Blue and Gold Illustrated

August 2017

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

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Page 30 of 63 AUGUST 2017 31 nowadays, so that part of it is what is the equalizer. "It's every week you are trying to teach your kids," he continued. "That's the other part of the scheme thing, too. The scheme a lot of times is specific to the opponent, so how do you introduce a scheme that is manifested over? "But coming off blocks and tack- ling is manifested over every single game. That is the consistency with your philosophy. … If you can run and tackle and hit, that can be con- sistent throughout." Anyone that has been to a Notre Dame practice since Elko was hired can see that he and his defensive staff put their money where their mouth is. Far more time was spent during the spring working on the founda- tional principles of how to play, and the scheme was built on top of that. Take turnovers for example. Elko knows they are a huge part of the game, and he's aware that Notre Dame's defense has struggled to force them in recent seasons. His be- lief is that turnovers don't come as much from his specific play calls as they do from how his players execute that scheme. "Turnovers come from ball disrup- tions," he said. "So we practice ball disruptions, we coach ball disrup- tions. When you are playing a foot- ball game, the ball disruptions have to create the turnovers." Notre Dame's defense made posi- tive strides during the spring, often struggling to stop the offense in the early going but more than holding its own during the final practices. "It's consistent technique, con- sistent execution of what we are asking them to do," he said when asked what the next steps are for his defense. "In the spring there were flashes of not good. I think if we can become consistently our best, that will get us the product we are look- ing for." Notre Dame's personnel is differ- ent from what Elko had at Wake For- est the last three seasons. Of course, the Irish have higher ranked recruits and likely more future pros, but the players Elko inherited bring differ- ent strengths and weaknesses to the game. That means Elko can't simply come in and install the same calls or looks that helped his 2016 Wake Forest de- fense finish 10th nationally in turn- overs forced, 11th in sacks, 18th in third-down defense, 22nd in tackles for loss and 23rd in scoring defense. Good coaches understand that their system must fit the talent of the players he has, not the players he wants. Stops at programs like Rich- mond, Hofstra, Bowling Green and Wake Forest helped create a coach who understands this principle and one who knows how to adapt the specifics of his scheme to the talents of his players. "We spend a lot of time on Sun- day and Monday trying to figure out where the matchups are good and where the matchups are bad, and consistently they are going to be more bad where you are weakest," Elko said. "As you look at us over the course of a year, we will do more to protect where the matchups are bad, and a lot of times that has been the deficiency of us on defense. If we are deficient at safety, how were we go- ing to leverage the perimeter, reduce the space the safeties have to come up and tackle? "If we were not as good up front, how were we going to over number the box? … It's all like how we look at matchups week in and week out. That's a combination of big part of who we are, little part of who they are." Building around the talent of his players is important, but it doesn't change the foundational principles of who Elko is, or what his defense is going to be. "The principles remain the same," Elko noted. "If you looked at our playbook in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, in our fall camp playbook there were subtle changes from things that we developed. But there were no changes made because of personnel. "Those changes you are seeing on film are all emphasizing different calls, different defenses against dif- ferent looks to create the picture." Elko coordinates the defense, but he is still fully active in the day-to-day teaching. A safety at the University of Pennsylvania in his playing days, he remains involved in coaching that position even now. The more college football has evolved to the spread of- fense, the more important good safety play has become, and that is espe- cially true in Elko's defense. "The safeties are your space eat- ers in this day and age," Elko said. "Everything that people are doing is all about creating space. It's all about creating space. That has made a huge emphasis on the safety position be- cause those are the guys who used to be six yards from the tight end in this very boxy type of space to who now moved to 12 yards by 10 yards in this huge open area. "So the safety position has grown in importance over the years as the spread has evolved, and I think that will continue." Notre Dame is young and un- proven at the safety position, so it remains a position of concern head- ing into the season. Notre Dame is still young at cornerback, but it is a skilled group that gained valuable experience last season, and if that unit plays to its potential in 2017 it will remove some of the burden from the safeties. "It's a group that is very capable, but I think it's a group that needs to learn and develop," Elko said of the Irish cornerbacks. "They have to realize that the expectation level now is higher. It's not okay to be a fresh- man flashing. They now have to be a consistent football player, and that's maybe the jump a lot of those kids need to make." Now sophomores, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. will look to build on the 15 combined starts they earned as true freshmen in 2016. Elko wants them to go from being a group whose potential is dis- cussed to one whose production car- ries the day. "Last year amidst everything going on, there were times these freshmen flashed and everyone got excited," he noted. "That's not going to win us football games. "We have to be consistent play in and play out. That's the challenge for that group and taking that step. They are capable of doing it and we expect them to do it. But, it's can we be a consistent play in and play out group of corners?" That's the question for the entire defense, for that matter. If at the end of the year the answer is an affirmative, the Notre Dame defense will have fueled a much needed program resurgence. ✦ "IF YOU CAN RUN AND TACKLE AND HIT, THAT CAN BE CONSISTENT THROUGHOUT." ELKO

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