All things considered, Mike Elston walked up to the podium at The Gug on Wednesday a happy man.
The Notre Dame recruiting coordinator oversaw an operation that had to weather six de-commitments, a 4-8 finish to the 2016 season and five assistants leave the staff.
It wasn’t the ideal situation for the 42-year-old Elston, a longtime assistant under head coach Brian Kelly. After having no de-commitments in his first year as recruiting coordinator, Elston’s focus was on salvaging a core group of 15 players in the class.
“During this whole time, he was able to keep it together, relative to we were short on numbers in staff,” Kelly said of Elston, who is now the defensive line coach. “He was calling a lot of those recruits that weren't necessarily his geographically or by position. He was really keeping that 15 together so that we could get the staff back and get them back out on the road. He did a tremendous job of keeping that group together.”
Notre Dame finished the class with 21 signees, adding six players to the class in the last month, including three on National Signing Day.
How did the Irish do it? Well, it didn’t sound easy.
• NOTEBOOK: Notre Dame Signing Day
Keeping The Class Together
With the vast coaching turnover that Notre Dame experienced in 2016 — losing its top assistants on both offense and defense — putting the team’s new assistants in touch with the longtime commits was priority No. 1 for Elston and the Irish.
“For the most part, we’ve held onto quite a few guys which is a testament to the work that the recruiting office has done,” Elston said. “…We did a really nice job with that considering all the things that went into place.”
The four holdover assistants from last year’s staff — OL coach Harry Hiestand, RB coach Autry Denson, DB’s coach Todd Lyght and Elston — helped the six new coaches get up to speed.
Denson’s message: Keep working.
“Keep rolling up your sleeves, keep going to work,” Denson said. “Lead by example. Fill them in and bring them along as you need to, but let’s just get to work. Decisions were made, and we just wrapped our arms around them and said, ‘We’re all on the same side, let’s get to work.’”
New special teams coordinator Brian Polian, who was head coach at Nevada for the past four years, was able to offer some insight on the recruiting job done over the final month by Elston and the Irish.
“Having been a recruiting coordinator and having just been a head coach, watching the work that Coach Elston did, watching the work that (director of player personnel) Dave Peloquin did, watching how Coach Kelly really grinded it out here over the last month, to come out of the season that we came out of, to come out of the coaching changes that we came out of and to put together this class, it’s very, very positive,” Polian said. “I have a biased point of view but I’m also just arriving back, so I can offer a little bit of an outsider’s perspective, and wow, you come off the adversity of last year and you put this class together, that’s pretty good.”
Notre Dame’s new assistants were officially hired throughout December and January, and the entire staff never got on campus before the dead period ended in mid-January.
Offensive coordinator Chip Long was briefly in South Bend before hitting the road. Receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander went directly on the road when he was hired. Only new defensive coordinator Mike Elko was in the office with Elston to formulate the initial plan.
“There was a lot of challenges,” Elston said. “Everything was being done via phone, FaceTime, I’m sending messages to them. Peloquin’s sending messages to them about, ‘Hey, check these guys out. We can get you guys in there on Monday or Tuesday.’ That part of it was very challenging.”
Elko described the challenge of going from Wake Forest to Notre Dame and putting the finishing touches on the class.
“Extremely (frantic),” Elko said. “It’s been a little bit of a whirlwind from the time the bowl game ended to today. Learning about this university and learning how to sell this university, getting going on a recruiting binge to finish this class. Opening some areas I haven’t been familiar with in recruiting. I watched a ton of tape to kind of figure out where we had to go.
“Yeah, it’s been crazy. It’ll continue to be for another year, probably, to be honest with you.
“When you get in the game as late as we did, we spent a lot of time making sure we were getting the right kid. It wasn’t about scrambling and trying to make a splash or trying to find this or trying to find that, we wanted to make sure the kid we got was the right kid for Notre Dame.”
Getting A Plan
With Notre Dame’s new assistants comes new offensive and defensive systems. That meant some tweaks to the team’s recruiting board in terms of the types of players it was targeting.
“Interviewing with Coach Elko, Coach Long and Coach Polian and talking to them about the personnel that’s currently on the roster, watching some video, showing them what the strengths and weaknesses were, then saying, ‘OK, we need more of this, we need more of that,’” Elston said. Then we got to work.
“That’s how we built the list and once we identified who that was, then the process began of, ‘How are we going to target these guys? Who’s going to see who? Who’s taking the lead on which guy?’ It was quite the ordeal, quite the process, and a lot of work.”
The Irish ramped up their pursuit of Kapolei (Hawaii) High defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa in the final months. Polian, a former Notre Dame assistant under Charlie Weis who recruited Manti Te’o to Notre Dame, was the natural fit.
“We all sat in a room and when we looked at who we were recruiting and who we were going after, it was literally, ‘Who’s got a connection, who knows this family, who knows this school?’” Polian said. “The trip to Hawaii was literally, ‘Let’s go see if we can get involved.’ We had no idea if we could be a factor. We went out there to try and find out. ‘OK, who’s got ties in Hawaii?’ Everybody kind of looked at me, and I said, ‘I guess I’m flying to Hawaii,’ and we went from there.
As that plan came together, Notre Dame sent its assistants on the road for the final weeks before signing day.
Winning Some Battles
The Irish closed on several prospects down the stretch, even with a crew of assistants with mere weeks of experience recruiting to Notre Dame.
It was a challenge the assistants embraced.
“It felt like three weeks straight of non-stop, all hands on deck,” linebackers coach Clark Lea said. “A new state, new city every day. It was fun. As a competitor, this is fun for us because you believe in what you’re selling.”
Alexander, a USC alum, said selling Notre Dame is quite simple.
“I recruit to the brand and I recruit to the tradition,” he said. “Those are two things that you don’t as a college football coach and having gone to school where I did, those are two things that you don’t have to be here long to sit down and study.”
Near the bottom of Notre Dame’s to-do list over the past month was setting recruiting territories for its assistant coaches. Those regions will be determined over the course of the coming weeks as the staff turns its focus on the class of 2018.
Lyght said he’d like to get the Houston and Detroit metro areas in recruiting, places he said he’s already established relationships. Alexander, a Los Angeles native, has extensive experience recruiting the West Coast, as does Polian and Long.
“Everybody is going to be vying for different spots, but Coach Kelly is ultimately doing to make the decisions on all the areas,” Lyght said. “We’ll wait for him to make the decision and go from there.”
Though much of his experience has been in California, Alexander has also spent time as a Wisconsin assistant. The 45-year-old said he’s comfortable going wherever he’s needed.
“I’ve been on the East Coast, I’ve been on the West Coast and in the middle,” Alexander said. “Wherever receivers are, you have to go. It’s becoming more position specific when you talk about recruiting.”