Notre Dame’s Mike Elko faces bittersweet reunion with Deacs
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Through enticement, advancement and the turbulence of coaching college football, Notre Dame first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko will find himself this weekend across the field facing a group of players he once recruited to a program he helped build.
Elko spent the last three seasons as the defensive coordinator at Wake Forest, which visits the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish (No. 3 CFP) on Saturday. It’s a game Elko likely wishes had never been scheduled given the circumstances.
“I’m sure he would like to get through this (week) quickly,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said when asked about Elko’s bittersweet reunion with his former players. “It’s never easy.”
Having a coach with firsthand knowledge of his former team might seem like an advantage for Notre Dame (7-1). But Kelly warned not to read too much into any benefits of inside info. After all, the Demon Deacons (5-3) can counter with a working knowledge of how Elko likes to attack an offensive opponent. Wake Forest averages 31.6 points per game, too.
The success each program has enjoyed under Elko mirror each other.
Elko came to Notre Dame as one of only two FBS coordinators with top-40 defenses in each of the past five years — three at Wake Forest and two at Bowling Green. Neither team is a perennial football power.
“We had lower-recruited players, but we had good players,” Elko said upon his arrival at Notre Dame. “We taught a defense that they understood, and we weren’t asking kids to just make plays and do things that they weren’t capable of doing.”
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson knows what his team will be up against because it’s what the Demon Deacons have been doing for some time now.
“They’re one of the top teams in the country in limiting the run, creating turnovers,” he said. “Does that sound familiar? That’s been Mike’s M.O., try to make teams one-dimensional, and he’s doing it.”
Clawson and Elko go way back: This is Clawson’s 18th season as a head coach, and Elko had been on his staff in 12 of the first 17 of those seasons.
Elko’s first full-time coaching position came under Clawson at Fordham in 2002, and they went to Richmond together in 2004. Elko left after the following season to join the staff at Hofstra under coach Dave Cohen — Clawson’s first defensive coordinator at Fordham — before reuniting with Clawson in 2009 at Bowling Green and following him to Wake Forest before the 2014 season.
Clawson expressed gratitude for Elko’s service and wished him nothing but success — after this weekend.
“We know they’re going to be well-coached, and Mike has made a big impact there already,” Clawson said. “He’s a great coach. He’s doing a great job (at Notre Dame) and I’m proud of him. But on Saturday, we want to beat him and he wants to beat us.”
With a defensive roster at Notre Dame filled with NFL prospects, leaving Wake Forest for a more prominent program seemed like an easy choice after last season. But Elko said his decision took great care and consideration, and the improvement followed.
After finishing last season No. 104 in takeaways with only 14, Elko’s Irish rank No. 11 in the country this season with 18 turnovers gained. Notre Dame allows only 16.1 points a game, the 10th best mark in the country. It has also given up only one rushing touchdown this season, the fewest in the FBS, and opponents have scored just 10 red zone touchdowns in 25 trips.
Irish senior captain Drue Tranquill said there is no single reason for the success and turnaround from last season. He calls it a collection of shifts and changes that all correlate to Elko’s arrival.
Elko moved Tranquill from a strong safety last year to a rover (a safety/linebacker hybrid) this season and the production has followed.
“I don’t know that you can point the finger at any one thing that has led to the change,” said Tranquill, who leads the Irish with 6.5 tackles for loss and also has 1.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and an interception. “It’s just the all-around mental preparation of our team has been much better. I never walk into a game feeling inferior in terms of my mental preparation with our new coaching staff.”
Elko isn’t the only former Wake Forest coach on Kelly’s staff, either. Chuck Lea, who coached linebackers at Wake Forest last season under Elko, is now doing the same job at Notre Dame. Clawson was asked about Notre Dame’s improved defense this season.
“Well, they hired two guys from Wake Forest,” he said. “So I think that’s what happened.”
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary contributed.
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