Brian Kelly can’t afford to get it wrong as he replaces Brian VanGorder with Mike Elko as Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator.
Elko arrives in South Bend from Wake Forest, where he spent three years rebuilding the Demon Deacon defense. A former college linebacker who helped lead Penn to an Ivy League title in 1998, Elko first connected with Dave Clawson at Fordham in 2002.
Elko followed Clawson to Richmond in 2004 before getting his first chance at serving as a defensive coordinator with Hofstra in 2006 at the age of 29. Rejoining Clawson at Bowling Green in 2009, Elko spent five seasons with the Falcons before heading to Wake Forest with Clawson in 2014.
What Elko managed to accomplish in his short time in Winston-Salem is nothing short of remarkable.
In 2014, Elko’s first year at Wake, the Deacons ranked in the top 15 nationally in pass defense. The following year, Wake again ranked among the national leaders in pass defense, while improving significantly in red-zone defensive efficiency.
In 2016, despite an offense that ranked near the bottom nationally, the Demon Deacons managed to post a 6-6 record and reach a bowl for the first time since 2011.
Wake’s defense was third in the ACC and 20th nationally this fall in scoring defense, allowing only 21.8 points per game. The team ranked sixth in the league in pass defense, surrendering an average of 214.2 yards through the air. In addition, Wake Forest returned two interceptions for touchdowns and ranked third in the ACC in interception return yardage, behind only Louisville and Clemson.
Despite working with less talent, the Demon Deacon defense outperformed Notre Dame’s in the metrics of total defense, rushing defense and passing defense all three years Elko was there.
Though Elko will have some freedom to bring in his own people, Kelly elected to retain linebackers coach Mike Elston. Elston has been instrumental not only in bridging the gap following VanGorder’s midseason termination to the offseason but also as Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator at a time when the Irish once again have a top-10 class nationally.
Fans in South Bend might be shouting, “Mike Who?” as news of this new hire circulates. But Elko’s new fanbase, as well as the rest of college football, shouldn’t sleep on this 39-year-old up-and-comer.