The focal point on the outside was about scheme, blitzes and how the master plan was going to change the way Notre Dame played defense.
Mike Elko set out to change the way Notre Dame played defense all right, but not the way most envisioned it.
“It’s developmental football,” said Elko Friday on the eve of Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game. “It was not, ‘Here’s where we were, hire Mike Elko and now we’re here.’
“It doesn’t work like that.”
Defensive Football 101— as rudimentary as that sounds – was the only reasonable starting point for Elko. Scheming a pass rush and creating difficult matchups for the opposition was and remains the end game.
Skipping steps would neutralize the best of schemes. Bypassing the process would leave the scheme on the back end of the journey incomplete.
And so with a Friday walk-through and Saturday’s annual practice finale remaining, Elko described what the Irish have done, where they have improved, and what they still need to accomplish before a Sept. 2 date in Notre Dame Stadium against Temple.
“We talked all along about how it was more about developing the way we wanted to play and developing the football the way we wanted it to look,” Elko said. “We knew we were going to have to spend time with that, so that was going to be the priority no matter what.
“Yes, I’m happy with where we are now. I think we’ve made progress and have gotten better every day. And yes, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Phase 1 is almost complete. Many of the components of Phase 1 will continue to be emphasized as the defense works on its own this summer, and again when fall practice commences the first week of August.
Progress is relative. The very nature of spring practice and the time limitations prevent the Irish from being prepared for the 12 regular-season opponents that await them this fall. That’s okay.
“We’ve spent a lot of time defending (the Notre Dame) offense this spring, so we’re going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward,” Elko said. “That’s probably where a lot of the learning curve still has to come.
“With where we are right now, if we were to defense the style of offense we’ve gone against every day, we’ve got a about 50, 60 percent (of the defense installed).”
It’s much more important that Elko’s unit has learned the building blocks of what make a quality defense.
“We’re disrupting the football better, we’re leveraging the football better, and we’re playing harder,” Elko said. “Those three things over the course of spring have gotten better, for the most part, every time we’ve gone out there.”
It’s all been right there for Elko and his staff to see after each practice.
“The video,” said Elko of the evidence he uses to calculate progress. “When you put the video on, they’re playing harder and they disrupt the football more. That’s the stuff we chart every day and look at every day.
“Trying to strip the football, running as hard as you can…If you put on (the video of) practice one, guys weren’t running as hard as they could compared to practice 13.”
Two areas in particular remain largely a work in progress: the defensive line and safety.
“Obviously, there was a lot written about that group,” said Elko of the defensive line, “but I’m happy with the progress they’ve made this spring. (Defensive line coach) Mike (Elston) has done a good job of developing them.
“They’re buying into the way we want to play defense. There are probably four or five guys inside that are starting to get to a position where we feel comfortable they can step in.”
There remains plenty of room for growth.
“Just our overall physicality,” said Elko of the next step in the process. “Recreating the line of scrimmage. That’s where your run disruption comes from.
“At the beginning of spring, (the line of scrimmage) was clearly getting created on our side. It’s (evened out) as spring has gone on to where maybe the last practice, we had a few more on their side.”
After Saturday, the defensive line and the rest of the team will be put back into the capable hands of Matt Balis, Notre Dame’s Director of Football Performance.
“Matt did what he did during the off-season, which helped give us an opportunity to develop them fundamentally,” Elko said. “Now it’s turning them back over to Matt this summer, and then taking them back in August camp.
“Those two things always will go hand in hand with your line positions.”
Elko also knows that the prying eyes of the media have detected another area that needs improvement – tackling – particularly at the safety positions.
“It’s a process,” said Elko, repeating a familiar theme of the spring. “Trying to figure out what they do well and how to best utilize their skill sets. We’ve become better and have a better idea who we’re going to play back there.”
In many respects, the work has just begun.
“If this is where we were rushing the quarterback and with our run defense (when I arrived), we had to steadily climb,” Elko said. “That’s the process of development. There’s not a switch that you flip that gets you to the top of the elevator.”
Perhaps not, but at least the Irish aren’t stuck on the first floor anymore, waiting for the repairman to arrive.