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Things We Learned: Notre Dame will do what it takes to develop its passing game

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame knows it needs a worthwhile passing game. The debacle at Miami made it clear some semblance of an aerial threat must be feared by the opposing defense. Thus, the Irish set to working on that deficiency in a 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday.

At halftime, those efforts struck a pessimist as dismal. A cynic found them necessary, and an optimist might have even considered them as having taken a step in the right direction.

Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards. On one hand, he had completed only 40 percent of his passes. By no metric is that good enough. That was the pessimist’s supporting fact.

The cynic looked back a week, remembering when the Hurricanes focused entirely on the Irish rushing game and Wimbush still completed only 10 of 21 passes. The cynic then reaches for a thesaurus and finds synonyms for necessary. Required. Imperative. Vital.

The optimist realized 10 pass attempts gaining 72 yards is an average of 7.2 yards per attempt. That would outdo all but two of Wimbush’s games this season, his 8.65 yards per attempt at Michigan State and his 9.33 yards per attempt against Wake Forest just two weeks ago. Settling anywhere north of seven would be a great step forward for this passing attack.

By the end of the game, the pessimist, cynic and optimist all had to see the same thing: When effective, Wimbush is a bona fide quarterback. Yes, at some point in the future, that initial distinction needs to no longer be part of the equation, but this still qualifies as progress. Yes, that initial distinction is a heftily-meaningful alteration to any phrase, but this establishing itself as fact still marks progress. Wimbush started poorly, but he kept his concentration and finished impressively.

“I thought he settled down into the game,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “What we’re looking for is a guy that will take what’s happened early and kind of reset a little bit, which he did, and refocus. He came back and made some really big plays for us.”

Wimbush completed five of eight second-half passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns, leaning heavily on sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson.

“I think I just started seeing things a little bit more clearly and adjusted to the tempo that Navy was playing at and went from there,” Wimbush said.

Notre Dame relies on its rushing game. There is no doubt the ground attack is the stirrer in this Irish coffee. (Consider that a wit’s attempt at saying, the straw that stirs the drink.) Wimbush throwing 18 times against Navy — not to count the couple other times he dropped back with intentions to pass but pulled the ball down — is not Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long reverting to Kelly’s form of the past, the form of the pass.

Instead, it is the Irish desperately trying to find Wimbush rhythm, if not confidence, in the passing game. As competitive as Navy kept Saturday, this was a week the inefficiency of the educational effort could be afforded.

Notre Dame can, in fact, win a one-possession game.

The last time the Irish did so was against Miami, Oct. 29, 2016. Prior to that, the most-recent close Notre Dame victory came at Boston College, Nov. 21, 2015. Including the victory over the Hurricanes, the Irish had gone 1-9 in the interim.

“For us, it was just a gritty victory,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. “… I think that’s the next stepping stone for us on to Stanford.”

The nature of Navy’s game plan keeps games close no matter a talent disparity. Finding its way to a tight victory bodes well for Notre Dame, no matter the opponent. In many respects, this remained a mental hurdle needing clearing.

Greer Martini will (not) miss playing against the option.

And he might be the only Irish defender in history to feel that way. In 48 career games to date, the senior captain and linebacker has made 184 tackles, including 15 on Saturday. In six career games against option-specific options, Martini has made 61 tackles. In some respects, Martini made his career excelling against the triple-option, an approach most defenders avoid like a plague.

“It’s just the idea that it’s a lot of run, run downhill, run around,” Martini said. “Just play with a lot of enthusiasm, run sideline-to-sideline.”

Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo has gotten fed up with Martini, apparently confirming with both Kelly and Martini that he had seen his last of the linebacker. Both assured him he had.

“[Niumatalolo has] tried to block him, he can’t block him,” Kelly said. “… [Martini] just has a really good nose for the football, good sense. What you saw today was the physicality and bending back on the fullback. He was physical, played with the top of his pads.

“It was a clinic in terms of the way he played the linebacker position today.”

