Notre Dame fans don’t agree on much these days. It’s understandable: a 4-8 campaign followed by head coach retention in the midst of massive program overhaul tends to draw its share of battle lines.
That can change in small part today thanks to new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko who dropped by the Isban Auditorium to offer a bit of logic – a healthy dose of reality, if you will – into the spring proceedings after his fourth practice with the squad.
“We didn’t become a good defense because I got here,” said Elko. “It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of work. I watch, I evaluate. I try not to yell and scream too much. I do it at times. But we’re just trying to get better.”
Merely “better” won’t be enough, not for a program that last season managed two victories against foes with a winning record (Miami and Army) and found a way to lose due in part to all four phases of the game.
Much “better” is expected. And Elko knows well that “better” perhaps markedly so, better be just one autumn away.
“Of course there’s paralysis by analysis a little bit,” said Elko. “When you’re installing something new and kids are trying to figure out how to do it there’s always going to be some slowness to it. I think we have to figure out how to balance the world of making sure they get everything they need to know so that we can be ready to go in the fall without doing so much that we don’t get a chance to evaluate who they are and what they’re capable of.”
Elko believes the latter is crucial, not only as the headman in charge of a new defense but throughout the sport.
“It’s an exciting time, learning what they can do, learning what their strengths are, learning what they can’t do. Trying to develop this thing in a manner in which they can be successful,” he said.
“The biggest thing is we want them to understand how we want to play defense. It’s not scheme. We want to be able to run to the ball hard. We want to come off blocks. We want to tackle. We want to disrupt the football and create turnovers. We have to make sure they don’t lose sight of that stuff.”
Three months of film review (practice, camp, and games) prepared Elko and his defensive staff for the current, ongoing auditions by Irish defenders.
The coaches had a good idea where the myriad pieces might fit but – and this is where logic takes over under the three-month-old Elko regime – that doesn’t mean they’re always going to be right.
Or care when they’ve been proven wrong.
“We never want to get into the groove where we think we can’t fix something to make it right,” said Elko of his “constant’ evaluations. “Sometimes I think coaches get in a groove of thinking, ‘This kid is this position.’ And then as you’re watching him he’s not good enough to do that, or he’s not capable, or it’s not the right fit, and they just stay with it.
“We’re just trying to not stay with mistakes.”
Discussion of those potential mistakes and position switches and personnel strengths and weaknesses were eschewed throughout today’s interview.
Elko has a unit to coach, a whole, and he’s not ready or willing to discuss its individual parts.
“It’s less about individual players right now,” Elko offered. “We’re trying to develop 11 people to play good defense.”
And has he seen the necessary traits yet to that end?
“No. Of course not. We’re not seeing anything to the level we want to. If I was telling you guys that four practices in, this is right where I want it, then you guys should go out and think you hired the wrong guy,” Elko said.
“That’s something that every day we’re going to work on. Do I see signs of it? Yes. Do I see a ‘want to’? Yes. Are we pushing toward it? Yes.
“But are we there? No. Not even close.”
Elko, of course, doesn’t expect them to be. How could they be?
“It’s not going to be a short-term, becoming a good defense,” he said. “It’s going to take time. It would be unfair to assume we’d be up and running and fully executing this thing right now. It would be unfair (to the players).”
“They’re all good football players. They’re all smart football players. They know what they need to get ready and they know to ask us for it.”