Stay or Go? Analyzing Jaylon Smith’s NFL decision

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All-American and Butkus Award-winner Jaylon Smith‘s knee injury was a nightmare scenario for anybody who likes football. Notre Dame’s junior linebacker had roughly 50 minutes left of his college career when Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker got a final shove in at the whistle, causing Smith to step and land awkwardly on his left leg and his knee to buckle unnaturally.

The result is a “significant” knee injury, with a local Fox-affiliate reporting multiple ligament damage, likely the ACL and MCL. That type of injury threw a very large wrench into the postseason plans of Smith, who even with a reported $5 million insurance policy has to make some difficult decisions.

On Monday, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote in his Monday Morning Quarterback about Smith’s dilemma, pointing to the lofty draft status Smith had in some team’s eyes before the injury:

I think this is what I heard on Jaylon Smith, the highly talented Notre Dame linebacker and prospective very high NFL draft choice who suffered that terrible left knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl: Smith, a junior, was very likely to come out in the 2016 draft, and he would have been a top three to five pick if he came out healthy.

One NFL scout who was at the Fiesta Bowl said Saturday he thought Smith was a top-three pick. Another who I spoke with Saturday said of the players he saw this fall, if Smith came out, he’d have been a strong candidate to be the top overall pick. “There is not a defense he would not fit in,” the second scout said. “This is a huge story.”

Over the weekend, Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune tackled the same question, talking to NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright about an injury that—even if Smith slides from a Top 5 pick to the 15th overall slot—could be as much as a $15 million hit.

“Let’s say it’s a torn ACL,” Wright told Hansen, “something similar to what (Georgia running back) Todd Gurley had last year. Smith is going to go in the first round anyways, because like Todd Gurley, he’s such a freak talent that there’s a limit to how far he’s going to slip.

“At some point in the first round, somebody’s going to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take a top five talent if he falls into our lap.’ ”

Wright said it’s not inconceivable that Smith could slide from No. 5 to No. 15. And based on the inflexible rookie salary scale and last year’s signing figures, that’s the difference between a $21.2 million, four-year contract at the fifth draft position and one of $10.7 million, 10 picks later.

The signing bonus differential is also significant — $13.7 million vs. $6 million, which is included in the total contract value.

That loss of money—the lump-sum signing bonus and additional guaranteed money from the rookie contract—might give Smith reason to consider returning to Notre Dame. Play out his senior season, earn a degree, and reenter the draft completely healthy, hoping to reestablish himself as an elite pick at the top of the 2017 draft board.

Of course, that’s no sure thing either.

Smith is nine months away from opening day against Texas. That’s not a herculean ask to be back on the field and ready to play with today’s medical advancements, but Smith would still be working his way back and doing his recovering on the field, evaluated by NFL scouts who’ll see a linebacker likely wearing a large knee brace. It’ll serve as a constant reminder that he’s still less than a year removed from a major surgery that could rob Smith of his best football trait—rare athleticism and speed for a linebacker.

Those traits don’t seem to be in question. If Smith declares for the draft in the next few days—he still has two weeks to make that decision official—he’ll spend the next few months rehabilitating, not going through the cattle call that asks NFL prospects to validate their on-field performance with height and weight measurements, appropriate arm length, 40-yard dash times and short and long shuttle runs. A team that drafts Smith early likely believes that he’ll return to the numbers we assumed he’d run, a 40-yard dash in the 4.5 range and equally nimble and explosive times and scores. Smith won’t be asked to prove those numbers—one of the rare luxuries that come with an injury like this.

Todd Gurley’s run up the draft board to No. 10 last year proves that it only takes one team to believe in your ability to be a game-changer. And as King’s comments show, Smith is the type of player that has lots of teams believing in his ability to fit into their scheme and change the football game.

Ever since Willis McGahee suffered a major knee injury in his final college football game and still found his way into the first round, teams have become more and more comfortable with the recovery from a knee injury that’s now almost routine thanks to the evolution in medical treatment. Smith could receive that type of treatment in South Bend, or do it under the watchful eye of his new employers—while getting paid a hefty salary to do so. Most NFL players who make generational money don’t do it on their first contract, they do it on their second. Smith leaving for the league puts him a year closer to that second deal.

