Foundation in Place for Elston

A group of talented underclassmen and battle-tested veterans will help Mike Elston hit the ground running in South Bend.

Two numbers will contribute to the upcoming sleepless nights that await Notre Dame's new defensive line coach Mike Elston: 1,930 and 20.

The two totals represent the aggregate rushing yards and rushing touchdowns allowed by the Irish defense over the last two seasons in nine November contests.

The Irish famously finished 1-8 in those games, a W/L mark that likely finished the collegiate coaching career of Charlie Weis and likewise jettisoned what appeared (at least in the 2009 pre-season) to be the program's best collection of assistant coaches in this decade.

While improvement vs. the objective bottom line will prove the ultimate judge for Elston in 2010, the new leader of Notre Dame's first line of defense has one subjective factor working in his favor:

The pieces are in place.

In line to improve

Note: (All class listings indicate status for 2010, not the current spring semester).

Senior nose tackle Ian Williams, junior defensive tackle Ethan Johnson' "redshirt-juniors" (DE) Kapron Lewis-Moore and (DT/NT) Sean Cwynar, and three hybrid rush ends: senior Kerry Neal, junior Steve Filer, and junior Darius Fleming return to lead what must now be considered an experienced Irish defensive front into battle next fall.

A cynic would point to the fact that the players listed above are the same that heavily contributed to the front seven's (including the team's not listed linebackers) late-season failings in '09.

But a closer, and admittedly subjective, look reveals the group contains two of the team's most improved players from '08 to '09 in Lewis-Moore, (who did not play as a freshman) and the penetrating Fleming. The unit also offers team's most talented linemen in Johnson, who now enters his third season as a regular as a key cog who did not have the benefit of the first-year redshirt season that is afforded to most players at his position.

It boasts two seniors (Williams and Neal) who stand to benefit most from a change in regime; and the inside/outside junior pairing of Cwynar and Filer – two players who ranked among the limited number of Irish backups to survive and advance through the previous regime's pecking order and find their way onto the field in viable backup roles.

(I have no problem with a coach limiting playing time to those that he perceives to have earned the opportunity, but Weis' redundant desire to go down with a continually sinking ship at various positions throughout his tenure was troublesome from this outsider's perspective).

Untested redshirt-juniors Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman (the latter has yet to play a collegiate snap) and redshirt-sophomore Tyler Stockton join the mix as could possible 5th-year senior DT Paddy Mullen, who's carved a niche as a goal line situation interior defender.

Stats that tell tales

The Bearcats' numbers up front show (thankfully) a gap between Cincinnati's defensive performance last season and that of the Irish.

  • 3.6 rushing yards allowed by the Bearcats vs. a sobering 4.8 by the Irish (4.8?!)
  • The nation's third highest tackles-for-loss total in Cincy (110 overall) vs. 72 (ranking 48th nationally) for the Irish
  • The nation's 10th highest sack total (37) in the Queen City that nearly doubled the total registered in South Bend (20)
  • Elstons' defensive line group posted an aggregate 57 tackles-for-loss and 25.5 sacks vs. the 42 and 15 registered by the front line of Notre Dame
  • That same defensive front (without the aid of linebackers or defensive backs) in Cincinnati averaged more sacks per game than 63 FBS teams (including the Irish)
The numbers gap above represents what you'd expect between a 12-win and 6-win team, then again, most coaches aren't hired for their sub-par statistical efforts. Elston's first order of business is to regain control of the opposing line of scrimmage – a winning element missing from the Irish defense since the dawn of the Weis era.

The Head Man on his hire

"Mike Elston has been with me the past six years and has seen how important it is to develop your players," Brian Kelly said in the University's release on the hirings. "He knows the defensive system we plan to implement and will be a tremendous asset to our defensive linemen. Mike was also instrumental in our special teams success at Cincinnati and became one of the top special teams coaches in the country.

"He was our top recruiter in the state of Florida and Mike will have a prominent role in that state along with (retained running backs coach) Tony Alford. We'll define the rest of Mike's recruiting roles at a later time, but he will certainly assist Tony with all of the talent in Florida."

The New Sheriff

"The first thing I do is let the young men know that I'm going to be there every single day with the same demeanor," Elston state in a release provided by the University of Notre Dame. "I'm going to give them the consistency they need. One day, I'm going to be hard on them and the next day they will come back and I will be hard on them on the second day, too. I'm not going to be up and down."

Randy Hart, the unit's former leader, knew only one speed (full) as well. From all accounts his troops responded well to his brand of leadership and upbeat demeanor and the well-respected coach of 39 years was certainly not at the root of the defense's issues last season.

But holdovers are rare during coaching changes and Brian Kelly's faith in his Cincinnati aid is encouraging, and Elston was understandably eager to join his former boss at his new gig.

"I was extremely excited when Coach Kelly made the phone call to me on Jan. 2 to invite me to join the staff at Notre Dame. The tradition here is something I look forward to relishing. I'm soaking it in right now, and it's been a great experience so far. To follow the best head coach in the country to the most storied program in the country is an exciting prospect for me. My family and I feel very blessed to have this opportunity."

Elston stated his foundation was established during his days at Michigan, where he lettered as an outside linebacker during the 1994, '95, and '96 seasons. (Elston's Wolverines defeated the Irish, 26-24 on a last-second field goal in 1994 at Notre Dame Stadium.)

"I was around the program for the 1997 defense that was best in the country and went on to win the national championship. My foundation is the Michigan base of football, and that is a 3-4 or a 4-3. We did multiple things."

Elston continued his development as the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator at Eastern Michigan and as Kelly's aid (co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach) at Central Michigan. He then joined the future Irish head coach during his tenure at Cincinnati as the Bearcats' D-Line coach, special teams coordinator, and in 2009, assistant head coach.

"My coaching style is a very detailed, organized, fundamental approach," Elston offered. "The players will know a tremendous amount of football."

That knowledge, coupled with focused speed and power in a cohesive unit, holds the key to the defense's improvement in 2010.

Note: Click here for a December perspective piece on Elston written by publisher, Dave Berk Top Stories