If Brian Kelly is able to generate a much-needed rebound in 2017 — which looks like a make-or-break year for his tenure in South Bend — he’ll have to fix massive problems on defense and special teams that persisted in 2016.
On those fronts, the reported hires he’ll make appear encouraging.
On Thursday, Sports Illustrated was the first to report Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko was nearing a multi-year deal for the same position at Notre Dame. And on Friday, multiple reports surfaced that former Nevada coach Brian Polian will be hired as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator — a post he previously filled for the Irish from 2005-2009.
Both hires have drawn national praise, for what it’s worth.
Elko’s defenses have been among college football’s toughest since he became a full-time FBS defensive coordinator in 2009 at Bowling Green. In 2012 at Bowling Green, Elko’s defense allowed an average of 4.68 yards per play (12th in FBS) and 16.8 points per game (10th). A year later, Bowling Green’s defense allowed 5.06 yards per play (24th) and 15.9 points per game (5th), which helped propel Elko and coach Dave Clawson to the same positions at Wake Forest.
Despite a lack of recruiting star power, Wake Forest’s defenses ranked 36th, 64th and 40th in yards per play and 60th, 43rd and 20th in scoring defense from 2014-2016.
While Notre Dame still needs an offensive coordinator to replace Mike Sanford, who left to take the head coaching gig at Western Kentucky, 2017’s offense should remain powerful enough that all the Irish need out of Elko’s defense is a relatively steady baseline of success. Think of it, at worst, needing to be along the lines of Notre Dame’s 2012 offense, which was remedially run and largely avoided catastrophic mistakes.
As for special teams, Polian has had success with that unit in South Bend before. In 2008, Notre Dame led the nation in a statistical category for the first time in 20 years when it averaged an FBS-best 16.5 yards allowed per kickoff return. Shoring up some of the massive breakdowns that befell that group in 2016 is a priority, and landing Polian — who took Nevada to a pair of bowl games in four seasons in Reno — should help with those efforts.
Polian, too, proved to be an ace recruiter during his time at Notre Dame, as he is credited with convincing 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o to take the leap from Hawaii to northern Indiana back in 2009.
These are two hires Kelly absolutely has to get right to set Notre Dame up for a rebound in 2017. And in reportedly landing Elko and Polian, Kelly — at least initially — appears to have got them right.