Why don't we have a better pass rush? Who has he signed, anyway? What is Kelly's fascination with this guy? Can we get rid of him and get a better guy in?" If you follow Notre Dame football, you know exactly who that hypothetical fan is asking about - assistant Mike Elston. Elston has taken a lot of internet grief (and probably offline grief, as well) from Irish fans over his coaching acumen and recruiting record. Brian Kelly obviously speaks glowingly of him and just gave him the recruiting coordinator title vacated by Tony Alford - but also shifted him from defensive line, where he has coached since arriving at Notre Dame, to linebackers. So what gives?
Analyzing the Current State
Whether Brady Hoke was coming to South Bend or no, there was enough smoke around Kelly looking for a new defensive line coach that it was reasonable to assume it wouldn't be Elston's job in 2015. Speculation ran rampant, as it does in any information void, and many Irish fans assumed Elston was either leaving or being pushed out. Shifting forward to today, we now have more context around the move and it actually makes a lot of sense.
We now know that Bob Elliott is slated to step back from the intensity of an assistant coach's position, leaving outside linebackers without a position coach. The choice Kelly likely faced was either:
- To put a premium on continuity and make a straight one-for-one replacement of Elliott and Kerry Cooks by hiring an outside linebackers coach and a secondary coach, leaving Brian VanGorder with the inside linebackers;
- To split up the secondary by hiring a cornerbacks coach and a safeties coach while expanding VanGorder's positional responsibility to all linebackers, which perhaps is not ideal given the work he's still doing across the board to install his system;
- To take the opportunity to address soft spots by hiring a new secondary coach who would be supported by VanGorder, reassigning Elston to all linebackers, and hiring a proven defensive line coach.
Elston has coached linebackers before, for two years as a grad assistant at Michigan and for one year with Kelly at Central Michigan, and he played linebacker at Michigan. Combine that with the availability of Todd Lyght and Keith Gilmore, and the move seems quite natural indeed.
As Sun Tzu said, a general "selects his men and they exploit the situation" - meaning that jobs are assigned in the moment based on the men's abilities. Don't use a hammer to turn a screw. Last year, Mike Elston was the best man available to coach our defensive line. This year Keith Gilmore is, but that doesn't mean Elston is a bad coach or doesn't fit on the staff. Even if Kelly were moving him for performance reasons, it seems kind of odd that a guy he thinks is underperforming would add the mission-critical recruiting coordinator responsibilities. This looks like a simple reassignment to bolster the gestalt of the staff.
Projecting the Future State
Let's say that everything works out swimmingly with Elston as a linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator. How long would he be willing to be "just" an assistant coach? Does he have any greater ambitions?
Reasons he might move on:
- He has been with Kelly for 11 years with an assortment of titles, but he has essentially always been a position coach.
- He just turned 40 in November, which is the later stage of the age range where you typically see guys try to move up. The clock is ticking.
- Despite common perception among Irish fans, he's a pretty good football coach who would have options if he wants them - for example, he deserves credit for the development of Kapron Lewis-Moore, Kona Schwenke, Louis Nix, Sheldon Day, and Jarron Jones, and for the immediate contributions of Andrew Trumbetti, Daniel Cage, and Grant Blankenship.
- He's a young, passionate guy who will be able to connect with players, families, administrative people, and fans, which would ease his transition to a new job.
- He turned down Bob Diaco's offer of the defensive coordinator position at UConn last year and, depending on who you believe, may have politely declined inquiries from Central Michigan for their head job this year. So maybe he doesn't want to move up.
- He has been with Kelly for 11 years at three different schools - that in itself says something. Also, among his assorted titles were co-defensive coordinator at Central Michigan (2005) and assistant head coach at Cincinnati (2009). Maybe he had a taste of a bigger role and it wasn't for him.
- After a mixed bag in the first five years of Kelly's tenure, Notre Dame seems poised for a special 2015 season and perhaps an extended run of elite play. If he likes winning, it might be tough to leave that situation.
- He's a young, passionate guy who is able to connect with players, families, administrative people, and fans at Notre Dame. And maybe that's enough to get him out of bed in the morning.
Elston seems like a true company man who is willing to do whatever Kelly asks him to do. Given his age and ability I want to say he'll move on eventually, but I think the smart money is on him staying with Kelly. Now, whether Kelly will stay at Notre Dame or not, that's another story...
I had a couple of other thoughts while writing this up that don't fit into the present/future discussion above but are worth mentioning.
Coaching: There's some thought among football minds sharper than my own that Elston may be a more effective teacher of the two-gap defensive line play favored by Bob Diaco, than the more aggressive one-gap defensive line play espoused by VanGorder. Inuitively - and here I welcome the cognoscenti to chime in - it seems like one-gap play, which relies more on active defeat of the opponent than passive holding of ground, is best coached by someone well-versed in one-on-one defensive line technique. Enter Gilmore.
Recruiting: The recruiting coordinator position isn't a new thing for Elston - he held the same position at Eastern Michigan from 2002 to 2003 and at Cincinnati from 2007 to 2008. Mike Sanford has also held the title at Stanford and Yale, and Keith Gilmore has held it at Grand Valley State. So Elston has experience and support if needed.
As for his work on the recruiting trail, you might be a bit surprised: According to 247 Composite rankings, as the primary recruiter, Elston has secured Irish commitments from 2 five-stars, 8 four-stars, 9 three-stars, and 1 two-star. As the secondary recruiter, he's helped pull in another 5 four-stars and 4 three-stars. As a comparison, during the Kelly era Tony Alford brought in 9 four-stars (including Louis Nix) and 6 three-stars as a primary recruiter, and 2 four-stars as a secondary recruiter.
Does it mean that Elston is Alford's equal as a recruiter? No, not necessarily. Tony took on some of the toughest recruiting battles we had, so straight numbers and conversion rates aren't the fairest measures of his results. It does mean, though, that Elston did a lot more work than he tends to get credit for.