If there was an area on the Irish defense that excelled during a scattershot 2016 football season, it was the linebacker corps with an exciting mix of young and old that included James Onwualu, Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal.
Once the transition was made from Brian VanGorder to the Greg Hudson-Mike Elston duo, the unit solidified with responsibilities simplified and an improvement in tackling that benefitted the defense greatly over the final two-thirds of the season.
Further development of Notre Dame’s linebackers is now into its next phase under defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his linebackers coach, Clark Lea, who previously spent two years with Elko – one at Bowling Green in 2012 and this past season at Wake Forest.
Lea also made three-year stops at UCLA (2009-11) and Syracuse (2013-15).
“What Coach Elko does at the second level is all about playing in the opponent’s backfield,” said Lea, a baseball-player-turned-fullback at Vanderbilt under head coach Bobby Johnson from 2002-04.
“We want to be fast and aggressive. Intelligence is a skill, just like the 40 and vertical jump. We want to get guys who have been in leadership roles and have done well in the classroom. Not only does that make them a fit for us academically, it also will allow them to process faster and make plays.
“We want great blitzers. Coach Elko has allowed us to play aggressively in the blitz game at the second level. That will be an important trait as we move forward.”
It certainly was important for Wake Forest. While Notre Dame’s top 5 linebackers were combining for 11 of the team’s 14 sacks and 28 tackles for loss, the Demon Deacons’ top three linebackers alone – Marquel Lee (Mike), Thomas Brown (Rover) and Jaboree Williams (Buck) – had 13½ sacks, one less than the entire Irish team, and 34½ tackles for loss.
Defensive linemen accounted for most of Wake Forest’s disruptiveness up front, particularly Duke Ejiofor with 10½ sacks and 17 tackles for loss, due in large part to the additional pressure supplied by the linebackers.
Lee alone had 20 tackles for loss, which were 8½ more than Notre Dame’s team-leader (Onwualu). No Irish defensive lineman had more than two sacks (Jarron Jones) or more than 11 tackles for loss (Jones), six of which came in the Miami game.
“We’ve had players that have made a lot of TFLs from the second level,” Lea said. “The reason is that (Elko) incorporates the blitz game into the scheme. Some of that is being fast and aggressive through our base defense. But whether it’s on base downs or third downs, we’re going to have an opportunity.
“From what I’ve seen of the (Notre Dame) guys, they’re long, fast and athletic, and that tends to be good in the blitz game. My job is to put the finishing touches on them as pass rushers and make them effective to get to the point of attack.”
While Elko is quick to point out that “scheme is irrelevant,” his underlying message is that if you prepare defensive players for success, they’re capable of having success no matter what the scheme.
Scheme clearly makes a difference in Elko’s defense, and it shows up on the stat sheet.
“The scheme (Elko has) developed over the years is incredibly effective in defending the modern-age offense,” Lea said. “Mike does a great job of identifying the problems the offense puts you in, and then addressing those problems.”
Preparation through clarity was perhaps the greatest albatross during the last 25 games of the VanGorder era.
“If you’re watching (an offensive) scheme and you don’t quite have the answer, you can either hope they don’t run it or you can dig in and find the answer,” Lea said. “We teach it in a way that’s simple and allows us to access the technique or scheme we need in that moment.”
No more forced fits with personnel and scheme. Under Elko, it’s matching the personnel with the scheme.
“It’s not ‘we’re going to do what we do,’” Lea said. “No, we’re going to find answers within the framework of what we do to defend the opponent. That takes more time and effort, but when you line up on Saturday and feel like your kids have a chance, it’s exciting.
“We’re going to defend as the game is played offensively. So we’ll have answers to schematic problems. Offenses have become more creative. You have to tailor your approach to defend what they do.”
Once you’ve removed the “paralysis through analysis” – a glaring issue under VanGorder – you develop players who know what they’re doing and are comfortable doing it.
The ability to play free-and-easy with clear-cut solutions to problems eliminates confusion and hesitation.
“You’re looking at split-second reactions on defense,” Lea said. “We say it’s a game of inches, and truthfully, a false step for a linebacker could be the difference.
“Mike incorporates complexity within the scheme, but the scheme doesn’t change. You can groove understandings conceptually and teach conceptually. Over time the defense becomes the players.
“There’s nothing more frustrating for a player than when the ball is snapped and you’re unsure. When you’re confident in what you’re doing and you know how to anticipate what’s coming next, you can cut loose and play, and that’s what we’re talking about when you talk about playing in the opponent’s backfield.”
Lea is learning his personnel through Mike Elston -- who coached the Irish linebackers last year -- film study, winter workouts and, of course, through personal contact with the players off the field.
“It’s an eager group,” Lea said. “I’ve had a chance to sit down with all of them. They’re excited. Anything new is exciting. Whether it’s better or worse, time will tell.
“It’s exciting that we’re working with a group that’s eager to win. I’m learning their skillsets and seeing them move and getting to know them as they are. That way we can plot a course moving forward.”
No one has been a more eager student than senior-to-be Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan, who paced Notre Dame in sacks last year with four.
“Nyles has made himself available and kind of beaten down the door to sit down with me,” Lea said. “I’ve talked more football with him than anybody else. I have never had a guy so relentless in his pursuit of one-on-one meeting time like Nyles. My hope with Nyles is that we’re locked arm-in-arm and leading together.
“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.”