That’s a large assumption. We’ve seen recently the negative that comes with leaving Notre Dame before you’re ready, with Troy Niklas and Louis Nix cashing weekly paychecks but doing nothing to assure themselves of career longevity.

We’ve heard nothing from Smith yet, who is likely talking with his family and advisors about not just his professional future, but the decision on who’ll perform the surgery to repair his knee. From there, Smith will likely meet with Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick a final time before deciding what he’ll do moving forward.

In all likelihood, Smith’s time at Notre Dame is over and he’ll move on to the NFL. You only wish that the circumstances surrounding the decision were better.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 235 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining including 2017
Depth chart: Okwara fills in behind classmate Daelin Hayes at defensive end, providing the Irish an additional pass-rush threat should Hayes ever need a breather. A third sophomore, Ade Ogundeji, keeps the pressure on Okwara to perform.
Recruiting: A rivals.com three-star prospect, Okwara chose Notre Dame over offers from Clemson, Georgia and his homestate North Carolina. Rivals listed Okwara as the No. 18 defensive end in the class of 2016 and No. 17 recruit in North Carolina.

CAREER TO DATE
Okwara made four tackles over 11 games in his freshman season, not seeing action in only the season finale against USC.

QUOTE(S)
Throughout spring practice, Irish coach Brian Kelly insisted the defensive line had more depth and talent than most outside the program believed. He pointed to Okwara and his continued development as a prime example of that disparity in perception.

“I haven’t changed the way that I feel about the guys that we have up front that can do some things and disrupt the quarterback,” Kelly said. “… Julian Okwara is coming on and giving us the kind of edge presence that we expected.”

Though Okwara finished the Blue-Gold Game with only one tackle, Kelly’s initial impressions of the sophomore’s performance were positive.

“I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge,” Kelly said immediately after the spring finale.

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Will an Okwara be able to redshirt in South Bend? I say yes. That would’ve been helpful for Romeo, who played as a 17-year-old freshman still learning the game. It will be helpful for Julian as well, though he could help chase down the quarterbacks if he’s able to specialize in certain packages.

“But for Okwara to do that, he’ll need to move ahead of fellow classmate Daelin Hayes and find playing time over veteran options like Andrew Trumbetti. The better move would be to spend the season getting bigger with Paul Longo and then see what the defensive front looks like with Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell graduated.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Hayes was the talk of spring practice, and deservedly so. The flipside of that hype is it diminishes Okwara’s likelihood of impact this season. That said, Hayes will not man the edge for every snap. Keeping fresh pass-rushers is a luxury Notre Dame can enjoy thanks to the triumvirate of sophomore rush ends — a quartet when including Khalid Kareem on the other side of the line — and Okwara is a vital piece of that.

Knowing he will have those opportunities, Okwara will also know if he makes the most of them, more will be afforded to him. He may not surpass Hayes this year in snaps or production, but providing a tangible complement would mean the Irish pass rush really has improved immensely, something perhaps most notable if it results in exceeding last year’s disappointing total of 14 sacks.

DOWN THE ROAD
When Okwara’s older brother, Romeo, first arrived at Notre Dame, his lack of time playing football was both apparent and something of a hindrance. While he did contribute early in his collegiate career, it was clear by the end he was nowhere near his ceiling. That additional development has been only more obvious with Romeo’s NFL success.

Julian entered college not as far behind a typical trajectory, having moved to the United States in third grade, gaining three years of gridiron exposure his brother did not have. Thus, a season spent preserving eligibility is not as vital to Julian’s trajectory as it could have been for Romeo’s.

A year from now, Trumbetti will be out of eligibility and senior Jay Hayes will have only one season remaining, and he has yet to fortify a claim based on seniority, anyway. If Okwara performs when spelling Daelin Hayes (no relation to Jay) this season, he could be in prime position to start on the opposite side of the line in 2018.