Martini insists he will not miss seeing the option, but it cannot be denied the effect the opposing attack had on Martini’s career. As a freshman, he made 26 total tackles. Nine came against Navy.

Notre Dame will host the NHL Winter Classic in 2019.

Yet, the Irish will hope to not be in attendance.

NBC and the NHL announced during the game the 2019 Winter Classic will be held at Notre Dame Stadium on Jan. 1, 2019, between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Burins.

“We are very excited to welcome the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and NHL to Notre Dame Stadium for the 2019 Winter Classic,” Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said. “I believe it’s only fitting that two of the NHL’s legendary Original Six teams will take the ice for the first hockey game in one of America’s most iconic athletic facilities. Hosting two franchises with so many connections to Notre Dame also provides a unique opportunity to celebrate our hockey legacy.”

On New Year’s Day, a Tuesday next year, the Notre Dame football team will hope to be involved in a major bowl game. Given recent history, it will prefer the Cotton Bowl in Dallas rather than the Orange Bowl in Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.

Mike McGlinchey may be a behemoth of a man with shocking agility for his size, but in at least one respect, he is just like the rest of us.

Wouldn’t you struggle to keep your emotions in check taking the field to the “Rudy” soundtrack in your last home game after a five-year career at Notre Dame? Okay, insist you wouldn’t. What if your mom was waiting for you on the field?

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame in top 15 of both AP and Coaches polls; Brian Kelly on ‘demanding’ culture

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By the end of September, it will have become habit. Fingers will default to adding “meaningless” in front of each typing of “AP Poll.” Doing so will be an overreaction to fans taking offense to Notre Dame inevitably not being ranked high enough, at least not as far as they are concerned.

The fingers should more-accurately tap out “consequenceless.” In the age of the College Football Playoff selection committee, both the AP and the Coaches polls have no effect on the season. There is no reasonable way to claim otherwise in any regard. The committee does not rely on those listings to create a framework for its poll, the only one with impact.

That said, the two polls do offer a reference point and context for the first two months of the season. The preseason Coaches Poll came out at the start of the month, ranking the Irish at No. 11, with Stanford, Michigan and USC filling in from Nos. 13 to 15, respectively. Virginia Tech came in at No. 17 and Florida State was No. 19.

The AP did not vary much. It flipped Notre Dame with Michigan State, dropping the Irish to No. 12, and then came the same trio in the same order. The Seminoles again showed up at No. 19, but the Hokies fell in behind Florida State at No. 20.

Both polls included Northwestern among others receiving votes. Looking at the Wildcats schedule (not to get ahead by a day on the “Notre Dame’s Opponents” series …), they will have three difficult conference games (vs. Michigan, at Michigan State, vs. Wisconsin) before facing the Irish, so they almost certainly will not be undefeated on Nov. 3, but a 6-2 record would probably get them into the top 25 by then.

Again, these polls have no bearing on the season. The only one that does premieres Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Until then, use them for nothing more than context and the lightest of debates. Your sanity thanks you.

@NDFootball

Speaking of debates and sanity …
ON THE SHAMROCK SERIES UNIFORMS
Notre Dame got a few things wrong with that reveal last week. For one thing, anything tying to the contest against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium should be left for a Friday afternoon news dump. Such is the general resentment of moving that game to the coast. Any further discussion of the game, the uniforms or even a mention of baseball is met by Irish vitriol at this point.

Secondly, revealing bits and pieces of the uniform may have seemed dramatic, but that drama was only heightened by a poor first impression. The initial bits and pieces did not paint anything of an overall picture. On their own, they received few, if any, positive reviews. The jersey as a whole, though, was not lampooned as severely.

Such a gradual take should probably be applied even further. Perhaps reserve judgement until, hmmm, actually seeing the uniforms? That may seem an outlandish suggestion, but it may be worth considering. They will inevitably look different live than in a photoshopped image on a computer screen. Everything does.

