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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Familiar faces, schemes headline Wake Forest-Notre Dame matchup

When Wake Forest comes to town Saturday to take on No. 3 Notre Dame, there will be a familiar face on the sideline.

Except he will be on the sideline opposite the one he had patrolled each of the previous three seasons.

From 2014-2016, Mike Elko served as the defensive coordinator for the Demon Deacons (5-3, 2-3 ACC). But now, he heads an Irish defense currently ranked No. 10 in scoring defense and tied for No. 12 in turnovers forced so far this season.

And while the matchup with an old friend might add another level of intrigue to Saturday’s matchup between the Demon Deacons and Irish (7-1), it doesn’t change things for Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson — well, except in maybe one regard.

“It doesn’t bring a degree of emotion,” Clawson said Tuesday. “Mike is an outstanding coach. He did a great job for me with four different programs. He’s spent well over half of his career with me. I think in my 18 years of being a head coach, he’s been with me for 12 of them. He’s a great. He’s doing a great job there, and I’m proud of him.

“On Saturday, we want to beat him, and he wants to beat us. We talk regularly, text after every game … but that will cease this week.”

But with Elko just months removed from leaving a foundation on the defensive side for Wake Forest and bringing his system — as well as linebackers coach Clark Lea — to Notre Dame, it comes as no surprise that both Clawson and Irish head coach Brian Kelly are being asked about how that impacts Saturday’s game and what advantages can be had.

Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko coaches on the field during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game on April 22 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko coaches on the field during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game on April 22 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Yet, for Kelly, having Bill Rees on his staff — the father of Irish quarterbacks coach Tom Rees and former director of player personnel for Wake Forest in 2015 and 2016 — provides just as much of, if not more of, a substantial advantage as having Elko does for Saturday’s matchup.

“Bill Rees is a bigger advantage. Bill is an evaluator,” Kelly said Tuesday. “It takes out the emotional piece that Mike brings. … Bill does all of our scouting evaluations of the personnel. Obviously, his background in evaluating and NFL evaluating has been crucial in allowing us to get a glimpse at our next opponent and getting that evaluation of our opponent and allows us to go to work within our planning.

“So Bill gave me his evaluation. … It was interesting to get his evaluation and to get Mike Elko’s. There was definitely a little bit more emotion in Mike Elko’s compared to the straight, standard, plus/minus evaluation of Bill Rees. So having both of them, we’ve got a pretty good understanding of the personnel, but just maybe a little bit of a different flavor.”

One player neither Rees or Elko will need to evaluate for this week, however, is Demon Deacons wide receiver Greg Dortch. Although only a redshirt freshman, Dortch was leading the team with 53 receptions, 722 yards and nine touchdowns this season — including 10 catches, 167 yards and a school-record four touchdown grabs in Wake Forest’s 42-32 victory over Louisville this past Saturday — while also serving as the team’s punt and kick returner. However, Dortch sustained an abdominal injury during Saturday’s game and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery that night.

“Injuries are part of football,” Clawson said of losing Dortch. “We will miss Greg. He was having a great year. But we’ve recruited and we have depth now. I think we are better prepared to deal with this than we have ever been before. I wish we had him, but I think we are really fortunate to have a player of the caliber of [junior] Tabari Hines ready to fill in. … Next man up.”

Although Dortch’s replacement as a starter, Hines — who actually opened the season listed as the starter on the depth chart before Dortch supplanted him — has already been an integral part of the Wake Forest offensive attack, as he is second on the team in receptions (18) and third in yards (250), the production is nowhere near the level of Dortch.

Demon Deacons senior quarterback John Wolford said he has full confidence in Hines as well as his team’s other playmakers, such as redshirt-senior tight end Cam Serigne, junior wide receiver Chuck Wade Jr. and redshirt-sophomore wideout Scotty Washington.

“It’s next man up, and Tabari is a tremendous talent,” Wolford said Tuesday. “He came into the year as the starter. The fact that he beat Greg out tells you how talented he is. We have our full confidence in Tabari — he’s played a lot of football, and he’ll be ready to go this Saturday. He’s chomping at the bit, so it works out for him. It’s next man up, injuries happen and that can’t be a crutch.”

“ … We have playmakers all over the field in my opinion. … When guys are getting open, when guys are making plays, it’s my job to get it to them. As much as I can get guys involved, you know get guys like Chuck Wade going, Cam going and Tabari going now — Scotty had a big day [against Louisville]. So, anytime we can get the ball to our weapons, it’s kind of what I'm supposed to do.”

But according to Kelly, its the senior under center — and not his plethora of weapons — who will pose the biggest challenge for the Irish defense.

“[He is] probably the most experienced quarterback that we’ll play,” he said of the Demon Deacon’s starting quarterback. “Wolford has been in the system, has experienced the ups and downs and growing [pains] in this offensive system. Led them last week to over 600 yards, counted for five touchdowns, just really knows it very well. So that will certainly be a challenge for us.”

On the other side of the football, Wake Forests boasts a talented secondary that is “really ascending,” according to Kelly, even with Demon Deacons redshirt-sophomore cornerback Jessie Bates III being announced out Tuesday by Clawson.

But the player the Irish will be focusing on the most, Kelly said, is defensive lineman Duke Ejiofor.

“One of the best pass rushers that we’ve seen,” he said of the redshirt senior. “I think he’s got 6 1/2 sacks, 14 tackles for loss — very loose and very mobile in terms of pass rush ability, can get to the quarterback. Really like his ability to get to the quarterback. We’ll have to keep an eye on him, whether we move it back over there or chip him. He’s somebody that we’ve got to keep an eye on.”

For the Demon Deacons, there was a question as to whether or not there would be enough meaningful game tape on the Irish, given its propensity to blow teams out and rest some of its starters — such as junior running back Josh Adams — in the second half. However, Clawson said he is confident the Demon Deacons have more than enough to key in on what Notre Dame’s identity and plan of attack is in the tape he has.

“They have eight games on tape,” Clawson said. “There are still plenty of meaningful snaps to look at. If this had been the second or third game of the season, it might have been a little more problematic. I don’t think Notre Dame was holding anything back to try to beat Georgia and NC State. When you play teams with new defensive coordinators, if it’s game one or two, you might be guessing a little bit. However, in games nine and 10, there are some wrinkles, but their identity is their identity.”

However, regardless of what’s identified by either team on tape or what the personnel looks like on either side come the first snap, Saturday’s winner will likely be decided by who executes their game plan best, Kelly said.

“Good personnel, very comfortable with the scheme,” Kelly said of Wake Forest. “There’s a lot of similarities, a lot of carryovers from last year and the year before. It looks a lot like our scheme, so we’re very familiar with what the looks are. But again, it’s going to come down to execution and some of the one-on-one match-ups. So really good, solid football team, playing well right now, and we’ll have to play our best.”