Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the off-season…The annual gut-punch comes early.

This time the damage wasn’t done by a player’s off-field mistake, but by a coach’s increased paycheck. Mike Elko, defensive coordinator and almost indisputably the best thing to come out of the 2017 season for Notre Dame, decided to accept the buckets of money Texas A&M threw at him. He’ll be the Aggies’ defensive coordinator. A&M had previously pursued Dave Aranda from LSU before the Tigers gave him a big contract to stay. The move was first reported by TexAgs.com and Bruce Feldman of SI. Pete Thamel of Yahoo provided some contract details:

The Athletic’s Matt Fortuna reported that ND made a ‘competitive offer’ to keep Elko, but it apparently wasn’t good enough to top that.

Elko’s work with the Notre Dame defense was well-documented this year, as he transformed the VanGorder disaster of 2014-16 into a very solid unit this fall. (Oddly enough, the Irish’s defensive S&P+ rating ranked 27th in FBS

[20th among Power 5 schools], which was only up one spot from 2016’s 28th. Clear case of stats lying, no?)

The clearest example of the defense’s improvement came from a Tweet by the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel, who noted that Te’von Coney’s 2017 numbers compared favorably to Jaylon Smith’s 2015 numbers. Coney is not as good as Smith and likely never will be, but it underscored what Elko did to the ND defense, which shined in several games.

USC and NC State were probably their finest performances, but even the loss to Georgia showed their mettle. You might remember that Bulldogs team, which scored 20 points in South Bend and were frankly fortunate to get that many (recall the inhuman 4th-down TD catch and the other TD being preceded by a debatable personal foul); they dropped 45 in regulation against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl on Monday.

There’s little way around it: Elko’s departure is very damaging in the short term. He and fellow coordinator Chip Long were the centerpieces of the promised ‘reboot’ of Notre Dame football, one that produced a 10-3 season. Long certainly had his moments this year, but few would dispute that Elko was the star of this season, as evidenced by A&M giving him a Godfather offer.

With Elko gone, naturally speculation turns to who’s next. Mike Elston is still on staff, did a reasonably good job as the interim guy in ’16, and has been with Kelly a long time, so he’d be the easy pick. Bob Diaco is a natural curiosity given his availability, but Vorel has said there is ‘no chance’ of that happening. Linebackers coach Clark Lea could be promoted, but he seems likely to follow Elko, as he has for his last couple of stops. Brian Kelly himself said in his statement (below) that ND would ‘add’ a defensive coordinator soon. If read literally, that would seem to indicate another outside hire. It would make sense for ND to do that given the success this year’s outside hires produced.

Until we get a replacement, though, talk is sure to center on Elko’s departure and what it means. Hopefully ND can ace the next hire the way they did this one – and hopefully if they do, there isn’t a desperate and deep-pocketed SEC team waiting to outbid the Irish for his services the next time around.

(Photo credit: Indianapolis Star)