In that scenario, the Irish could suddenly have two dynamic, speedy and athletic ends chasing the quarterback at one time. That may seem an outlandish concept, but a notable step forward from Okwara this fall would indicate such an idyllic possibility may be coming down the line.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 73: (theoretically) Josh Lugg, offensive tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 65: (theoretically) Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 52: (theoretically) Jonathan Doerer, kicker
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: (theoretically) Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 46: (theoretically) Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 44 Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3, 243 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining including 2017
Depth chart: Jones spent spring third on the depth chart at inside linebacker behind senior captain Nyles Morgan and sophomore Jonathan Jones (no relation). If and when Jamir Jones moves to the defensive line, he will join classmates Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, Ade Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem at defensive end, presumably behind all of them, at least from the outset.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Jones chose Notre Dame over offers such as Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The East Coast emphasis makes sense when remembering Jones comes from upstate New York, not exactly fertile football recruiting ground. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 43 outside linebacker in the class of 2016 and the No. 2 prospect in New York.

CAREER TO DATE
Jones made eight special teams tackles in 10 games last season. Though he never lined up next to his older brother, defensive tackle Jarron, he did get the opportunity to dress alongside him for the season.

QUOTE(S)
Irish coach Brian Kelly twice this spring indicated Jamir Jones’ future may not be at linebacker, but rather on the defensive line.

“We’re cross-training Jamir Jones inside and on the edge on third down,” Kelly said at the end of March before adding a week later, “We’re even going to get Jamir Jones activated a little more [on the line]. He’s up to 242 pounds. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to hold him back from being a bigger guy.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
If Jones can rush the passer I think he can play this season. f he’s going to be asked to play linebacker, it’s a redshirt in 2016.

“In baseball lingo, Jones feels like a toolsy prospect who can do a lot of things. That’s translated quite nicely under Brian Kelly, with offensive success stories (C.J. Prosise) and defensive ones as well (James Onwualu).

“Ultimately, a growth spurt or weight-room participation will likely determine what type of player Jones becomes. Add an inch or two to his height and he could be a prototype pass rusher at weakside defensive end. Stay the same height and fill out and he could play either inside or out at linebacker.

“Spring will likely be the most important time for Jones. He’ll have made it through his first season and the staff will know better what they have in him.”

2017 OUTLOOK
It is tough to project more than special teams action for Jones this season. If injuries severely limited Notre Dame’s veteran linebackers — seniors Morgan and Greer Martini and junior Te’von Coney — then perhaps Jones would be needed, but even that scenario would include competition from incoming freshmen David Adams and Drew White, both more traditional linebackers than Jones.

If his transition to the defensive line were to be expedited this fall, there is already a quartet of sophomores fighting for playing time alongside senior defensive ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti.

DOWN THE ROAD
It would not be the worst thing for Jones’ career to not see much viable action this fall. He entered college high on athleticism — best acknowledged by noting he excelled in high school not only on defense but also at tight end and quarterback — but low on a set trajectory. He started his career as an outside linebacker, somewhat moved to inside linebacker, and is now considered for a spot on the defensive line. That possibility was always somewhere in Kelly’s mind.

Defensive line may be where Jones will have a better chance to excel. While he does not have his brother’s length, he could have the same late development. With time, Jarron became quite a physical player. If that lies in Jamir’s future, it is best utilized in the trenches.

Once Trumbetti uses up his eligibility this fall, only the yet-to-prove-himself Jay Hayes will remain as an established starter at defensive end. Jones is not necessarily all that far behind the four sophomores already working on the front line. He could very well keep up with, or pass, some of them in 2018 or 2019.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 73: (theoretically) Josh Lugg, offensive tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 65: (theoretically) Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 52: (theoretically) Jonathan Doerer, kicker
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: (theoretically) Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 46: (theoretically) Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 45 Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-11 ½, 227 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four years of eligibility remaining including 2017
Depth chart: Jones takes second-team snaps at inside linebacker behind senior captain Nyles Morgan. Jones could have the best August camp of the entire roster, and Morgan would still not need to worry about his starting position.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Jones chose Notre Dame over offers from Michigan, Stanford, LSU and Florida, as well as many others. Rivals.com rated him the No. 19 inside linebacker in the class of 2016 and the No. 66 prospect in Florida.

