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The Reunion: Thank you Mike Elko

Written by Craig James|Contributor|

Photo by Matt Cashore

In 2016 Notre Dame had one of the worst defenses in the country under Brian VanGorder. The Irish started off that season by going 1-3 and allowing on average 32 points a game. He was let go after a disaster of a loss on September 24th to the same team the Irish will see this Saturday night, Duke. Mike Elko would be announced as the defensive coordinator the following year in 2017 when he took over for interim defensive cooridinator Greg Hudson. He took over a defense that was not well disciplined and was typically over aggressive, but still had good solid recruits from his predecessor. Elko saw a big improvement from his defense in his one year in South Bend as he looked to right the ship. His defense held a No. 11-ranked USC team and No. 14 ranked NC State team to 14 points, while holding a solid LSU offense to under 20 points in the Citrus Bowl to close out his tenure in South Bend with a win before ultimately taking a job for Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M.


During Elko's only season in Blue and Gold, his defense only allowed more than 20 points in 3 of their 13 contests. His defense wasn't ranked very high in the country but it was very effective, and he set the tone for years to come. Elko laid the foundation for Clark Lea when he took over for him in 2018, he recruited well in his singular year and brought a new feel to the Irish defense that they would build off of for years to come. The Irish went 10-3 that year and started off a 5 year run of 10+ wins, that came to an end last year when the Irish won 9 games. Although Mike Elko did not stay at Notre Dame long at all, he set the precedent for the defensive coordinators to follow. He helped Notre Dame get to where they are today. The 2017 season was make or break for Notre Dame. Were they going to go back to the dark days that Irish fans are trying so hard to forget? Elko did not allow that and he helped Notre Dame prove that the 2016, four win season was a one off, disaster of a year.


In December of 2021 Mike Elko was named Head Coach of the Duke Blue Devils. Duke was coming off a season where they went 2-9 and gave up 48+ points in their last 4 games. They knew they needed a change in the program and they knew it was a necessity to get a defensive minded coach at the helm. Elko's first year as head coach proved they made the correct choice as he lead the team to 9-4 record and missed the conference championship because of a 3 point loss to North Carolina in week 7. Elko's first big decision as head coach was who to start at quarterback. Going into the 2022 season Riley Leonard and Jordan Moore were in a Quarterback battle but that did not last very long as Leonard ultimately won the job 2 weeks into practice and Moore was moved to receiver. This proved to be the correct choice as Leonard threw for almost 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns to 6 interceptions and 699 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns to top it off. Moore also proved his coaches decision right by hauling in 60 catches for 656 yards and 5 touchdowns. Elko's first order of business was a massive success and has set the program up for a very successful 2023 campaign.


The year after Elko left the 46th ranked Irish defense after the 2017 season, Clark Lea who was brought to Notre Dame with Elko from Wake Forrest took over the job and led the Irish to a top 25 ranked defense. Lea's defense carried over Elko's success and only gave up on average 17 points a game while going undefeated and ultimately losing in the College Football Playoffs Semi-Final against a Clemson team who would go on the next Monday to win the National Championship in commanding fashion. The biggest influence Elko has had on the Irish defense is he implemented the 4-2-5 defense. Before him the Irish ran a traditional 4-3 defense for many years. But even after Elko's departure the 4-2-5 has stuck around and has been a large part of the success for the Irish defense. This defense has led the Irish to 2 College Football Playoffs in the last 5 years. Even when current head coach Marcus Freeman took over the defense when Clark Lea left, he kept the 4-2-5 defense intact.

Photo via ON3

Now 5 years removed from Elko's time at Notre Dame, the Irish have Al Golden calling the defense. Golden built off of Elko's success with the 4-2-5 and implemented the 3-3-5 defense. Although it is a different formation with an extra defensive back, his philosophy is still the same. He doesn't rush just 3 defenders much and keeps the offense guessing with who will be the 4th rusher. So while it isn't a true 4 down linemen defense, he's consistently bringing somebody who will take over for the lack of the 4th defensive linemen. Although Golden has heard some criticism for being too aggressive sometimes, especially with the double safety blitzes. But this year the Irish defense has stars in the defensive backfield that they haven't had in some time which makes Golden's job that much easier. He can take the chances to pressure the quarterback because he has guys like Ben Morrison and Cam Hart locking down receivers.

Photo by Ben McKeown


This Saturday night in Durham, North Carolina, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator will get to showcase his skills as a head coach against his former team as No. 11 Notre Dame comes to town to face off against his No. 17 ranked Duke Blue Devils at 7:30pm EST. Elko showed he could turn a program around in a singular year as the defensive coordinator for the Irish and again with the Blue Devils last season. To start this season, Duke dismantled Clemson 28-7 as Elko made a statement to the country and the ACC that they are for real and they are ready to compete now. Now the stage is set for an undefeated Duke team to really shock the world and add another statement win to the season with a victory over the Irish. Marcus Freeman and Al Golden are coming off an emotional loss to Ohio State last week where both have shared their blame for the mistakes that cost the Irish a huge win on the last defensive drive. Notre Dame can not afford to have the same mistakes this week and waste away a season where many Irish fans still believe they have legitimate National Championship hopes at stake. Last year, as it is well known, the Irish let their season slip away from them after a close loss to the Buckeyes as they lost to Marshall the following week. While the Irish showed strong against the Buckeyes, they only garnered 4 wins the rest of the season. Something that has been in the back of all Irish fans brains. But this Saturday when Gameday again is in town for a Notre Dame game, they look to turn the page and commit to an 11-1 regular season with playoff hopes still looming.






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