Elliott Found Home Away From HomeBy Denise Skwarcan
Jalen Elliott wasn’t always a defensive guy.
Defensive tackle was his position when he first started playing football, sure, but then he slimmed down. Eventually, that led to the other side of the ball where he became a fixture at quarterback.
The experience, however, would serve the senior Notre Dame safety well — especially after being named one of seven captains for the 2019 Irish squad.
“I think being a quarterback has helped me in so many ways, not only with being a leader but also being vocal,” Elliott said. “And in many ways safety is a lot like quarterback … just the quarterback of the defense. So I think being in that position has helped me a lot.”
The Richmond, Virginia, native also credits his coaches and teammates for getting him to that point, which came after a journey that was a little different. It did begin like it has for so many other kids, a long time ago in a family that bonded over sports and doing things together.
“There’s my parents and then I’m the oldest of four, and we were a big-time sports family,” noted Elliott, who has two younger brothers (ages 17 and nine) and a 14-year-old sister. “Everything was good every time we got together, whether that was going to the Y and playing pick-up basketball or just going to the park and doing stuff. That was big for us.”
At Lloyd C. Bird High School, Elliott settled into the quarterback position with some receiver and defensive back sprinkled in as well. The Skyhawks won state championships in 2013 and 2014 during Elliott’s sophomore and junior seasons, and he earned a plethora of honors as a senior the following year, including being named the MVP of the 2015 Virginia High School Coaches Association All-Star game.
Because of his ability to play multiple positions, Elliott was seen as one of the most versatile athletes in the country. He had interest from Georgia, Auburn and in-state rivals Virginia and Virginia Tech, among others. A big part of the decision-making process for Elliott wasn’t just what school he would attend but also what position he would be playing once he got there.
“(The offers) were actually kind of split,” Elliott recalled. “Half of them were for receiver and half were for DB. I did get a couple for quarterback but not too many. I knew where I fit in certain schemes at different schools, but I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out.”
That is until Elliott participated in the Irish Invasion recruiting camp in June 2015. Elliott convinced the coaching staff of his talent and they extended him an offer, and the time there convinced Elliott that Notre Dame was supposed to be where he spent his college career — as a defensive back.
“I always say it’s a little generic and kind of cliched, but it’s just a feeling that you get,” Elliott commented. “In everybody’s recruiting process I think there’s a time where they just kind of know, and when I was here on my recruiting visit it didn’t seem like fluff. Everybody took care of my family the way I would take care of my family, and that’s something that stuck out to me. So it was just something that I knew — that this is where I wanted to be — and I’m happy I made this decision.”
Being an 11-and-a-half-hour drive from home and a close-knit family was a struggle for Elliott as a rookie in 2016. But he was on the field for every game that season, and he had the opportunity to room with former Irish standout Drue Tranquill off of it. It was a relationship that helped Elliott in many ways,
“Drue was a great role model and a great friend, and he helped to expedite the process in growing and being who I am today,” Elliott said. “There was so much (advice that he gave me), but one thing that he told me that really stuck out was to just trust my process and don’t think about too much, don’t think about other people or other people that are in front of me (on the depth chart). Just be the best I can be every day.”
The words served Elliott well, leading to a starting position as a sophomore on which he continued to build. As a junior in 2018, Elliott made 67 tackles which was good for fourth on the team, and was one of just 35 players in the country who recorded four or more interceptions. Despite the success, trying to decide whether or not to return for his senior year didn’t cost him many sleepless nights.
“I knew I had more work to do,” Elliott stated. “While it’s a dream of mine to play in the NFL, I also had to get my degree. You put in so much work here in school and it’s important to get that. I also wanted to come back with my brothers for one last year. That was very important to me as well.”
Brothers who, undoubtedly, helped Elliott to be named a captain, something he doesn’t take lightly.
“Oh man, that was a great honor to be named captain,” Elliott said. “Just knowing that there were so many great captains before me but also knowing at the same time that my work was just beginning. It was important to consistently stay who I was and just continue to work each and every day to earn the trust of the guys on the team.
“I always say confidence comes with experience so being able to get on the field early and learn from some of those bumps in the road really helped me to be the player I am today. And now I can help instill that in the younger guys.”
Through six games this season, Elliot has accounted for 26 tackles and was tied for first on the team with two interceptions. He doesn’t get the ball in his hands much anymore, but when he does there’s a little twinge that beckons back to the offensive player he used to be.
“My return skills have been pretty bad, but we’re working on that each and every day,” Elliott said. “I’m trying to get comfortable with the ball being back in my hands again.”
Elliott’s time at Notre Dame is winding down quickly. He said it’s part of his thought process every day and he reflects on it with his teammates regularly. And it’s his off-the-field experiences that have been just as important as those made on the field that make up the nearly four years that Elliott has spent at his home away from home.
“There’s so many great moments when you come here to Notre Dame that it’s really hard to choose, being here and playing for this historic football team,” Elliott noted. “But I would say that my freshman year, first game at Texas was just an unbelievable moment because it was an eye-opener to college football and all that it entailed. That was a great memory and a great experience for me.
“But also just creating those lifelong bonds and friendships. That’s been huge for me. I’m really close with the guys in my class and just knowing that whenever we see each other it’ll be like we never left has been great for me. We can’t believe how fast it went but we’re thankful for it. It’s coming to an end, which is a bit sad, but we’re excited for the future as well.”