BRIAN KELLY ON MARYLAND & CULTURE
Nearly every college football head coach has had to answer a question this preseason about how their programs protect against tragedies like the player death at Maryland this summer and how an overall culture plays a role. The Irish head coach handled the requisite inquiry on Wednesday.

“The head coach and the strength coach are extremely important in developing a strong relationship on what you want accomplished,” Kelly said. “Everybody is interested in bigger, faster, stronger. How do you get there? I still think you get there by being demanding but never demeaning. I think that’s the line that’s out there.”

Kelly also distinguished between the culture and the role of the training staff.

“When I say demanding, never demeaning, that goes for everybody, and anything in this program is my responsibility,” he said.

“As it relates to protocol relative to the young man that tragically passed, that’s really outside my purview. That would fall under our athletic trainers and the protocols they have in place.”

MORE PLAYERS OF THE DAYS
As he has throughout all of preseason practice, Kelly continued to give Twitter praise to three players after each practice last week, one from offense, defense and special teams. Last week’s “Leftovers & Links” listed off the honorees through eight practices. Since then:

— Chris Finke, Jonathan Jones and Isaiah Robertson (special teams).
— Nic Weishar, Nicco Fertitta and Shaun Crawford (special teams).
— Jafar Armstrong, Ade Ogundeji and Tyler Newsome.
— Kevin Austin, Devin Studstill and Josh Lugg (special teams).
— Khalid Kareem, Braden Lenzy and Chase Claypool (special teams).

Claypool’s special teams designation stands out, considering the junior receiver made only one tackle last season after excelling with 11 as a freshman. Despite his prominent role in the offense, it seems Notre Dame may still need Claypool in some coverage situations.

Only Crawford was named Player of the Day three times across 13 different sets from Kelly.

“Which Irish unit do you see underperforming expectations for this year? Which would you bet on exceeding expectations? Andrew from Fairfax, Va.

These answers will seem tied to each other. That is more coincidence than intention.

Notre Dame’s receivers are getting decent praise this preseason. Trotting out two physical, 6-foot-4 upperclassmen will create that, and Claypool and senior Miles Boykin undeniably have the potential to change the season. But wasn’t the same said about those two and Equanimeous St. Brown last year, not to mention Kevin Stepherson?

It didn’t happen.

Sure, some of that tied to inconsistent quarterback play, but that receivers corps did not do much to help Brandon Wimbush. Until they do in real competition, it may not be the worst idea to pump the brakes on the hopes for the largely-unproven receivers.

The Irish running backs are even more unproven, but they are also not receiving much faith at this point. With senior Dexter Williams likely sidelined for the first four weeks of the year, it is an exceedingly young group of five, with 40 percent of the stable first getting reps at running back within the last six months.

However, behind a strong offensive line and with an offensive coordinator intent on running the ball, they will be well-positioned to surpass the meager thoughts afforded them to date.

AND HERE WE ARE, WITH THE UNDERWORLD FROZEN OVER
Yes, a reader among you submitted such a stellar comment it must mean ice has replaced fire. To you, RBmat, I raise tonight’s bottle of Leinenkugel’s Creamy Dark.

“In honor of Ball State’s most famous alumni … D Letterman Esq., I give you the top-10 reasons why you might be interested in the [Sept. 8] game:

10) Since her significant other, Steadman, is a BSU alum, maybe Oprah will be at the game.
9) Many fans will leave early, making the drive back to Chicago a little more tolerable.
8) You will learn the roster, as everybody in uniform may play thanks to the new NCAA rule.
7) 1,000 yards of total offense.
6) Paul Shaffer will be guest director for the ND band at halftime.
5) ESPN’s GameDay will not be there, saving us from Lee Corso dressing as the leprechaun.
4) Reported sightings of the apparition of Knute Rockne on campus, floating about muttering, “Ball State … We have sunk to playing Ball State …”
3) This will be the closest anyone will get to Muncie, Ind.
2) I have run out of reasons, seriously, except …

The No. 1 reason to be interested in Notre Dame vs. Ball State on Sept. 8: Jurkovec, Jurkovec, Jurkovec.”

