Texas A&M fans let out a deep exhale each of the past 2 offseasons.

That had nothing to do with retaining Jimbo Fisher, who still has $60 million guaranteed left on his contract. It wasn’t related to signing an elite recruiting class or having a player announce he was returning to school.

It was the exhale following the announcement that Mike Elko was staying in College Station for another season.

Elko, whom Fisher landed as his defensive coordinator after whiffing on Dave Aranda, proved to be a home-run hire. It came at a price, too. After Fisher poached Elko from Notre Dame, he gave him a deal that paid $1.8 million in Year 1. When Elko stayed for Year 2, he got a raise to $2.1 million annually, which put him at No. 3 in the country for highest-paid assistants (only Aranda and Brent Venables made more in 2019).

Elko is a top commodity, and A&M knows it. The Aggies had to survive scares after the 2018 season that he’d leave for the Temple head coaching job, or that he’d leave college for the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator position. Neither ended up being fits for Elko, and while the in-state ties were enough of a reason to link Elko to the Baylor opening this past offseason, A&M fans exhaled when Aranda accepted that job.

Consider that a reminder of why 2020 is that much more important for A&M — Elko isn’t staying in College Station forever. Just like LSU capitalized on its final year with Aranda after his inevitable jump to become a head coach, A&M would like to do the same.

Granted, that doesn’t mean A&M is in “title or bust” mode. A team with 1 top-15 finish in the 21st century doesn’t belong in that category. But given the extremely favorable schedule and Elko’s likely rise up the coaching ranks, now feels like an important time not to let a prime opportunity slip away.

Outsiders might look at A&M’s defense last year and question why Elko has become so valuable so fast. A&M was No. 38 in scoring defense last year, and against Alabama and LSU, it surrendered an average of 48.5 points. As a result, the Aggies haven’t moved into the top tier of the SEC West. It’s a fair criticism.

But there’s also the fact that Clemson was held to 28 points or fewer 5 times during its 29-game win streak, and 2 of those came against Elko’s A&M defense. It wouldn’t be surprising if “holding Travis Etienne to 3.3 yards per carry on his home field” was listed somewhere on Elko’s résumé.

These numbers are probably listed a bit more prominently, and they’re also why A&M fans have a different appreciation for Elko than the outside world has:

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The most notable achievement of Elko’s to date was turning the nation’s No. 71 run defense into the No. 2 group in Year 1 in College Station. Among his other notable accomplishments was when he led consecutive top-10 defenses at Bowling Green in 2012-13. That’s what led to his first Power 5 defensive coordinator opportunity at Wake Forest, where he ranked No. 33 and No. 24 in run defense and scoring defense, respectively, in 2016.

Including his 1 year at Notre Dame, look at how Elko’s defenses improved year-to-year in terms of FBS scoring rank (looking at the past 9 seasons):

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Again, those numbers should scream “that’s why Elko is a Power 5 coordinator making north of $2 million.”

A&M’s ability to keep him for 3 years is a victory in itself. The booming salaries of Power 5 assistants certainly made that a viable option for Elko, who seems content with his status as one of the sport’s top defensive minds, but he’s also been linked to job openings for a reason. He’ll be 43 next week, which suggests that his Aranda-to-Baylor move is just a matter of time (I actually don’t think the Power 5 defensive coordinator-to-NFL defensive coordinator move makes as much sense because of the contracts and stability).

Some wondered why Elko left Notre Dame for A&M. He explained that awhile ago, but notice that first sentence:

“The commitment they made to Coach Fisher, from a stability standpoint, giving him the opportunity to come build this thing the way he wants to build it . . . the opportunity to come here and link up with him, be part of this, in a great state, in a great division, in a great conference was [what] drew me down here.”

Elko might as well have said, “I don’t have to worry about the dude making $75 million guaranteed getting fired, which is pretty assuring for someone like myself who can easily be the casualty of a fired head coach in this business.”

It didn’t hurt that A&M’s commitment to Elko was also pretty steep. If he’s coveted for head coaching jobs following another defensive improvement, A&M will make that compensation even steeper.

All signs point to that being the case after another successful defensive season, and not just because A&M’s first 10 games of 2020 only features 1 matchup against a team that won more than 6 games in 2019 (Auburn). Even with the loss of the underrated Justin Madubuike, the Aggies rank No. 4 in the SEC in percentage of returning defensive production.

(Not enough was made about the fact that with Madubuike sitting out the Texas Bowl to prep for the NFL Draft, Elko’s defense held Chuba Hubbard and the Oklahoma State offense to just 7 points in the final 3 quarters.)

Linebackers Buddy Johnson and Anthony Hines are back after combining for 150 tackles and 20 tackles for loss, and the Aggies also return a bunch of production in the secondary with Leon O’Neal Jr., Keldrick Carper and Demani Richardson (O’Neal said that he wouldn’t play in a shortened season). The back end of Elko’s defense is plenty experienced, and knowing his style, you can bet they’ll be relied on heavily to play in the box and stop the run.

The question is whether this group, which returns 8 starters, can stymie Alabama or slow down LSU. That’s what’s standing in the way of A&M making its first trip to Atlanta as a member of the SEC. Perhaps having improved offensive line play will allow the Aggie offense to sustain drives more consistently, and Elko’s group will take its biggest step yet in Year 3.

Much will be made about Year 3 of the Fisher era, and understandably so. He’s the $75 million man entering what’s as favorable of a situation as he’ll probably get as a head coach in the SEC West. The sense of urgency is great. At least it should be.

Elko’s opportunity is coming, and when it does, A&M fans’ offseason exhale will turn into a wave of anxiousness.

Photo credit: Texas A&M Football on Twitter