November 2, 2017
By John Heisler
The respective football coaching staffs at Notre Dame and Wake Forest have spent hours and days eye-balling video and scouting each other in advance of the matchup Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium between the third-ranked Irish and the Demon Deacons.
That’s par for the course.
What’s different this week is the human element.
New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko is in his first year in that role in South Bend after spending the previous three years in that same role at Wake Forest.
First-year Irish linebacker coach Clark Lea held that same position at Wake Forest in 2016.
Notre Dame’s new director of scouting, Bill Rees, held a similar role at Wake Forest in 2015 and 2016.
The connections include Wake Forest reserve quarterback Kyle Driscoll, whose father Leo played on Notre Dame’s 1977 national title team. Kyle has 15 cousins and 10 aunts or uncles who attended Notre Dame—and most all of them will be in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday.
Then there’s Wake Forest president Dr. Nathan Hatch who was provost at Notre Dame from 1996-2005 and originally began in South Bend as associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters in 1983.
So there are few, if any, secrets involved in the X-and-O aspects of football this weekend.
And there’s a bit more to it than Elko’s Irish defense trying simply to thwart a Wake Forest offense that last weekend gained 625 total yards in a 42-32 win over Louisville.
“I'm sure Mike would like to get through this quickly,” says Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “It's never easy. You can imagine on one side of the fence how people see it and perceive it, and then on our side, we have a lot of pride in our program. I know all of our players, offense, defense and everybody involved in this program, from Mike to coach (Clark) Lea, we want to play really well for them. So it depends on what side you're looking at it.”
Kelly was intrigued this week to see the standard evaluation of the Wake Forest offense that came from Elko and his defensive staff—compared to Rees’ weekly look at the opposition personnel.
“There was definitely a little bit more emotion in Mike Elko's version compared to the straight, standard, plus/minus evaluation of Bill Rees,” adds Kelly. “So having both of them, we've got a pretty good understanding of the personnel. But just maybe a little bit of a different flavor.”
Yet all the scouting reports in the world are no substitute for what’s required to win a game on the field Saturday.
“This is about execution,” says Kelly. “This will be about the tenets that we have within our offense, defense and special teams. We've taken care of the football. We've controlled the line of scrimmage on offense. Defensively, we've gotten off the field, we've eliminated big plays. We've tackled really well. Those are the basic tenets that will have to show up again. Yeah, we know each other, but I think it's similar to any two teams that play each other all the time.
“There's a lot of similarity to the (Wake Forest) defense that we've seen in the past. Again, I think it's still about personnel, and their personnel is emerging. I think it's probably a much more mature football team.”
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson knows the challenges for his team go beyond the familiarity with coaches on the other side of the field.
“It's not every week you face the caliber of an offensive line that Notre Dame has or the caliber of a back that (Josh) Adams is.
“But the better the team you play, the more those assignments become more difficult and that's where Notre Dame is exceptional. They have a running back with close to 1,200 yards that averages almost nine yards a carry, and this is certainly up there as one of the most physical offensive lines that we've played in our four years here.
“They have got a number of exceptional players on their offensive line, and it's a very well-coached, physical, technique-sound group. They are really, really good up front.”
Clawson knows it will be a little different seeing Elko wearing different colors after their long association.
“I hired Mike at Fordham when he was 23 years old, and he was with me at every stop: Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Green and Wake Forest,” says Clawson. “Mike is a great coach, a good person. We're still very good friends. We won't talk this week, but I have great respect for Mike.
“We're both professionals. This week we want to beat Notre Dame and Notre Dame wants to beat Wake Forest. And when it's over, I'm sure we'll have a good talk.
“But it's mixed emotions. Mike did a great job here and everywhere he's been for me but, on the other hand, I'm really proud of the job he's doing there. He's had a huge, huge impact on their program in just not even a full year.
“But I'm hoping this week that they maybe have a bunch of breakdowns and they don't look as good.”
Clawson had a simple reason for how the Irish have turned around their fortunes from a 4-8 mark in 2016:
“Well, they hired two guys from Wake Forest. I think that's what happened.