CAREER TO DATE
Jones preserved a year of eligibility last season.

QUOTE(S)
Morgan’s status deprives anyone a reason to bring up his position as a question, thus Irish coach Brian Kelly never mentioned Jones this spring. He did, however, offer an honest assessment of the then-high schooler when Jones signed with Notre Dame in February of 2016.

“Physically, maybe his lack of height scared some people away, but [Jones has] just great instincts as a linebacker,” Kelly said. “Great leadership quality, physically strong, fit, athletic, and has a great awareness in the pass game, as well. For us, just looked like the consummate linebacker. He had all that innate ability and football recognition that you don’t have to teach.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Unless there’s an injury to Morgan or [then-junior, now senior captain] Greer Marini, I don’t see the need to play Jones. He may very well be an ultra-productive linebacker. But even with ‘likeable and learnable’ being the new buzzwords for [former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian] VanGorder’s defense, we’ve seen the challenges this system poses to first-year middle linebackers.

“Jones might be too good to keep on the sidelines all season. But if he’s a contributor, it’s likely as a special teams weapon or if things go really haywire at linebacker. That doesn’t limit his future, as there aren’t too many true middle linebackers in the program right now. But for 2016, I’ll have modest goals for Jones.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Aside from time on special teams and in mop-up duty of blowouts, it is hard to see Jones getting much action this season. Morgan will play. It is as simple as that. Let’s set the over/under on defensive snaps missed by a healthy Morgan when a game is within two possessions at 5.5. Yes, that is for the entire season.

Even if Morgan goes down, Jones’ time on the field may not enjoy as much of an uptick as some would expect. If Morgan falls to a tweaked ankle and his time on the sideline is only a few plays or a series, Jones might be the one to fill in short-term. However, if Morgan were to suffer a long-term injury, it is more likely junior Te’von Coney takes over alongside senior Greer Martini, whom Coney typically spells.

In that latter scenario, Jones would get more playing time as the likely first off the bench for either Coney or Martini, but he would not inherently slide in as the starter in Morgan’s absence.

DOWN THE ROAD
A year from now, though, both Martini and Morgan will be gone. Coney figures to fit in well for Martini. Who fills in for Morgan is a tougher question, and Jones may be the most obvious answer.

His classmate Jamir Jones (no relation) appears destined to spend most of his career on the defensive line. Twice this spring Kelly indicated Jamir Jones was cross-training there. A year from now, that may be a full-time gig.

At that point, Jonathan Jones’ only competition would be incoming freshmen David Adams and Drew White. White, especially, is known for his tackling, similar to Jones in that respect. Whoever earns the starting role, the other(s) will be counted on to back him up in a surprisingly-sparse linebacker corps.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 73: (theoretically) Josh Lugg, offensive tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 65: (theoretically) Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 52: (theoretically) Jonathan Doerer, kicker
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: (theoretically) Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 46: (theoretically) Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

Friday at 4: Under the radar notes on Notre Dame’s opponents

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Notre Dame will face Temple in only 71 days. The Irish will begin fall practice in six weeks, give or take a day. College football kicks off in only 63 days. Frankly, the offseason is far closer to being behind us than anything else.

That is underscored by the release of Phil Steele’s 2017 preview. There are other preview publications, and certainly others of great value, but Steele’s stands alone in its numbers-driven approach which leads to an unparalleled thoroughness. That combined with his reputation and marketing acumen (as in, Steele has great timing — everyone is starved for college football conversation toward the end of June) leads to Steele’s preview getting cited the most often in college football writing, and this space will be no different.

At 352 pages, it takes more than a few days to digest all of Steele’s analysis. For now, let’s simply rattle off a smattering of quick thoughts and observations about Notre Dame’s opponents gathered after a first read-through of Steele’s profiles on each. A discussion of Irish thoughts should come down the line, hopefully in much more depth.

Why only quick thoughts and observations? If nothing else, because of a recognition of reality. Trying to summarize Phil Steele’s preview into one column is akin to explaining all of a “The Fast and the Furious” movie with only one quote. You will lose far too much in the way of nuance and insight.

