Landing Marcus Freeman to run the defense was a coup for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, but it wasn’t the only move Kelly made that was impactful this offseason. Keeping defensive line coach Mike Elston on staff with the addition of Freeman was far from a sure thing, but getting that done was vitally important for Notre Dame’s present and future, and it makes Freeman's pickup even more impactful.
Notre Dame has gone 33-5 the last three years, and the defense has been the driving force behind that. The driving force behind the success of the defense was the defensive line, and its architect was Elston. It would make sense that he would feel that he had done enough to earn the coordinator job.
Hiring Freeman presents two challenges. One is keeping Elston on staff and preventing another program from hiring him to run their defense. According to my sources, Elston had at least two legit options to leave and run another defense. He was a desired commodity this offseason. Two is getting him to accept not being “the guy” on defense and continuing to thrive in the role he’s had the last few seasons.
Based on the sources I’ve spoken to, Kelly was able to accomplish both of those things in keeping Elston on staff. It takes a unique kind of individual to accept getting passed over by a much younger coach, and an outsider, and it's even harder to embrace that coach and be on board, but that’s exactly what Elston has done according to my sources. It speaks to Elston’s character, loyalty to his players, loyalty to his family, loyalty to Brian Kelly and his affinity for Notre Dame.
Keeping Elston makes the transition into Freeman’s defense much easier, and helps ensure that Notre Dame’s defense will continue being the backbone of the program.
There are three reasons keeping Elston was so important.
ENSURES BUY IN WITH THE NEW COORDINATOR
When your longest tenured coach, the guy considered to be the right hand man of the head coach buys into a new hire the players will immediately follow suit. From what I’ve been told, Elston has gone out of his way to show excitement for what Freeman will do at Notre Dame, and that is especially meaningful when you consider not only his status within the program, but also the fact it was a well-known fact he wanted that job.
Freeman will have to plays= a huge role in getting buy-in from the players, but when someone established like Elston shows buy-in it makes the job of assimilation and acclimation much, much easier.
DEFENSIVE LINE DOMINANCE
Keeping Elston ensures that the defensive line will remain a strength of the program. Elston knows the talent on the roster, he knows what it takes to get his players to thrive on and off the field, and he knows how to develop outstanding defensive lines.
A new DL coach would have had to not only learn Freeman’s defense, he would have also had to learn how to develop players at a unique place like Notre Dame, and would have had to develop new relationships with the players.
Elston has already established himself with everyone but the freshmen, and he showed in 2017 that he can quickly pick up a defense and get his line to play at a high level under a new coordinator.
Elston has been Notre Dame’s best defensive recruiter for the last several seasons, and he’s landed impact recruits throughout his career. Back when Notre Dame focused more on regions, Elston was the primary recruiter for players like Jaylon Smith as well as defensive linemen like Romeo and Julian Okwara, and Sheldon Day.
Notre Dame’s defensive line depth chart in 2021 will be loaded with highly ranked recruits, and players with high ceilings that weren’t necessarily top recruits, but have top talent. Elston has shown a unique ability to identify certain tools over recruiting rankings, and his ability to identify high upside players and then develop them into standouts with the help of the strength program.
Elston teamed with Freeman could be a really, really dynamic duo on the recruiting trail for Notre Dame. We’ve already seen it in action, as Elston and Freeman tag teamed to land 2022 end Tyson Ford (the nation’s No. 64 overall player according to Rivals), and they beat out Penn State for Virginia end Aiden Gobaira.
It understandably hasn’t gotten the attention that hiring Freeman brought, but Kelly keeping Elston on board was a major, major victory this offseason.
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