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New coach spotlight: Michigan d-line coach Mike Elston

Elston is the real deal.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Oklahoma State at Notre Dame Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When Shaun Nua left for USC this offseason, it didn’t take Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh long to find a great replacement. Mike Elston is Michigan’s new d-line coach. Elston’s someone who played at Michigan in the early 90’s with a great resume as a coach and recruiter.

“I’ve followed Mike’s work at Notre Dame for a while and have admired his ability to not only recruit great student-athletes, but also his proven track record in developing players for the NFL,” Harbaugh said back in January.

Elston’s coaching career began as a student assistant coach at Michigan in 1997, a year where Michigan won a National Championship. The following season Elston would stay at Michigan through the 2000 season working with the linebackers as a graduate assistant.

Elston spent the next six years in the MAC, with stints at Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan. As as defensive line coach for CMU, Elston helped Dan Bazuin rack up 26.5 tackles for loss, which led the nation, and 16 sacks, a MAC record. Elston spent more than a decade with current LSU head coach Brian Kelly, serving on Kelly’s staff at Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame.

While defensive line is Elston’s specialty, he’s served as a linebackers coach, special teams coordinator, recruiting coordinator, and tight ends coach in his career. It was at Notre Dame where Elston had a significant run as d-line coach. Elston was on Notre Dame’s staff from 2010-2021, with ten of those seasons as a d-line coach. Elston was on the staff for both of Notre Dame’s College Football playoff appearances, and one National Championship appearance.

The strength of Notre Dame’s defense the past five years was their defensive line. Elston turned the defensive line into one that could rush the passer and generate sacks. Elston spent two seasons at Notre Dame as their linebackers coach and not their d-line coach (linebackers coach in 2015-16 ), and the pass-rush production from the line went down drastically — without Elston as d-line coach the unit had 3 sacks in 2016. Elston turned things around in a hurry the following season in 2017, when the ND d-line produced 16.5 sacks. Elston is coming off a heck of a season at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish defense tied a single-season school record with 41 sacks, with the defensive line powering the attack with 35 of those sacks.

With elite edge-rushers like Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo now in the NFL, the Michigan pass-rush may come from other areas of the line, and not just the edge predominantly. Elston’s ability to have lines create a consistent pass rush along the edge and interior alike bodes well for the Michigan line.

“I think there’s schematically some things that you may have to create rushes more, maybe more than last year. And one of the things, we got Mike Elston as our d-line coach,” Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter said. “His track record of having high numbers of sacks with his d-line. He’s never had maybe a true elite guy there and has done a really good job of mixing in stunts and games and things like that to create rushes.”

Elston’s track record speaks for itself. He’s a savvy recruiting coordinator and also coaches his unit up to play with intensity and get to the quarterback without overpursuing. Hiring Elston, especially during a season where Michigan’s pass-rush will rely on the interior to get pressure frequently, was a wise decision.

“We would like to generate more production on the inside. Obviously, we’ve lost some edge presence and it has to be generated somewhere, so we’re spending time on that. Mazi Smith is a very capable pass rusher. Kris Jenkins, George Rooks, all those guys are capable of pass-rushing,” Elston said this offseason. “It’s just we need to build it in, we need teach them and it goes down to the technique and leveling to the quarterback. An inside rusher, the biggest thing is you cut them loose, then rush the quarterback, and all of a sudden, he’s running by the quarterback where the defensive end should be. So them leveling out and making sure that they don’t run by the quarterback. But we should have better production on the inside in pass-rush situations.”

Harbaugh says he has a sneaky suspicion that the 2022 Michigan defense may be better than last season. If that’s the case that’ll mean the Michigan’s d-line will be among the best in the nation.

Elston is used to adjusting to different schemes and catering to the strengths of his players, his transition into Michigan’s defense should go smooth and the line should be as advertised. The line is getting a lot of hype, Mazi Smith especially, now it’s time go out and prove they’re the real deal.