Notre Dame vs. Ball State
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Radio: 1190 AM
SOUTH BEND – Jalen Elliott is better at finishing plays this season. Finishing is the aspect of his game the Notre Dame safety mentions first when asked how he tried to get better in the offseason.
He was able to show the fruits of his hard work against Michigan.
Early in the fourth quarter, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson rolled left and looked for tight end Sean McKeon, just past the line of scrimmage. Elliott's assignment was receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, but he read the play perfectly and attacked McKeon, lowering his shoulder into the tight end and knocking him back four yards.
Watching the play on TV, Elliott isn't even on the screen when McKeon makes the catch, but he flashes forward and makes the bone-crunching tackle before the ball-carrier can take two steps.
“You hope that you get opportunities to make plays like that, through game-planning or whatever it may be,” said Elliott, a junior. “It felt good, but you know we have to continue to get our work in.”
Elliott's hit was the type of highlight play that was missing for Notre Dame safeties last season, a year in which the Irish got no interceptions and just five pass breakups from that embattled group. Under new co-defensive backs coach Terry Joseph, the Irish had a clean slate at the position and they looked like a different group against the Wolverines.
Elliott started all 13 games as a sophomore last season, recording 24 tackles and two pass breakups. When Joseph came in, however, the coach made it clear that everyone was starting with a blank slate and would be re-evaluated. With former Navy standout Alohi Gilman, who sat out 2017 under NCAA transfer rules, eligible to play this year, there was only one starting safety spot that was really available.
Elliott worked hard in the offseason and earned the other starting spot alongside Gilman, beating out five-star true freshman Houston Griffith, the top recruit in Notre Dame's 2018 class.
“He's a mature player,” coach Brian Kelly said of Elliott. “He's taken all those snaps from last year and he's communicating extremely well. He's very vocal out there.”
After spending the offseason fighting for his job, Elliott insisted that the competition helped make everyone better and helped make the entire position stronger.
“We just all came out every day and pushed each other,” the Richmond, Virginia, native said. “That was the biggest thing was just pushing each other to be the best we could be, because we knew if we all pushed each other to that point, we could be a really good group.”
The safeties didn't get an interception against Michigan, but starters Elliott and Gilman each had solid games, combining for 12 tackles while Gilman knocked away two passes, including one in the end zone.
Of course, there's room for improvement. Michigan's biggest play came on the first snap of the second half, when Elliott misread a route and left Julian Love on an island without any help. Nico Collins made a catch for 52 yards that would have been a touchdown had it been a better throw from Patter-son.
Still, the performance was a major step up from last season's lackluster safety play. It helped silence last season's critics, although Elliott said the group hadn't heard much from them anyway.
“You can't really listen to the outside noise,” he said. “We knew what we had in the room and we knew we could be pretty dominant as long as we stayed together.”
In Gilman's opinion, the position has only scratched the surface of its ability.
“That's just the beginning,” Gilman said of the Michigan game. “The scary thing is we haven't reached our peak potential yet.”