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s preseason continues with contact drills and ‘Players of the Day’
Three Michigan natives may (finally) provide Notre Dame a genuine pass rush
Notre Dame’s backup QB Ian Book’s progress removes some restrictions on starter Brandon Wimbush
Notre Dame reveals Yankees-inspired look for 2018 Shamrock Series
40 Predictions, 1-20 with an offensive focus
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ball State
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Vanderbilt
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Wake Forest
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Virginia Tech
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Pittsburgh
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy

OUTSIDE READING:
Film analysis: Six plays with Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love ($)
Tyler James’ ranking the top-25 players on Notre Dame’s roster for 2018
— SI’s 2018 preseason All-American teams
25 college football QBs I’d pay to see in 2018
The next great USC QB shouldn’t even be in college
Vanderbilt offensive line bears burden of turnovers, run game, protecting Kyle Shurmur
How Charlie Weis Jr., FAU’s 25-year-old offensive coordinator, earned Lane Kiffin’s trust

Have a question? A suggestion? An abstract wondering? Send it to insidetheirsh@gmail.com

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy

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Pick your Notre Dame-specific storyline pertaining to Navy at will. There are at least three worth mentioning this year. The micro bit will focus on junior safety Alohi Gilman, now a season removed from his time with the Midshipmen and a starter for the Irish. The focused angle recognizes Notre Dame plays Navy after the Irish bye, preferable when facing the triple-option change of pace.

The macro view harps on the Academy moving the contest to San Diego. If anyone should have opted against that cross-country venture, it was actually Navy more than Notre Dame. Even though the Irish will go coast-to-coast-to-coast in the season’s final month, they have it easy compared to the Midshipmen. Navy starts the season in Hawaii, returns to the eastern coast within a week and then bounces back-and-forth between time zones before heading to southern California to face Notre Dame. After that? A return to the mid-Atlantic once more before a stop in the Bayou.

Realizing Navy never brings the Irish to Annapolis, Md., one does wonder why this was not a Baltimore or even Jacksonville year.

2017 REVIEW
Despite finishing a middling 7-6, the Midshipmen nearly had an excellent season. Finishing 3-4 in one-possession games will leave those thoughts of missed opportunity lingering even after the offseason. The only reasons those regrets are not the defining thoughts of Navy’s 2017 are the late arrival of then-sophomore Malcolm Perry and how strongly both he and the defense played in a 49-7 Military Bowl victory against Virginia.

Perry began the year at slot back, a pivotal spot in the triple-option offense but not one as impactful as the quarterback, the position Perry was recruited for. When Zach Abey went down with a concussion, Perry moved to quarterback and both his and Abey’s careers changed.

Make no mistake: Abey was having a strong season. In 12 games, though really only 11 considering how little he took the field against Army, the then-junior ran for 1,413 yards and 19 touchdowns. Abey was just better once he got a chance, rushing for 282 yards and four touchdowns against SMU and 250 yards with one score against the Black Knights.

That loss to Army likely haunts the most in Navy memories. After two penalties pushed the Midshipmen backward on their final drive, a missed 48-yard field goal as time expired sealed Army’s 14-13 victory.

Following that defeat, the third in a three-game losing streak that began at Notre Dame, Navy exorcised some demons against the Cavaliers, allowing a mere 175 yards and no offensive touchdowns.

WHAT NAVY LOST
Fullback Chris High is the biggest name here, having rushed for 621 yards and two touchdowns last season, but a number of other ground game contributors also finished up their collegiate careers. Eight Midshipmen rushed for at least 100 yards last year, and half of them are gone.

Obviously little regard is given Navy’s passing game, but when it is used, it is typically effective and efficient. That may shift this year, returning exactly zero receivers with game experience aside from Abey, now moving there to keep his playmaking involved.

