in the country was a laughable thought, especially after watching the Irish front play on rollerskates under Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta.
Yet even with the loss of Lynch, the evolution of the defensive front has turned a pipedream into something that’s now within reason.
“We are going to be very strong,” Elston added. “Three years ago when I was asked my expectations for the defensive line at Notre Dame, I said I expected to have the best defensive line in the country. We are well under way. It’s going to again be a strong suit for our team.”
Boiling down summer pep talk rhetoric with common sense, the Irish aren’t there yet, but certainly have made some incredible strides in the short time Kelly has been in charge of the Irish. For the easiest comparison, just take a look at the defensive front the Irish were rolling out in ’09, featuring youngsters like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ian Williams, and Ethan Johnson, and backing them up with guys like John Ryan, Paddy Mullen, and tough structural fits like Kerry Neal and Kallen Wade. That type of talent is miles away from the current unit, even without Lynch coming off the edge.