Notre Dame defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Mike Elston will depart South Bend to become the defensive line coach at Michigan, according to multiple reports.
Elston, 47, was Notre Dame's longest-tenured coach, the only assistant to be with Brian Kelly for Kelly's entire tenure in South Bend. The St. Mary's, Ohio, native was the defensive line coach for 12 years and was the program's recruiting coordinator from 2015 to 2017 and again in 2021. He was also the associate head coach from 2018 to 2020.
When Kelly departed abruptly departed Notre Dame for LSU in November, Elston was one of the coaches who seemed most likely to follow his former boss to Baton Rouge; Elston had worked for Kelly since 2004, when the pair was at Central Michigan. Instead, he publicly pronounced his desire to remain in South Bend.
“People think it’s loyalty to certain people. At the end of the day, my family is the most important thing in my life,” Elston said in December, explaining his decision. “To move a daughter who is a junior in high school right now, starting her senior year, to move my middle daughter, Sophia, who is 14, and she’s going to be starting freshman year, who is a top-10, top-15 fencer in the country, and a lot of places don’t have fencing, pulling her away from an area that she’s able to flourish (in). So it’s a family decision for me and it will always be a family decision. It’s not about money. My kids want to go to Notre Dame, too. It’s a family decision, and that’s why I’ve always really turned down opportunities for myself."
It appears, however, Elston finally got an opportunity he could not turn down. He is a former Michigan linebacker and he started his coaching career with the Wolverines, spending two seasons as a graduate assistant before getting a full-time coaching job at Eastern Michigan in 2001.
Elston was Notre Dame's defensive play-caller in Notre Dame's 37-35 loss to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. If that game was something of a tryout for the open Irish defensive coordinator position, vacated when Marcus Freeman was promoted to head coach following Kelly's departure, Elston apparently did not show enough to earn the job. The Cowboys rolled up 605 yards and scored 30 unanswered points at one juncture. Elston's departure comes after reports surfaced the Irish were zeroing in on Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock for the position, though reports today indicated Heacock will stay put in Ames.
Losing Elston is a significant blow for the Irish. Notre Dame's strategy for taking the next step as a program involves significantly boosting its recruiting efforts and beginning to land top 5 classes. Freeman was a huge part of that effort in his one year as defensive coordinator and he is clearly a talented recruiter, but Elston was the lead recruiter on highly-touted 2023 Irish defensive line commitments Brenan Vernon and Keon Keeley, the latter a five-star defensive end and the No. 22 player in the class, according to 247sports.com.
The Irish staff will likely spend some sleepless nights in the coming days wondering whether Keeley and Vernon will waver in their commitments with Elston gone. With that pair in the fold, Notre Dame's class is ranked No. 2 nationally and could well finish in the top 5, establishing an important base for Freeman's tenure. If the defensive linemen de-commit, however, the class is likelier to finish in the 8-12 range the Irish occupied in the latter years of Kelly's time in South Bend. Vernon, a Mentor, Ohio, native who is the No. 62 player in his class and the top player from Ohio, has likely been getting a hard sell from Ohio State anyway and this development gives the Buckeyes that much more ammunition.