Texas A&M head football coach Jimbo Fisher couldn't land the losing defensive coordinator in the Citrus Bowl, so he hired the winner, Notre Dame's Mike Elko, someone he's also familiar with from their Atlantic Coast Conference battles.
"I am excited to bring one of the top defensive minds in the nation onto our staff here at Texas A&M," Fisher said Thursday in a statement released by the school. "No matter where Mike has worked, he has consistently produced defenses that have been among the nation's best."
Elko served as Wake Forest's defensive coordinator from 2014-16 and faced Fisher and Florida State each of those three years before moving to Notre Dame, where he worked wonders in his only season with the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame improved from 4-8 in 2016 to 10-3 this season, and Elko's part in it made him a semifinalist for the Broyles Award which goes to the nation's best assistant.
This season the Irish ranked 31st in scoring defense at 21.5 points per game, 46th in total defense (369.2 yards per game), 51st in rushing defense (154.5) and 53rd in passing yards allowed (214.7) despite the Irish playing 10 Power Five conference teams. The numbers marked a drastic improvement from 2016 when Notre Dame ranked 62nd in scoring defense (27.8) and 72nd in rushing defense (182.4).
"We appreciate his work and effort over the last year with our program and wish him the best moving forward," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said via Twitter on Thursday.
Before the Citrus Bowl against LSU, Kelly told Irish Illustrated that other schools were courting Elko, "but he's gonna be here at Notre Dame."
That changed when A&M turned to Elko after its second run at LSU's Dave Aranda failed. Aranda agreed to stay in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with a guaranteed four-year, $10 million contract making him the first college football assistant to be paid $2 million annually. Elko won't be far behind, starting at $1.8 million in the first year of a three-year contract with rollover options and incentives, Yahoo Sports' Pete Thamel reported. However, ESPN's Chris Low, citing a source, said Elko will get at least $2 million annually.
Aranda was the nation's top paid assistant in 2017 at $1.8 million, according to USA Today's survey which doesn't include private school such as Notre Dame.
Elko got the best of Aranda in the Citrus Bowl with Notre Dame claiming a 21-17 victory as LSU managed only 399 yards of offense on 75 plays. By comparison, LSU had 601 yards on 87 plays in its regular-season finale, a 45-21 victory over A&M in Baton Rouge.
Elko will replace John Chavis, who spent three seasons at A&M. Chavis, who also was DC at LSU and Tennessee, is expected to be hired at Arkansas.
Elko will take over a defense that struggled in most major categories this season. A&M ranked 70th in rushing defense (170.8), 78th in total defense (408.5), 87th in scoring (30.7), 101st in passing efficiency (140.16) and 122nd in red-zone defense (90.7 percent).
Those numbers are expected to improve next year, because A&M is losing only three senior starters -- end Jarrett Johnson, safety Armani Watts and tackle Zaycoven Henderson. None started in the 55-52 loss to Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl. Watts, a third-team All-American by the Associated Press, missed with an injury, and Henderson had been kicked off the team after being arrested on three charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, tampering with evidence and possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana.
Elko will have plenty of players with experience returning. Of A&M's 109 tackles in the Belk Bowl, underclassmen made all but one. Senior safety Donovan Wilson, who suffered a season-ending injury in the season opener, also will return.
Wake Forest lost all three games against Florida State with Elko as its defensive coordinator matching wits with Fisher, who called his own plays. Florida State steamrolled Wake Forest 43-3 in their first meeting in 2014, but the next two games were dogfights. FSU won 24-16 in 2015 though the Seminoles rushed for only 127 yards on 21 carries, then Florida State won a 17-6 defensive battle in 2016. Wake Forest forced four turnovers, matching the most the Seminoles had that season, and held Florida State to 123 rushing yards on 38 carries -- 79 yards below its season average.
Wake Forest's 2016 defense ranked in the Top 20 in fumbles recovered (third), turnovers forced (10th), sacks (12th), defensive touchdowns (17th), red-zone defense (17th) and scoring defense (20th). The only other teams with defenses that ranked that well -- Alabama, Clemson and Washington -- made the College Football Playoff.
Coincidentally, Elko's Wake Forest defense in 2015 also played well in a 28-7 loss to Notre Dame, holding the Irish to 15 first downs and 282 yards, both season-lows for a Notre Dame team that finished the season 10-3. A few months ago Kelly told ESPN's Adam Rittenberg that game stuck with him so much that he tracked how Elko's defenses had forced takeaways and pressured quarterbacks, something the Irish struggled with. He liked what he saw and a year later hired Elko.
Notre Dame forced 20 turnovers this season to rank 50th nationally -- a huge improvement from 104th the previous season. The Irish averaged only 1.85 sacks per game to rank 82nd but also averaged 6.1 tackles for loss to jump from 102nd to 58th.
Elko leaves behind a solid foundation. Notre Dame had six underclassmen starting on defense and signed 12 defensive players during the early signing period, including five consensus four-star recruits.
When Elko made the jump from Wake Forest to Notre Dame, he brought with him linebackers coach Clark Lea. Fisher, who announced his offensive staff Wednesday, is expected to retain defensive ends coach Terry Price but no other assistants on defense.
Elko spent five seasons as Bowling Green's defensive coordinator before heading to Wake Forest.