  • Most will remember Temple lost its head coach, Matt Rhule, to Baylor. Few will realize the Owls are also replacing a four-year starter at quarterback.
  • Most will recognize Georgia’s vaunted rushing attack, featuring Steele’s No. 7 and No. 11 running backs in the country in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, respectively, but few will expect the Bulldogs defense to be its backbone. In head coach Kirby Smart’s second season, Georgia returns 10 defensive starters. That is a recipe for success, and part of the reason Steele rates Georgia as his No. 10 surprise team this season. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason undoubtedly has a role in that, as well.
  • Boston College will continue to struggle this year, but its defense should keep the Eagles more competitive than in the last few years, led by Steele’s No. 1 outside linebacker in the country, senior Harold Landry. Outside linebacker may not be the most-accurate description, as Steele also slots Landry in at defensive end on his All-American first-team.
  • Steele largely saw last year’s struggles coming for Michigan State, though even he did not anticipate the 3-9 debacle. With three one-possession losses last year and no such wins, the Spartans were in position to be one of Steele’s “Most-Improved Teams” this season before off-field issues led to the dismissal of five key players. Now, Michigan State’s resurgence could take a bit more time, not that the on-field record is the most important part of that situation.
  • Notre Dame fans generally take more of an interest in Miami (Ohio) than outside observers may expect with former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin leading the Redhawks. There are many indicators of Martin’s gradual success with the downtrodden program. Steele points out two in-depth ones. Last year, Martin’s roster had only 15 upperclassmen. Basic math tells you that means he had 70 underclassmen, and still managed a six-game winning streak to close the regular season.

Secondly, Miami has gradually increased its competitiveness within its conference. In 2013 conference play, the Redhawks were outgained by 195.4 yards per game. In 2014, 70.5 and in 2015, 34.5. Last year, they flipped the script and outgained their opponents by 13.4 yards per game.

  • North Carolina could face an uphill climb this year, having lost its starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, starting running back Elijah Hood and top receiver and playmaking threat Ryan Switzer.
  • This entry could be as simple as one line: USC is going to be really good. Rather than delve too deeply into its roster (featuring Steele’s No. 1 quarterback, No. 3 running back and No. 2 cornerback) or debating its ceiling, how about a note specific to sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold’s performance last year, with a caveat attached?

USC averaged 34.4 points per game in its 13 games last year, including the bowl game. Darnold, then a freshman, started the final 10 of those, and the Trojans averaged 38.6 points per game. The caveat: Two of those three opening opponents were Alabama and Stanford, who held USC to six and 10 points, respectively.

Steele projects Darnold to win the Heisman Trophy and likely go No. 1 in the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • North Carolina State is trending upward this year following back-to-back 7-6 seasons, and will travel to Notre Dame following a bye week.
  • Most will remember Wake Forest lost its defensive coordinator Mike Elko to a small school in northern Indiana. Few will realize the Demon Deacons also return only five defensive starters.
  • Steele rates Miami as his No. 2 surprise team this year, even without quarterback Brad Kaaya who left some eligibility on the table in order to enter the NFL. The Hurricanes will rely on its defensive front seven, headlined by Steele’s No. 7 linebacker unit in the country. Miami also has the No. 2 special teams grouping.
  • Most will fear Navy’s arrival on the schedule due to its option-rush attack. Few will realize the Midshipmen return eight defensive starters this year and could be an unexpectedly strong team on that side of the ball, as well.
  • Most will remember Stanford lost both defensive tackle Solomon Thomas and running back/playmaker Christian McCaffrey to the NFL Draft. Few will recognize the Cardinal still return eight starters on each side of the ball, a big part of the reason Steele rates Stanford as his No. 3 surprise team and No. 14 team in his power poll, a ranking based on teams’ strengths alone, not factoring in scheduling quirks.

Now then, this scribe is late for a rehearsal dinner, and you’re late for beginning your weekend early. After all, you can count the weekends left before Notre Dame football starts on your two hands. Enjoy these carefree days while they are still around.