In a reversal from his adamant comments in December, defensive line coach Mike Elston will leave Notre Dame to join the staff at Michigan, his alma mater, per multiple reports Thursday afternoon.
Elston came to Notre Dame with Brian Kelly in 2010, the only staffer to last through all 12 years of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. They had coached together since 2004, so when Kelly jumped to LSU abruptly after this season, there was widespread speculation Elston would join him.
Instead, Elston stayed on new head coach Marcus Freeman’s staff as defensive line coach, with some expecting him to at least be a candidate as defensive coordinator. Elston insisted his decision was not based on any job prospects or a lack of loyalty to Kelly, but instead simply what was best for his family.
“People think it’s loyalty to certain people, and at the end of the day, my family is the most important thing in my life,” Elston said on Dec. 15. “To move a daughter who is a junior in high school right now, starting her senior year. To move my middle daughter, Sophia, who is 14, and she’s going to be starting freshman year, who is a top-10, top-15 fencer in the country, and a lot of places don’t have fencing, pulling her away from an area that she’s able to flourish (in).
“So it’s a family decision for me and it will always be a family decision. It’s not about money. It’s truly about — my kids want to go to Notre Dame, too. It’s a family decision, and that’s why I’ve always really turned down opportunities for myself.”
Returning to his alma mater, where he worked as a student assistant in 1997 and as a video intern in 1998 before serving as a graduate assistant for two years, was an opportunity Elston apparently could not turn down.
Elston called Notre Dame’s defensive plays in the Fiesta Bowl, giving up 30 straight points in less than half the game. Freeman never framed that afternoon as an audition for Elston, but it should be noted that in recent weeks, Elston’s name has not been among the rumored candidates to be the new Irish defensive coordinator.
It should also be noted that Elston making this move suggests Harbaugh has reassured those around him he will not be taking an NFL job, simply based on logic.
With Elston’s unexpected departure, Freeman now needs to hire two assistant coaches. He needs a defensive coordinator, as well as a position coach to work with either the defensive line or the linebackers, whichever the defensive coordinator does not handle, unless Freeman intends to still handle the linebackers. That would be a surprise, but it would create some possible flexibility among the coaching staff.
Notre Dame finished 2021 with 41 sacks, a high for the Kelly era, and after Elston convinced Isaiah Foskey, Jayson Ademilola and Justin Ademilola all to return last week, the Irish return 30.5 sacks along its defensive line and 34.5 total.
Talked to the family of one of Notre Dame’s defensive line commitments. The Elston departure is a shock and Elston has already called to tell the family that he’s headed to Michigan.
— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) January 13, 2022