“Seriously, they are playing good football. They are creating turnovers. They are making plays on offense. They are a physical O-line. They have got good players, good schemes, good coaches. They are a good football team.”
Kelly notes a few changes from the Demon Deacon unit his Irish last faced in 2015:
“Much more mature on offense. From an offensive perspective, the weapons are outstanding. The quarterback is so much more seasoned. He's been in the system now. You can see the maturation of this offense, the big-play ability, the ability to spread you out, play with tempo. Very dangerous on offense.
“There's some remnants, certainly, of Coach Elko and his philosophy, but it's still Coach Clawson's team, so you can see that that defense, although there are some new wrinkles there, they're still philosophically a similar look. They're still bringing fire zone pressures and playing very smart defense, very fundamentally sound.”
The Irish players understand the coaching connections this week.
“I think there's obviously more excitement along with it,” says Notre Dame senior linebacker Greer Martini. “But I think the goal here has been to prepare for this team like we prepared for every other team. Obviously (Elko) has relationships with those coaching staffs and those players that are important to him. That must be a dynamic for him.
“As a coach, we haven't really seen any difference from him. It's going to be the same Coach Elko we get week in and week out.”
Here are details of introductions and presentations this week at the Notre Dame-Wake Forest game:
--The Team Irish Award goes to the Notre Dame Department of Aerospace Studies Flying Irish Team. The Flying Irish team was challenged to make significant strides in the areas of standardization, recruiting, training and retention of the 45-student cadet wing this past year. They generated process improvements that were adopted across 37 schools throughout the Northeastern United States and saved up to 3,000 man hours in the first year alone. Through innovative and rigorous marketing initiatives, the Flying Irish more than doubled the incoming freshman class, growing it to the largest in seven years. Cadet retention improved by 38 percent with the implementation of a new training program.
--The All-Faculty Award goes to Phil Bess, Notre Dame professor of architecture. During his tenure as director of graduate studies in Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, Bess was instrumental in creating the school’s three-year professional master’s degree program as well as graduate concentrations in both classical architecture and urban design. His urban design students have crafted award-winning projects for several small towns and large cities, including a visionary proposal for 22nd-century Chicago. Back at the start of this century, Bess served as design coordinator of the Save Fenway Park! emergency neighborhood workshop, whose proposed renovations to Fenway Park helped save the home of the Boston Red Sox.
--2017 represents the 60th anniversary of Notre Dame’s first trip to the College Baseball World Series, back in 1957. It’s also the 15th anniversary of the most recent Irish trip to Omaha in 2002--and members of that squad are back on campus this weekend to celebrate that achievement on the Notre Dame Baseball squad’s Blue-Gold/World Series weekend.
That 2002 Irish team finished 50-18 under head coach Paul Mainieri –winning both the BIG EAST regular-season title and the BIG EAST Tournament. The Irish defeated Ohio State and top-seeded South Alabama in the NCAA South Bend Regional, knocked off top-ranked Florida State in Tallahassee in the super regional—and added a huge highlight in Omaha in a win over Rice on a walk-off home run by Brian Stavisky. Centerfielder Steve Stanley claimed first-team All-America honors that season. Stanley was the BIG EAST player of the year and was joined in claiming all-BIG EAST honors by catcher Paul O’Toole, second baseman Steve Sollmann, Stavisky, third baseman Andrew Bushey and DH Matt Bok.
--Last summer the Notre Dame football squad took part in the first Football and The Force Softball Game for charity at Four Winds Field in downtown South Bend. The event was part of Irish Around the Bend – the community service platform for Notre Dame football. Notre Dame football players broke into three teams to play softball versus representatives from NDSP, the South Bend, Mishawaka and St. Joseph County police departments and the Indiana State Police. The event raised money for Indiana C.O.P.S. – Concerns of Police Survivors-- whose mission is to rebuild the shattered lives of survivors and coworkers when an officer is killed in the line of duty. Saturday the Notre Dame football program will present a $1,000 check to Indiana C.O.P.S. Representing the Notre Dame football program will be Ron Powlus, and he will be joined by representatives of the South Bend Police Department, NDSP, Indiana State Police and the Mishawaka and St. Joseph County police departments.