Notre Dame’s collection of talent on both sides of the ball far and away exceeds anything new defensive coordinator Mike Elko has coached.
So how does the 39-year-old motivate those players, many of which have always been among the best on the field?
“You find a way to put a chip on their shoulder,” Elko said last week.
“You’ve got to motivate kids and you can’t look at it differently, I learned that as a young coach just moving up from level to level to level. Just coach the way you coach.”
Elko thrived at Wake Forest with a roster that ranked near the bottom of the ACC in terms of talent. The Demon Deacons’ previous four recruiting classes ranked 61st, 52nd, 59th and 58th, bringing in just one four-star prospect. Elko coached 2015 NFL first-round draft pick Kevin Johnson, a cornerback, for one season.
Johnson, who just completed his second season with the Houston Texans, was a two-star recruit and unranked in the state of Maryland by Rivals in the class of 2010.
Motivating a team of under-recruited two- and three-star players is one thing. Maximizing the potential of players like five-star defensive end Daelin Hayes, four-star cornerbacks Troy Pride Jr. and Donte Vaughn and four-star linebacker Nyles Morgan is another.
“That’s just football,” Elko said. “It’s a new challenge from the perspective of I don’t know these kids, so I have to get to know them and learn how to motivate them. It’s not a blueprint.”
Star ratings, which generally correlate to a team’s success but are far from perfect, don’t reflect how Elko will coach the Irish players.
“Everyone keeps referencing this star thing,” Elko said. “What is that to say that the way you motivate a Notre Dame kid is the same way you motivate an Alabama kid? No, it’s a different kid with a different mindset with a different background and you’ve got to find a way to push his buttons. That’s football.
“It’s got less to do with stars and more to do with getting to know new kids and figuring out what they’re all about.”