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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 21 Jalen Elliott, safety

Notre Dame v USC

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 26: Adoree’ Jackson #2 of the USC Trojans carries the ball for a touchdown in the third quarter against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 26, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-½, 208 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: Following spring practice, Elliott looks to be in prime position to start as the boundary safety against Temple in 53 days alongside junior Nick Coleman at field safety. Early-enrolled freshman Isaiah Robertson is the most likely backup to Elliott before turning to junior Nicco Fertitta.
Recruiting: A four-star recruit, different recruiting services and different teams varied their positional projections for Elliott’s career. He shined at both quarterback and defensive back in high school, but it was the possibility of being a receiver that conflicted with a clear-cut vision at safety. The No. 15 safety in the country, per rivals, and the No. 5 prospect in Virginia, Elliott chose Notre Dame over the likes of Georgia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. The last of those is of note considering Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko was then in that position with the Demon Deacons.

Elliott saw action in all 12 games his freshman season, making 14 tackles on the year. Thanks in part to the dismissal of Max Redfield just before the season, Elliott contributed in genuine defensive situations in addition to special teams, making four tackles against both Syracuse and Army.

As a first-team safety in this spring’s Blue-Gold Game, Elliott made seven tackles and one interception off a deflection by Coleman.

By the end of spring practice, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly flatly said, “[Elliott is] going to be with the first-team defense. He’s making great progress.”

Before that mid-April declaration, Kelly had typically lumped Elliott in with fellow sophomore safety Devin Studstill, who notched 38 tackles in 12 games with nine starts last season. In time, Studstill appeared to back up Coleman while Elliott established himself as the boundary safety.

“Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill are still in that programming mode in terms of doing all the little things right for us,” Kelly said in early April. “Fundamentally, I think they’re getting better. I know Mike Elko really like those two kids, likes their toughness and their want to play the game. They’re going to be there for us.

“You’ll see that we’re going to be situationally playing guys that make sense at the time of the game. First, second and third down. We’re going to put guys in position to succeed. It’s not going to be one guy and that’s it in all situations.”

I’m buying the hype on Elliott. I think he’s my leading snap-earner on the defensive side of the ball for the freshman class, out-pacing position-mate Devin Studstill, who had spring practice to work his way into first-team reps with Max Redfield.

“Versatility is a big reason I’m so high on Elliott. He’s a guy who can stay at safety if the Irish need to move [now-senior Drue] Tranquill around — a preference of [former defensive coordinator] Brian VanGorder’s. He’s a potential nickel or dime entry if the Irish want to put more defensive backs on the field. He’s also good enough to get a look as a cornerback. And he’ll certainly be someone who can be counted on as a special teamer.

“Opportunity is the other obvious reason to target Elliott as [a] true freshman contributor. Notre Dame’s safety play needs improvement, and new blood might be the best option.

“I’m hesitant to match stats with snaps, especially knowing that sometimes productive safety play means you failed in the front seven. But I’ve got no hesitation grabbing the reins and kick-starting the Elliott bandwagon.”

Elliott’s 2016 makes projecting his 2017 a difficult task. He played last season, but not necessarily enough to garner a legitimate impression. If nothing else, that will not be the case by the end of this September.

The Irish coaching staff has long been high on Elliott for his intangibles as much as his physical gifts. If both of those translate to his starting role, then he should have no difficulty staying on the field throughout the season. Even then, though, estimating a safety’s tackle totals can create misleading expectations. If Elliott exceeds 50 tackles, it could mean he develops a nose for the ball and makes play after play. It could also mean the front seven misses tackles and he is left to make open-field stops to prevent long touchdowns.

Even as a starting safety, it is probable Elliott is asked to provide coverage help on special teams. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian openly hoped for more talent at his disposal this spring. Amid that wishing, he paused to compliment Elliott’s performances to date.

With Studstill and, to a lesser extent, Robertson around to ably fill in on the defense’s backline, spending some of Elliott’s energy on special teams could lead to worthwhile results.

The additions of Robertson and freshman Jordan Genmark-Heath to the safeties may aid Notre Dame’s depth there, but they do not solve the even more lacking factor of experience. Enter Navy transfer sophomore Alohi Gilman.

There is a slight chance Gilman is declared eligible this fall. If that is the case, the only thing standing between him and a starting role will be an understanding of the playbook. He made 76 tackles for the Midshipmen last year, as well as five pass breakups. If he has a grasp of Elko’s playbook by early September, he will be the most-experienced Irish safety on the roster.

Presuming Gilman is not eligible until 2018, he will still have as much experience at safety then as anyone will. The most Elliott will be able to claim is one season’s worth of starts.

This may sound like bad news for Elliott, but a challenge in the position grouping is necessary and a bit overdue. He will have 2017 to establish himself as a starter. If told that a year ago, Elliott would have undoubtedly jumped at the chance.

2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover

No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship