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Friday at 4: ‘They can only get better’

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When looking at a team every day of the year, the details can distract from the bigger picture. There is an applicable phrase about a forest and trees, if memory serves.

Acknowledging that, sometimes an outsider’s perspective is helpful. While someone filling a site called “Inside the Irish” might overly focus on the defensive line depth issues exacerbated by junior tackle Elijah Taylor’s LisFranc fracture, someone looking at the broader scheme might think to ask, “How can the defensive line not improve over its performance last season?”

That is where talking through Notre Dame’s coming season with Phil Steele serves a helpful purpose. While Steele knows college football, he has 130 other teams to study in addition to the Irish. At some point, he has to separate himself from the specificities. To steer some of his focus, Steele heavily relies on formulas he has fine-tuned over more than two decades of publishing a comprehensive college football preview. This year, those computers project Notre Dame to have the No. 15 total defense in the country.

Wait, what? That can’t be right. Math is stupid.

Oh, those computers think the Irish will be the No. 9 pass defense in the country? Someone call Al Gore, the internet must be broken. Those computers certainly don’t have access to it. They must be making up numbers at random. There can be no other rational explanation.

“Look at the schedule,” Steele responded. “Temple loses a four-year starter at quarterback. Boston College does not have an overwhelming offense this year. Michigan State is going to be struggling a little bit offensively. Miami of Ohio is not an overwhelming offense this year. Wake Forest does not have an overwhelming offense.

“[Notre Dame] should be ready for the schemes of Navy. My computer actually factors in the level of the offenses they’re taking on. That’s where the computer came up, and I’m not going to argue with it.”

Well, that seems rather logical. Certainly the comments to this post will react with a similar approach.

When it comes to his own input, Steele repeatedly pointed to the change in Irish defensive coordinators, now with Mike Elko at the helm, formerly of Wake Forest.

“There’s defensive coordinators that can’t make a difference,” Steele said. “Mike Elko is a guy that is going to make a difference. When you’re looking at Notre Dame’s sack total, they’ll probably top what they’ve done the last four years. 26 has been their high the last four years. I think they’ll easily top that.”

If the Irish do not top 26 sacks, Steele still has a valid point. Last year’s dismal 14 is a distinct outlier when compared to the previous six seasons of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. Over that stretch, the Irish defense averaged 26.3 sacks per season, with a high of 34 in 2012.

Perhaps Elko’s Wake Forest team reaching 41 was a similar outlier. Nonetheless, the Deacons averaged 24 sacks per season in Elko’s first two seasons. Whether the Notre Dame pass rush finds the quarterback 24 times, 26 times or 30 times is beside the point. It will be notably more than 14 times.

“Up front, they can only get better,” Steele said. “ … There’s talent there. Under Elko’s direction, they’ll have an improved pass rush.”

That pass rush will benefit from more experienced linebacker play. As Steele points out, entering the 2016 season, the Irish defense returned three of its top 10 tacklers, defensive lineman Isaac Rochell (fifth), defensive back Cole Luke (ninth) and linebacker James Onwualu (10th). The top two from that list, Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, had held down the second level of the defense for a long while. In 2017, the Irish return six of their top 10 tacklers (losing Onwaulu, Rochell, Luke and defensive tackle Jarron Jones).

Of those six returning, the top four are all linebackers, if willing to lump the rover position manned by senior Drue Tranquill with the linebackers.

This may all point to an improved defense, but it still does not entirely explain Steele’s computers projecting the Notre Dame pass defense as top-10 worthy. Even with concessions for the schedule, it seems lofty. Here is, again, where Steele’s distance keeps certain facts closer to his fingertips. Before last season was truly under way, the Irish lost four defensive backs: Max Redfield, Nick Watkins, Shaun Crawford and Devin Butler. At least three of those were presumptive starters.

There was no benefit to those losses then. Now, though, there just may be.

“Dealing with so much adversity in 2016 should help [the defensive backs] make a large climb up my pass defensive rankings,” Steele included.

A top-10 pass defense remains ambitious, but Steele’s analysis is based on deducible concepts, not over-emphases of each individual event.

To anyone who would belittle today’s approach gauging the coming season off the previous season, what would you prefer? Until events actually happen, evaluations must be based on previous occurrences. Only future performance matters, but they are still measured by past precedents.

For what it’s worth, Steele rates Notre Dame as his No. 1 most-improved team in 2017, finishing with nine wins, only an underdog against USC, at Miami and at Stanford. To get to those nine wins, Steele admits he has put a lot of faith in junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to lead what could be a dynamic offense.

Why not discuss the offense in this space today as well? One part pacing — there are still nine more weeks until the season. One part acknowledgement of the coming holiday weekend — how many will read these thousand words, let alone twice that, before firing up the grill? One part laziness — it’s 4 p.m. on a Friday in the summer. There are, quite frankly, better things to do, some of them including similarly-styled recipes. Perhaps one part glass, one part ice, one part …