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April 9, 2013

Elliott doesn't miss a beat

Bob Elliott coached the Irish safeties last year, and he did a pretty darn good job. He helped Zeke Motta fulfill his promise during his senior season, and transformed Matthias Farley into a productive safety despite his inexperience at the position.

That in itself would have been deemed a successful year for Elliott, but he a bit more than that on his plate.

From March of 2012 until February of 2013, Elliott also underwent dialysis twice a day for a failing kidney. He helped Notre Dame complete a successful haul of recruits in the signing class of 2013. He underwent a kidney transplant the first week of February, and now he's back on the field, coaching the Irish safeties.

Just another day at the office for the veteran football coach of the last three-and-a-half decades.

"It was incredible," said Irish defensive line coach/special teams coordinator Mike Elston. "I've never seen the resolve of a coach like Coach Elliott. I'm so blessed to be a part of his life and blessed to be coaching on the sideline with him. He's an amazing example of determination and being a tough man. It's just an incredible story. I can't imagine anybody else being able to go through what he went through."

Few even knew of Elliott's physical ailment outside of the football office. He didn't want to call attention to himself, particularly not during the 2012 season as the Irish made their run to the national championship.

"I didn't feel bad doing dialysis; it was just a pain in the butt," Elliott said. "Endurance is a factor when you're doing dialysis. It wasn't a huge deal other than the inconvenience."

Approximately 10 family members volunteered a kidney, including Elliott's brother and sister. Nearly half of those were a match for Elliott, who eventually received his sister Betsy's kidney.

"She's doing great," Elliott said. "They always say it's tougher on the donor than it is the recipient. But she's doing great."

And so is - all things considered - Elliott, who drinks fluids constantly to avoid dehydration and must be wary of any physical contact on the field while his new kidney adapts to his body.

"They forget," said Elliott of the players around him. "I've got to take care of myself."

Elliott has more support than he realizes.

"Coach Elliott is a fighter," Farley said. "He's a beast. You would never know he needed a kidney transplant last year. He would never complain about it or say anything…It's a huge blessing to have him as a coach."

Farley, as much as anybody, has great reason to be thankful for Elliott. It was the veteran Irish coach who helped transform Farley from a lost former wide receiver trying to make it at safety into a starting safety on a national championships contender.

"When Jamoris (Slaughter) went down (with an Achilles injury, Farley) was thrown into the mix and he had to learn under fire," Elliott said. "I'm really proud of him. That's a hard thing to do. You have a great defense and you are what people say is the weak link. It's hard to have confidence under those circumstances."

With Motta and Slaughter off to pursue a career in the NFL, Farley has had to assume a leadership role.

"Matthias Farley has really grown up," Elliott said. "Last year he played pretty solid football for us. Matthias made himself into a player. Every day he came in for extra film study. Every day he did extra things to get himself ready. Every day he got better and better, and that continues today. He's assumed a leadership role back there which is what we intended. Matthias is a very confident guy."

Elliott's task this spring is to find a complement to Farley, and continue to build depth from ample yet inexperienced numbers.

Sophomore Elijah Shumate is getting the first crack this spring at the field safety position opposite Farley at the boundary. Shumate is making a transition after playing nickel back/cornerback last fall.

"Shumate is a very talented guy, extremely talented," Elliott said. "He can tackle. He can play man-to-man. He's got good ball skills. It's the mental gyrations that go on through a play. The calls he has to make, how he plays a certain route by call…It's just all new to him and he needs to get rep after rep after rep."

Right on Shumate's tail is classmate Nicky Baratti, who picked up the scheme faster than the other rookie safeties in the fall and saw meaningful playing time early in the season. Baratti underwent off-season shoulder surgery and is forced to watch from the sidelines this spring.

"When Baratti comes back in the fall, that will be a heckuva fight," Elliott said.

Lined up behind Farley at boundary safety is senior Austin Collinsworth, who missed the 2012 season following shoulder surgery, and then added back surgery to his recovery in November.

"He's come quite a ways, but he's still quite a ways from where he was last spring physically," said Elliott of Collinsworth. "This summer will be really important to Austin. He'll be in the mix."

Moving up the food chain are junior Eilar Hardy and sophomore John Turner. Hardy missed the last two seasons while recovering from a nasty knee injury suffered during August of 2011.

"Eilar Hardy has had a very good spring," Elliott said. "Not surprising, but pleasant. The good thing about Eilar is that he's been here a couple of years and he's been in the system. He kind of knows what to do. He's playing well. I'm really proud of him.

"John Turner has shown that he can be a player some day. He's still young and has to work some things out. But I think he's going to be a player."

Chris Badger is behind Farley and Collinsworth at the boundary.

"We've got young guys at the field safety and we want the boundary safety to give us more," said Elliott, referring to Farley. "We want him to be more of a presence. Not that our boundary safety wasn't last year, but we kind of split the responsibility between the two.

"Now, it's heavily on the boundary safety, and Matthias is doing a great job. You can see his presence on the field, getting guys lined up and all that. I have great hopes for Matthias. He's still going to be a sophomore and still only one year away from being a receiver. So he's got work to do. But I'm sure he'll do it."

Work ethic clearly is something the Irish safeties can learn from their coach.

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