Nobody ever asked Mike Elston to jump out of a birthday cake.
Notre Dame’s linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator didn’t lead the Victory March in the locker room after the Syracuse win or fight back tears while doing it. He didn’t show a cutup of Ric Flair or the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air before defensive meetings to lighten the mood.
Mike Elston is neither new nor novel within Notre Dame’s coaching staff. This, of course, is why he’s so qualified to hold the fire extinguisher as Brian Kelly’s program attempts to control a blaze that enveloped the Irish defense last month.
So while Hudson might be listed as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, Elston’s job evolution may be just as important, if not more so. As the only staffer with personal knowledge of where Notre Dame’s defense has been (Bob Diaco) where it was (Brian VanGorder) and where it’s going (Hudson), Elston can tie it all together while meeting Kelly’s mandate to cut the playbook while sampling from three of them.
“He knows how to translate between Hudson’s ideas and his own, coach VanGorder’s,” said linebacker Greer Martini. “I think he definitely knows the defense extremely well. I think he’s definitely helped with the game plan and he’s been coaching a lot more.”
In terms of who’s actually calling the plays, it appears Elston for now as Hudson gets up to speed with what Kelly wants. While playcalling was described as collaborative by Kelly, there’s only one defensive coach who’s been on Notre Dame’s staff since it arrived in South Bend.
“Mike is very bright,” Kelly said. “He’s got a great understanding of the defense. We’re really trying to meld philosophically what I want and he’s able to pull that out of the inventory.
“Greg and him are able to work together to bring that inventory into what I see as how I want the defense to be run. Mike’s knowledge base more than anything else has allowed it to work very well. Each one has a specific role. Mike provides a very important role.”
It’s impossible to explain everything that changed schematically within Notre Dame’s defense to help spur that 50-33 win over Syracuse. The Irish played more three-man defensive fronts and returned to some 3-3-5 alignments. Safeties dropped deeper. Linebackers got more involved in coverage. A three-man pass rush was more standard than exotic.
And of course more players played, with 20 logging at least 20 snaps. Against Texas just 15 did in 90-degree heat. Eight defenders went beyond 80 real defensive snaps in Austin. At MetLife Stadium, none did.
“Coach Elston was a big part of the Syracuse win, a major part to it,” said defensive end Jay Hayes.
How those players prepared was different too, as the Irish staff reworked meetings and practices. To put it in academic terms, large lecture halls were out and small class sizes were in. Instead of meeting mainly as an entire defense, more time went to position groups.
“I think it was more an accountability thing,” Martini said. “But now it’s more about just getting in and watching the linebacker specific film from practice so we can really focus on what we need to do as a group.”
On the field, instead of having the first-team and second-team defense rep the same plays in the same sequence, a common approach under Diaco too, the staff jumbled the script to keep players on edge.
Elston has been key in that transformation. It’s not that he’s been the only driving force within Notre Dame’s changed defense, but Hudson hasn’t been the only change agent either. In Elston, the Irish found a willing translator to pull together a group that felt like it was falling apart in September.
“We needed him to step up,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “And that’s why we’re so excited about it. He’s done a great job. The amount of enthusiasm he’s brought to practice and even meetings has been tremendous.”