Blue and Gold Illustrated

June-July 2017

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 30 of 63 JUNE/JULY 2017 31 BY MATT JONES J alen Elliott's first defensive snaps in college came on the biggest stage. The Notre Dame rookie safety appeared for just two plays in last year 's season opener at Texas, but both came on the Longhorns' game- winning touchdown drive in double overtime. "Just so much going through my mind, so much flying around," Elliott said of his experience during the 50-47 loss. "I didn't want it to be on me re- ally, but just because I didn't want to let the defense down as a whole. It was a lot going through my mind." With a year under his belt and a beneficial change at position coach and coordinator, Elliott is poised for a breakout sophomore season. The Richmond, Va., native played 117 defensive snaps in 2016, 10th most among Irish defensive backs. But with new defensive coordina- tor Mike Elko in place — who also serves as Notre Dame's safeties coach — Elliott now has the tools to thrive. And that improvement has started with the game slowing down for Elliott. "It's always tough, but being thrown into the fire kind of helps you with the speed of the game and get- ting used to that, so when you come out it moves a little bit slower," El- liott said. "It's easy for you to kind of get accustomed to everything that's going on. "The speed of the game just kind of slowed down. I feel a little more comfortable." Notre Dame concluded spring ball with Elliott listed as the starter at free safety, joined by junior Nick Coleman at strong safety. While the strength of the position is still undoubtedly in question — neither Elliott nor Cole- man have made a start at safety — the addition of Elko seems to have fortified the back end for now. "The safeties as a whole have a lot of confidence in each other," Elliott said. "Just trusting the process. It's not really about me and Nick, it's about everybody as a unit. "That's the big thing that's been preached this spring — just being a unit and not really worrying about it. Just getting better each day." By moving Coleman from corner- back to safety and Elliott to a more natural spot at free safety — where he can range sideline to sideline — it allows Notre Dame to get more of its players in positions to succeed. That has meant shifting senior Drue Tranquill from safety to rover, a new hybrid position that has moved him closer to the line of scrimmage. "To have a position now where I'm able to move down and have younger guys who are ready to step into that role — Jalen Elliott, Nick Coleman, Devin Studstill ... — they're kind of able to take over the safety position and allowing me to move into a posi- tion where a lot more of my strengths are shown," Tranquill said. Elko said safety and linebacker are perhaps the toughest positions on his defense to learn. "That's where the scheme takes some time to get used to," Elko said. "How you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have got- ten better with that, which has then helped them play faster as the spring has gone on." Elliott came to South Bend after a prestigious prep career as a two- way player at L.C. Bird High School. The former star quarterback is now focused strictly on defense, but his coverage ability exhibits his former offensive prowess. "I'd like to say that I can cover pretty well as a safety," Elliott said. "My range from sideline to sideline is pretty good. It's a lot I need to work on, especially tackling." Elko made improved tackling an emphasis at every position this spring, and Elliott feels improve- ment was made in that depart- ment. The safety said his position group tended to have a base that was too wide, which restricted how much power they could put into a tackle. Notre Dame got down to funda- mentals over the course of 15 prac- tices, and with the help of strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis' winter workouts, Elliott and the Irish project to be much better at getting ball carriers on the ground. Elliott played his freshman season around 190 pounds, but has bulked up to a current playing weight of 208 pounds. "It was a big difference," he said of the winter workouts. "I'm just feel- ing better on the field. Going against some of the bigger running backs last year, I knew that 190 wasn't going to cut it. … I really felt a difference in my body." After the spring game — in which Elliott finished with a game- high seven tackles, one intercep- tion and one pass broken up — he side-stepped a question regarding his place on the depth chart, more specifically whether he thought he'd won a starting job. He said the entire safety group, de- spite its inexperience, is leaning on each other entering the offseason. "We all hold each other account- able," Elliott said. "A big part of the process is holding each other ac- countable instead of having to have Coach Elko always [keep] us in order. "It's big that everybody, if you see something wrong, you let them know no matter if you're a fresh- man or you're a senior. It doesn't matter. That's the biggest part of this year is making sure we're all accountable." ✦ PLAYING FREE Jalen Elliott has the skills to upgrade Notre Dame's safety position "IT'S ALWAYS TOUGH, BUT BEING THROWN INTO THE FIRE KIND OF HELPS YOU WITH THE SPEED OF THE GAME AND GETTING USED TO THAT, SO WHEN YOU COME OUT IT MOVES A LITTLE BIT SLOWER. … THE SPEED OF THE GAME JUST KIND OF SLOWED DOWN. I FEEL A LITTLE MORE COMFORTABLE." ELLIOTT Elliott — who made a game-high seven tackles, notched an interception he returned 28 yards and broke up another pass in the Blue-Gold Game — came out of spring practice as Notre Dame's starter at free safety. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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