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

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 CFP Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 29: Clemson Tigers wide receiver Justyn Ross (8) catches a pass along the sidelines and stiff arms Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety Jalen Elliott (21) during the CFP Semifinal Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic game between the Clemson Tigers and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on December 29, 2018 at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1, 210 pounds.2019-20 year, eligibility: A senior, Elliott has only one season of eligibility remaining.Depth chart: Elliott will start for the third consecutive year, joined by classmate Alohi Gilman. An unknown will back up Elliott after classmate Devin Studstill transferred this spring.Recruiting: A four-star prospect, Elliott’s success at Notre Dame the last two seasons makes an abundance of sense when remembering he chose the Irish over Wake Forest (as well as Georgia and Virginia Tech, being from Richmond, Va.). Mike Elko and Clark Lea had wanted Elliott to lead their defense even before they arrived at Notre Dame. Something about his high school career split between quarterback and defensive back showed them he would fit it, as he has.

Elliott was thrown into the mix right off the bat as a freshman given the defensive struggles embedded in the 4-8 debacle of 2016. That led to him appearing in every game before starting each one in 2017. What then changed between his sophomore and junior years? Elliott developed a nose for the football, making it now almost hard to believe no safety picked off a single pass in 2017. He signaled the return of that possibility with an interception in the 2018 Blue-Gold Game, a precursor for his breakout season.

2016: 12 games; 14 tackles.2017: 13 games, 13 starts; 43 tackles and two pass breakups.2018: 13 games, 13 starts; 67 tackles with one for loss including half a sack; four interceptions with seven more pass breakups and one forced fumble.

More praise of Elliott’s locker room leadership will come next month, whether Elliott is named captain or not. At least one of he or Gilman will almost undoubtedly get that honor, and perhaps both. Until then, praise of Elliott’s focus on even the small details of his position may be an indication of how he can build on last year’s success.

“As a veteran player, it’s not necessarily about the complex things,” Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea said in March. “It’s not the broad, schematic things so much. It’s more about reverting back to the minutiae, the things that at first maybe you weren’t worried about — how your steps or what your body position was at the point of attack, what your tempo was — because you were just wondering what cover-four was. You were just trying to figure out how to make your reads.

“Now you go back to that starting point. That’s where you find the advantage, because when you start cleaning up things like eye transition and footwork, as rudimentary as that sounds. Better starts lead to better finishes, and that’s kind of what [Elliott’s] challenge is now.”

“Notre Dame’s safeties have been criticized, if not even lampooned, for a couple years now. Last season they broke up a total of five passes and intercepted none. That is inexcusable. Nonetheless, directing that skepticism directly at Elliott may be misguided. He was a sophomore playing in his second defensive system. Some opposing veterans were always going to be more physical than him, and some mental mistakes should have been expected.

“Elliott’s year-to-year progression, combined with his persistence in holding off depth-chart challenges — Studstill, then sophomore safeties-now-turned-linebackers Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath, followed by Gilman and early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith, next (Derrik) Allen — sets the stage for Elliott to be all that much more consistent in 2018.

“Of course, consistency is not the goal in a ‘safety-driven defense,’ as Elko and now Lea often describe this system. Their hope is to funnel the make-or-break moment of each play toward the safeties. That does not always mean they get to make the stop; perhaps they remove the quarterback’s first read. It does mean quality safety play is a necessity, not a luxury or a convenience.

“If Elliott does not fill that need, Allen or Griffith or even Studstill will get the chance to. If he does, another 40-plus tackles should be a certainty. The more telling number will be how many passes Elliott breaks up. More than two is an absolute bare minimum.”

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Syracuse v Notre Dame

BRONX, NY - NOVEMBER 17: Notre Dame Fighting Irish safety Jalen Elliott (21) returns an interception during the College Football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Syracuse Orange on November 17, 2018 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been said before, it will be said again, and the repetition is deserved: It is hard to believe how far the safety position has come since 2016’s disaster and 2017’s average showing; at this point, it is the strength of the Notre Dame defense. Much of that progress traces directly to Elliott.

Putting a ceiling on his final collegiate season feels unnecessary. Elliott will play well, exceeding last year’s tackles total simply due to the lack of veterans in front of him at linebacker. If he matches 2018’s five turnovers, then the Irish will be in good shape.

Add in on- and off-field leadership, officially as a captain or merely as a three-year starter, and Elliott will have finished a career that will be underrated given what few quality reserves there were behind Elliott throughout much of his time.

Even if underrated, Elliott should play himself into the NFL draft, if he hasn’t already. His play-making last season erased the doubts established in 2017, and by no means is he shortchanged in physical gifts. A solid senior season combined with strong testing results could quickly put Elliott into the second day of the draft.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 94: Isaiah Foskey, freshman defensive end, consensus four-star
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90: Hunter Spears, defensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver
No. 85: George Takacs, tight end
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 80: Micah Jones, receiver
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right guard, three-year starter
No. 77: Quinn Carroll, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive guard
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive lineman
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, left tackle, two-year starter
No. 73: Andrew Kristofic, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle, three-year starter
No. 71: John Olmstead, offensive lineman, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 69: Aaron Banks, left guard
No. 60: Cole Mabry, offensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, veteran backup offensive lineman
No. 57: Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle
No. 56: John Dirksen, offensive lineman
No. 56: Howard Cross, incoming freshman defensive lineman, consensus four-star
No. 55: Jarrett Patterson, starting center
No. 55: Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle returning from injury
No. 54: Jacob Lacey, consensus four-star defensive tackle, early enrollee
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, senior defensive end
No. 52: Zeke Correll, consensus four-star center, early enrollee
No. 52: Bo Bauer, linebacker, sophomore
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, junior defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, senior inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, senior defensive end
No. 42: Julian Okwara, senior defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, junior defensive tackle
No. 40: Drew White, junior inside linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, junior kicker
No. 35: TaRiq Bracy, sophomore cornerback
No. 35: Marist Liufau, Hawaiian freshman linebacker
No. 34: Jahmir Smith, sophomore running back
No. 34: Osita Ekwonu, inside linebacker, consensus four-star
No. 33: Shayne Simon, sophomore linebacker
No. 31: Jack Lamb, sophomore linebacker
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, junior linebacker
No. 29: Ovie Oghoufo, sophomore linebacker-turned-defensive end
No. 27: J.D. Bertrand, consensus four-star linebacker
No. 25: Braden Lenzy, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 24: Tommy Tremble, sophomore tight end
No. 24: Jack Kiser, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, Mr. Indiana Football
No. 23: Litchfield Ajavon, four-star safety, freshman
No. 23: Kyren Williams, early-enrolled freshman running back
No. 22: Kendall Abdur-Rahman, quarterback-turned-receiver, freshman
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, the only returning starting linebacker