Jalen Elliott Provides Strong Safety Valve To Notre Dame Defense
In the 45 years since the departure of head coach Ara Parseghian following the 1974 season, the Notre Dame football program has had only two other two-year runs in winning percentage better than the 22-4 (.846) in 2017-18.
The first was 24-1 (.960) in 1988-89, when a school record 23-game winning streak featured the most recent national title in ’88.
The second of 21-2-1 (.896) in 1992-93 saw the Fighting Irish finish No. 4 and No. 2, respectively.
Only one returning Notre Dame player in 2019 started every game during the 22-4 output the past two years — and fortunately he provides the example to emulate about the dangers of complacency.
That’s because at about this time last year, safety Jalen Elliott, who started all 13 games as a sophomore during the 10-3 campaign in 2017, was demoted to the second unit. Fellow 13-game safety starter Nick Coleman remained with the No. 1 group (although later would move to nickel), while Navy transfer Alohi Gilman cracked the top unit as well, which the coaching staff anticipated.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that in training camp the depth chart is fluid,” Elliott recounted this weekend. “If you string along two or three bad days, you deserve getting moved down. We don’t have time to really wait on people and see how it’s going to turn out. It’s almost game time.
“I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain, I wasn’t playing well enough. So when I got into that second group I had to refocus. … Once I allowed myself to stop thinking so much, stop trying to always make the big play and just do my job, that’s when everything kind of started to come back to me.”
By the opener versus Michigan, Elliott was back in the starting lineup and never relinquished it. In fact, his 934 snaps (72 per game) were the most on defense, just ahead of Gilman’s 921, and that’s not even including special teams (Elliott was on three of the four units), which put him well over 1,000 total snaps.
At this time last year as well, safety and running back were deemed, on paper, to be the two Achilles heel in Notre Dame’s quest for its first bid in the College Football Playoff’s five-year history. Instead, the dramatic upgrade at safety became a prime impetus in the Fighting Irish achieving that goal.
In their first season as starting safeties in 2017, Elliott and Coleman combined for 87 tackles, five passes broken up, zero forced fumbles and zero interceptions, the first time the latter ever happened since college football went to a two-platoon system in 1964.
With Gilman eligible last season after sitting out 2017 and Elliott one of the team’s most improved players, the tackles by the starting duo nearly doubled to 162 (Gilman’s 95 was second and Elliott’s 67 was fourth). They also were credited with 12 passes broken up (seven by Elliott, five by Gilman), four forced fumbles (a team high three by Gilman, one by Elliott) and six interceptions (a team high four by Elliott and two by Gilman).
It's hardly a surprise that for the first time ever, two safeties are among Notre Dame’s seven team captains in 2019. That status goes far beyond their production on the field. The joke between the two this summer is if one was elected a captain and the other wasn’t, the one who received the nod would relinquish it because it wouldn’t feel right.
“We’re the communicators of the defense and we like to say the defense lives and dies with us because we communicate,” said Elliott of the safeties’ role.
The chemistry with Gilman, though, allows Elliott to center his attention on everyone else in defensive sets.
“I know there are certain things I don’t even have to communicate [with Gilman],” Elliott said. “I know he’s going to be there and I can bump off of a run…”
At Lloyd C. Bird High, the Richmond, Va., native Elliott was a full-fledged quarterback during state title achievements as a sophomore and junior, and his role as a senior in 2015 expanded to what he described as a “middle of the field safety.”
“No tackling, just go get the ball,” deadpanned Elliott, who recorded 14 tackles that season while also picking off five passes and breaking up seven others.
Consequently, at Notre Dame there was a developmental phase at safety for Elliott his first two seasons, but he was able to start 13 games in 2017 based more on raw athletic talent than on instincts or savvy. It wasn’t until the spring of his junior season he began playing winning football, which now has translated more toward championship level.
“I began to understand why we’re in the defense and the other pieces of the defense,” Elliott said. “That really helped me tie my game and I could start explaining it to other people, telling younger safeties why we do this, to the linebackers of what I’m seeing … it was less thinking, it was more just reacting to it.”
“It took a long time, but I’m thankful for that process. I always tell people ‘your process is your process. Be true to yours and just continue to climb.'”
At the end of last season, Gilman earned Pro Football Focus first team All-American honors for how he graded out, while this summer Lindy’s Sports has honored Elliott as one of the five best senior strong safeties in the country. While he is both humbled and awed by his captaincy, he maintains the same outlook he did when he was with the second unit a year ago at this time.
“What I remind myself daily is the work is just beginning,” Elliott said. “Yes, I got named captain with a bunch of other great captains, but at the same time I have to continue to push and I have to continue to lead because that’s what my teammates, that’s what my coaches, are expecting of me.”