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Friday at 4: Four Defensive Questions

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When you finish a three-hour, 25-round fantasy baseball draft, your next move involves pouring a combination of liquids over ice and talking about anything but baseball. Thus I found myself last night with a Dark and Stormy in hand fielding questions from an old friend. We’ll call him Corey, due to him grabbing Corey Kluber in the second round before I had a chance to do so myself.

Corey knows me quite well, and thus knows I generally prefer to avoid Notre Dame football conversations when shooting the breeze. He also knew it could be broached last night—I would have gone so far as to discuss politics if it meant I didn’t have to think about the surplus of stolen bases available this year.

As good of a friend as he may be, he doesn’t read this space. I know as much. He knows I know as much.

That gives me the luxury of parroting our conversation here without him realizing our Notre Dame football chatter can actually serve a purpose for me. His questions may be your questions.

“In layman’s terms, what about [new Irish defensive coordinator Mike] Elko’s defense will be different?”
It is clear Corey caught me in a serviceable mood when I did not simply retort, “Only time will tell.” I first paraphrased a Saturday quote from Irish coach Brian Kelly. This is the internet, though. The space is boundless. Why limit to paraphrasing here?

Kelly was asked how he can tell Elko’s emphasis on turnovers is taking hold with the Notre Dame defense. It can be counterproductive to have defensive backs swiping at the ball every chance they get in practice.

“We’re already doing some things we haven’t done in the past that are going to be reaping benefits for us,” Kelly said. “Defensive line is going to be batting down balls. You’re going to see guys stripping the football, getting the ball out. Those in particular are areas you’re going to start to see on the field, in particular, more turnovers.

“It’s a little more difficult when you’re going against your own team. You don’t want to pull somebody by the jersey and put them in a compromising position while they’re running out while you’re trying to really punch the ball loose.”

Kelly continued by discussing the work being put in on those areas during position group periods. Today (Friday), Kelly elaborated.

“We’ll be better at taking away the football because it’s an emphasis every single day. Last year, before we went to team—and this not better or worse, but this is just a different emphasis—before we went to team, the defense would spend five minutes on pressures. We spent five minutes today before we went to team on stripping the football and getting the football out … Today we spent 25 minutes in different segments during practice on how to get the ball out in different fashions, how to stay on your feet and not jump and getting in the face of the quarterback.”

Furthermore, look for the Irish defensive line to worry less about taking up blockers and more about getting to the ball. The latter may seem like it should always be the objective, but there is value to taking up an extra blocker and granting the linebackers more space to work with.

In Elko’s scheme, less concern will be directed toward maintaining and containing. More will be focused on disrupting and disturbing.

Again, time will tell much more.

Who will start at safety against Temple?
To answer that with any certainty, one has to know who will start at rover: junior Asmar Bilal or senior Drue Tranquill? If the former, as Kelly has indicated given the Owls’ predilection to relying on the run, then Tranquill may be in the mix at safety.

Aside from that, junior Nick Coleman sure sounds to have landed on his feet in moving from cornerback to field safety.

“Our evaluation of Nick Coleman is that he’s going to be a dynamic player at that position,” Kelly said today. “We all know that he possesses the athletic ability. We want to see if he can translate the other skills at that safety position, tackling, picking up the scheme in terms of how you play off the hash.

“Based upon what we’ve seen through seven practices, he won’t be moving to another position. For me to tell you today that he’s our starter, he’s our guy, we need more body of work, but he won’t be moving anywhere else.”

At the other safety position, Kelly said sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott are in a tight competition.

Back to Tranquill, briefly. Notre Dame posted a brief conversation between him and Elko earlier in the week. In it, the oft-maligned senior provided some noticeable self-awareness of his abilities.

“I’d like to think my characteristics on the field translate off the field,” Tranquill said. “I’m a relentless, hardworking individual who is just passionate about what I do. I love the game of football. I’m a tough guy. I’m really smart. I understand the game out there. I’m able to kind of communicate and move guys around.

“Areas I need to improve on, I’m kind of a bigger safety. My ability to open my hips and move in space is something I’ve consistently had to work at just because I’m bigger.”

“I’ve heard so much about Elko being this defensive savant and he is going to greatly improve our defense from last year. But what has he actually done? Has he developed anybody into great players? NFL players?”
Knowing there was no chance I could list off any NFL products from Wake Forest or Bowling Green, Corey took a satisfied sip of his Moscow Mule. Admitting that personal deficiency, I pointed him toward this space’s brief statistical analysis of Elko’s time with the Deacons against common Irish opponents.

But to the question asked, let’s start with disclaimers: Elko was at Wake Forest for only three years. While he did develop some players (more on that in a moment), the ones he recruited, the ones he had the most chance to mold, are still in school. Before that, Elko was at Bowling Green for five seasons. While that is a stretch more conducive to successfully working with players, one must also recognize the limitations of the talent Bowling Green typically recruits.

Three players from Elko’s tenure at each school have made it to the NFL. More from Wake Forest could still. Looking at the progression of their collegiate statistics, one can glean a few things from some of those six.

Current Detroit Lions linebacker Brandon Chubb’s Deacons career took off when Elko joined the program in 2014. Sure, Chubb made 88 tackles in 2013, good for second-most on Wake Forest’s defense, but only three of those were for a loss and he did not sack the quarterback so much as once. In the following two seasons, Chubb made 216 tackles, including 15 for loss and 3.5 sacks, not to mention another 12 quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.

Similarly, current Houston Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson did not make a single tackle for loss in 2013. Elko’s arrival likely played at least a part in Johnson’s 3.5 such tackles in 2014 before he was drafted by the Texans with the No. 16 overall pick. In 22 career NFL games, Johnson has a total of 79 tackles.

When defensive tackle Chris Jones entered the NFL Draft in 2013, Bowling Green had not produced a defensive draft pick since defensive back Charles Williams went to the Cowboys in the third round in 1995. The Texans took Jones in the sixth round, presumably partly because of the time he spent in opponents’ backfields the previous three years. Jones produced 44 tackles for loss, including 27 sacks, in his sophomore through senior seasons.

How much of these performances is attributable to the players’ natural skills? How much is due to coaching and development? That is the gridiron version of a nature vs. nurture debate. Working through that philosophical issue is not the objective here. That is to simply answer Corey’s query.

One other statistic jumped out when looking at the six NFL players from Elko’s path. Bowling Green cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah’s tackles jumped from 24 in 2013 to 82 in 2014, the year Elko left for Wake Forest. The Falcons also gave up 1,688 more passing yards in that season, presumably creating more opportunities—and needs—for Adjei-Barimah to bring down ballcarriers. A defensive coordinator’s departure alone does not explain allowing 4,080 passing yards, but it does not help.

“Do you want another drink?”
What a courteous host Corey was. Unfortunately, last night the answer was no. Now, however, well, look at the time.

You know what to do.