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Saturday, June 15, 2024
The Observer

Born Leader: Jalen Elliott brings order to Irish secondary

Notre Dame has always been about so much more than football for Jalen Elliott. The senior safety from Richmond, Virginia, Elliott has emerged as a leader in the program and an anchor among one of the elite secondary units in the country.

That leadership earned him the honor of being named one of seven captains this past August, a title he shares with fellow senior safety Alohi Gilman. In some ways, Elliott seems born for this position, but to him it’s just business as usual.

Irish senior captain safety Jalen Elliott makes an interception during Notre Dame's 24-16 win over Ball State at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 8.

“I was extremely honored — extremely honored — but also knew that [being named a captain] meant my team was really looking at me to step up and be that leader it needed me to be,” Elliott said. “So it was important for me to keep working and continue to be the person I was that got me to that point.”

Elliott’s hardworking attitude began well before his time in South Bend. As a standout star at Lloyd C. Bird High School, Elliott proved to be one of the most versatile athletes in the class of 2016, playing a number of different positions including quarterback, wide receiver and eventually, of course, safety. While he had some experience on the defensive side of the ball, Elliott said the transition to playing at the speed of the NCAA when he was still adjusting to the position proved challenging. However, he was able to convert some of the skills he developed as a play caller to become a key presence on the field.

“It took a lot of practice and a lot of work. I was very raw coming in,” Elliott said. “I played quarterback in high school so it was a little different, but a lot of the same tools I used vocally playing quarterback I use playing safety, so it was just about learning the technique and making sure that I was in the right spots for my team.”

He took quickly to those adjustments as he earned himself a spot in the rotation in his freshman season, appearing in all 12 games. As the team struggled to find their momentum, eventually posting a 4-8 record on the season, Elliott was part of the coalition of freshmen defenders — headlined by current New York Giants player Julian Love — that started to find their groove down the final stretch of the season.

While that first season had its fair share of challenges, Elliott said it also came with some incredible learning experiences, particularly pointing to the 47-50 double-overtime season-opening loss to the University of Texas in Austin.

“It was an unbelievable game,” he said. “You know, it was my first one, and the first taste of college football and just how it would go — it was just amazing to realize that I was here and how much work I had to go.”

Elliott chose the Irish over fellow powerhouse programs such as Auburn, Georgia and Miami (Florida). He credited the family environment head coach Brian Kelly and his staff worked to create as being one of the major reasons he picked Notre Dame.

“It was big to me that there was a family aspect wherever I went, and I felt like Notre Dame embodied that,” Elliott said. “When my family came out here, they treated them like they were part of their family, so that really stuck out, and that was one of the main reasons that I chose to come here.”

That decision paid off, as Elliott said he found a whole community of teammates that have impacted him as a player and leader. One he said stood out among the rest is two-time captain and linebacker Drue Tranquill. Tranquill, who graduated this past year, was known to help mold leaders and integrate underclassmen in the program.

“He was … the first person to really sit down and talk with me and say that I could be somebody that the team looks to to lead,” Elliott said. “Having him in my corner and having him give me those couple insights was really huge for me.”

The encouragement of Tranquill and other respected members of the team helped build Elliott’s confidence within a team that was still discovering its identity. After that 4-8 season, the Irish bounced back to finish 10-3 in 2017, capped off with a 21-17 win over LSU at the Citrus Bowl. The improvements in that season were largely due to that defensive corps coming into their own. Elliott, by then a starter, was a key piece.

Although he had a strong sophomore campaign, Elliott proved he still had more to show. In the second game of the 2018 season, Elliott made two interceptions against Ball State, a game the heavily-favored Irish would go on to win by only eight points, making Elliott’s contributions that much more invaluable. He added two more interceptions on the season, becoming one of 35 players in the country to record four or more interceptions.

Elliott credited much of the improvements made in the secondary to the coaching staff, particularly defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph, who joined the Irish in 2018.

“Having Terry Joseph has really helped us to not think as much and just play fast and play together,” he said.

With the recent loss to Michigan, it might be easy for this team to hang their head, knowing their hopes of returning to college football’s biggest stage are dashed. But not Elliott. Just as Notre Dame has always been about more than just football, this season is about more than just a bowl game.

“We’ve still got all of our goals in front of us,” he said. “With five games left in the season, we’ve still got a lot of season left. We’re really excited to get back to work and work together. … Being a senior, being that this is my last season, I’m going to cherish these last five games and go give them my all.”