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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow

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Since Mike Elko was hired as Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator in mid-December, speculation about his favorite toy has both hindered and furthered any conversation about the Irish defense. The uncertainty of how Elko would deploy a rover at Notre Dame limited the discussion, yet that same uncertainty led to enough speculation to allow the discourse to meander in circles unabated.

Wednesday’s first spring practice provided the first hard data about the safety/linebacker hybrid. Well, at least it provided as much of a glimpse as the first practice of spring football can.

Many expected that initial peek to feature senior Drue Tranquill. Instead, junior Asmar Bilal had the opportunity to impress Elko and Irish coach Brian Kelly. Tranquill may get his chance soon, though.

“I really think it’s going to be a week-to-week matchup situation,” Kelly said. “You’re going to look at the teams that could stress that position with a slot receiver versus a tight end …

“I think what you’ll find at the rover position is there is some versatility based upon the opponent.”

At 6-foot-2, 229 pounds, Bilal could feature prominently against physical, run-based teams.

“We think Asmar is a guy that physically can run with most detached or tight ends or backs coming out,” Kelly said. “In the role we’re going to ask the rover to match up. We’re not going to ask him to run vertically or play corner routes. We think [Bilal] is a physical guy at the point of attack, a guy that is agile enough to play in space, yet not put him in a position where he’d have to play more of a safety in that positon right now.”

When the time comes for a more coverage-based rover, that may be when Tranquill steps forward. If not him—perhaps he is deemed too necessary at safety—sophomores Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan both have experience in coverage, as a cornerback and a safety by trade, respectively. Neither is primed to crack the depth chart at those positions, but could readily provide some depth at rover. Come summer and fall, incoming freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, also a safety, will nearly certainly join the grouping. His late recruitment came about largely because Elko sees the consensus three-star recruit as a prime candidate at rover.

Theoretically, the rover provides the defense more flexibility than a traditional linebacker. Sure, Tranquill may be preferable in coverage to Bilal, but Bilal should still be more serviceable in that role than junior linebackers Te’von Coney or Josh Barajas. Similarly, Tranquill would presumably provide more run support than sophomore safety Jalen Elliott. In an era when offenses thrive on forcing defenses into mismatched packages, the rover can alter some of that algebra.

‘POWER RUN TEAMS’
Part of Kelly’s explanation for Bilal’s moment as the rover debutante hinged on the first third of Notre Dame’s 2017 schedule, pointing to “some power run teams in the first month of the season.”

As always around these parts, the below rushing stats do not include sacks or the yards lost via sack as the NCAA statistics do.

2016 Temple: 2,720 rushing yards on 535 attempts for 31 touchdowns and an average of 5.08 yards per carry; the Owls threw for 3,324 yards.
2016 Georgia: 2,632 rushing yards on 509 attempts for 18 touchdowns and an average of 5.17 yards per carry; the Bulldogs threw for 2,515 yards.
2016 Boston College: 2,122 rushing yards on 538 attempts for 16 touchdowns and an average of 3.94 yards per carry; the Eagles threw for 1,869 yards.
2016 Michigan State: 2,222 rushing yards on 444 attempts for 14 touchdowns and an average of 6.13 yards per carry; the Spartans threw for 2,668 passing yards.

Bilal’s physicality very well may be necessary in the coming September, especially against Georgia’s vaunted rushing attack. Bilal getting an extended run at rover makes sense even against Boston College. The Eagles’ offense may have been paltry in 2016, but any successes it did enjoy came on the ground.

For context’s sake, last season Notre Dame rushed for 2,123 yards on 410 attempts for 18 touchdowns and an average of 5.18 yards per carry. The Irish threw for 3,051 yards. This paragraph of statistics is not presented to start a rush:pass distribution debate, nor is it to insinuate Notre Dame was a power-rushing offense. Rather, it is simply an offense most readers of Inside the Irish are presumably familiar with.

For further context’s sake, Bob Davie’s New Mexico led the NCAA last season in rushing yards per game. (That statistic did not account for the NCAA’s inclusion of sacks, but given how few the Lobos suffered, they likely would have still led. The following statistics have had sacks’ results removed from their totals.) New Mexico rushed for 4,621 yards on 676 attempts for 48 rushing touchdowns and an average of 6.84 yards per carry. The Lobos threw for 1,389 yards.

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

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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.