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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.