Every college student has had the kind of professor whose knowledge base is so far off the chart that the challenge of communicating that material becomes lost in translation.
That was Brian VanGorder; this is Mike Elko.
“You can line Brian VanGorder up with the most intellectually sophisticated football coaches that I’ve ever met,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly Monday as he introduced the seven new coaches on the 2017 staff.
“But they have to be translated. Mike Elko does a lot of things that are hard to decipher but easily taught.”
That, in a nutshell, sums up Elko’s success as a defensive coordinator, beginning at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at the age of 28, through Fordham, Richmond and Hofstra, and on to Bowling Green and Wake Forest, where he quickly became known as a guy who could do more with less than just about anybody in the country.
From Florida State to Clemson to Louisville as well as Notre Dame in 2015, Elko’s defenses have continually held some of the strongest offenses in the country below their normal scoring and yardage outputs.
Now the challenge is to do it at Notre Dame where the likes of USC, Stanford, Michigan State and the ACC will get a crack at a Notre Dame defense that, first and foremost, will know what they’re doing, where they should line up, and won’t be asked to pull off physical miracles from week-to-week.
“We’re going to install a lot of defense, but we’re going to teach it in a way our kids understand it,” Elko said. “We’re going to be concise in how we do it. When we teach it, it’s going to last. Once they get it, they’ll have it and they’ll run it.”
For Elko, it’s not about star ratings and scheme; it’s about communication and setting up your talent – the only talent you have from which to draw – for success. VanGorder grew frustrated because his players couldn’t run his complex scheme. In other words, his scheme wasn’t the problem; the players were.
“Here’s the nutshell answer I give to people: Scheme is irrelevant,” Elko said. “There will be a foundation of what we want our kids to play like, and with the scheme, we’re going to put them in positions to be successful. What we ask them to do is what they’re capable of doing. That’s the biggest thing we’re going to evaluate with the scheme.
“The second part of it is we’ve got kids – and we’ll do this here too – to form a product of your 11 always being better than their individuals. If we can get 11 guys buying into doing what we do and doing it the right way, and doing it as hard as they possibly can, the product that those 11 can put together is better than the individual make-up of who you’re playing against.”
It’s sounds easy, but it’s not, at least for defensive coordinators who try to X and O their way to success. To be sure, the X’s and O’s are important. Elko’s defenses at Wake Forest were some of the most diverse, varied attacks in college football the last three seasons.
Turnovers, sacks and overall confusion for offenses going against Elko have been a constant. Nobody knows that better than Kelly, whose offense generated just 21 points and 282 yards total offense in a year (2015) when it averaged 34.2 points and 466.4 yards total offense per game.
“I was looking for somebody that would take the football away, somebody who has had continued success as a coordinator,” Kelly said. “He’s very smart. He attacks protections as well as anybody out there.
“When I brought him in and had him teach his defense as a teaching progression, what stood out to me was his ability to dissect an offense, it’s strengths and weaknesses, and how he attacked him.
“He’s extremely thorough and (gets players) to understand those things, and then eliminates the big plays. The first thing that stands out is he’s a really smart football coach.”
Coming up with an effective scheme is just part of the solution to Notre Dame’s recent defensive woes. How it looks will not be as important as how his players react.
“At times, it’s going to be 4-2-5ish. At times, it’s going to look 3-4ish. At times, it’s going to look 4-3ish,” Elko said. “But at the end of the day, all of it is trying to put kids in the best position to be successful.
“People get so wrapped up in the scheme as if that’s the end-all, be-all conversation. Whether we’re a 4-2-5 or a 4-3 or a 3-4, we’re going to play hard, be aggressive, tackle well, be physical, come off blocks…those things are more important than the X’s and O’s picture.”
Linebackers coach Clark Lea – who will work with the Buck (outside) linebackers, Mike linebackers and the Rovers, which is a hybrid linebacker/safety – has been with Elko at Bowling Green (2012) and Wake Forest (2016).
He, too, says it more than scheme. Way more.
“(Elko’s defense) plays with a spirit and a relentless effort,” Lea said. “They have fun on the field together. He does a tremendous job of developing relationships. So these kids know they’re not coming into a business-type environment. This is a space for them to grow and learn.
“They’re going to be held accountable. It’s not always going to be easy, but they’re going to be cared for. They know Coach Elko and his assistants have their back. That’s a powerful motivator because what we do is extremely hard, and if you just beat the kids over the head day-in and day-out, eventually they’ll wear out, just like the coaches will.
“But if you can help them improve, and give them an environment that’s dynamic and exciting and challenging, the good ones keep coming back for more.”
In that environment, players know their responsibilities well. But they’re also inspired to commit to the cause for the greater good.
“I can’t tell you the number of times where we misfit runs and had a player come off a block to make a play in the backfield, not because the scheme told him to, but because he was fighting for the guy next to him,” Lea said.
As exciting as the prospect of moving from Bowling Green to Wake Forest to Notre Dame was for Elko, he didn’t walk into this job with blinders on. In fact, he made sure he watched “a ton of film” before he took the job.
What he saw was, according to Elko, was more than enough talent to succeed with the Irish.
“We’ll have a scheme that’s flexible enough that when you come in on Sunday, you’re not consistently mad at the same kid for not being able to do something that he can’t do,” Elko said. “If you’ve got a safety that can’t play deep and cover a slot man-to-man, stop asking him to do that every single play.
“You can’t ask a corner to play a receiver in press-man all game if that’s not going to be a great matchup for you. It’s more that NFL philosophy that matchups make a lot of things, but in college, it’s their skills sets that make a lot of things.”
Consistency in the approach to a scheme plays a significant role as well.
“It’s the conciseness in how you coach the scheme, and then it’s how much the scheme changes from day one to the end,” Elko said. “Do you install a defense in spring ball that holds up through the end of the season? Or is it, ‘Okay I know we installed it this way but now we’ve got to do it this way this week.’”
Confusion is the bane of Elko’s existence.
“There can’t be confusion,” Elko said. “Your job is to make sure your kids are performing at a high level on the field. If that’s not happening, it’s got to change and we’ve got to make it happen.”