Defensively, leading tackler Micah Thomas (81 tackles and three interceptions) left, as did three more of the top five tacklers, one from each level of the defense.

Both line coaches also departed: Offensive line coach Bryce McDonald went to UCLA and defensive line coach Shawn Nua joined Herman Edwards’ staff at Arizona State. That would be a concern at any program, but it may be especially so in one where the irregular trench techniques are so distinct.

WHAT NAVY GAINED
This can be a bit tougher to define than for any other opponent. Such is the nature for a military academy and its different protocols involving recruitment, enrollment and roster size.

For now, know the Midshipmen have made an impressive science out of reloading. That will only be aided by spending an entire offseason working with Perry at quarterback. In order to emphasize that development, head coach Ken Niumatalolo pushed spring practice back a few weeks so Perry would have a bit more time to recover from offseason foot surgery.

HEAD COACH
Ken Niumatalolo nearly left Navy this offseason after a decade leading the triple-option offense. The prospect of bringing that pedigree led to a social media gripe from Arizona star quarterback Khalil Tate. Maybe that cost Niumatalolo the Wildcats gig; maybe it didn’t. The optics certainly indicated Tate’s public complaint at least had an effect.

It is also possible Niumatalolo would never have gone through with the move, but it warrants mentioning this is the second time in a few seasons Niumtalolo has considered leaving his only head coaching job to date. When BYU had a job opening following the 2015 season, Niumatalolo went through that interview process at length, as well.

With Malcolm Perry sidelined by an ankle injury, Zach Abey returned to the primary role in Navy’s triple-option offense in a 24-17 loss at Notre Dame, taking 29 carries for 87 yards and this touchdown. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
In describing Perry as possibly the best rusher of Niumatalolo’s decade, one is not being held captive by a small sample size. Perry was quarterback for only a few games, but he played the entire season, finishing with 1,182 yards and 11 touchdowns on 138 attempts, averaging 8.6 yards per carry.

When applying such lauds to Perry, the likes of Keenan Reynolds and Ricky Dobbs have not been forgotten. In fact, they have been very much remembered.

Perry does need to develop something of an aerial threat. It is not that Abey was exactly a stellar one — throwing seven interceptions in only 72 attempts says otherwise and certainly did not help the Midshipmen in those one-possession games — but he had worked at it for a few years. Perry had not until this offseason.

Abey has moved to receiver, showing the faith Niumatalolo has in the senior’s athleticism.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Aside from the defensive line, Navy has to replace quite a bit, returning only two starters in the back-seven. That front may be a decent one, though. Of late, the Midshipmen have taken to a more aggressive, blitzing scheme. Their sacks jumped from eight in 2014 to 22 in 2015, 20 in 2016 and 16 last year. While those numbers are nothing more than passable, they are still a marked improvement. Continuing that trend could help hide the young defensive backfield.

SEASON OUTLOOK
By traveling to Hawaii, Navy gets to add a 13th regular season game. The general reason for that NCAA accommodation is to compensate team’s for that excessive travel by granting them another chance to get bowl eligible. Otherwise, most mid-level programs would avoid the trip deep into the Pacific, hamstringing Hawaii’s abilities to schedule.

The Midshipmen should be eligible before finishing the season against Army, but that will not inherently be a sure thing. Bookmakers, as one metric, set their expectations at 7.5 wins for Navy, while the American Athletic Conference preseason media poll slotted the Midshipmen at third in their division, behind Memphis and Houston.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Pittsburgh

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If there is a trap game for Notre Dame this season, it just may be Pittsburgh, as always seems to be the case when the Panthers are on the schedule. The other prime candidates would be trips to Wake Forest and Northwestern, but the Deacons gave Notre Dame enough of a challenge last year to be remembered and the Wildcats received plenty of votes in the preseason Coaches Poll to be sure they are not off all radars.

Pittsburgh being a headache is not inherently an Irish difficulty. The Panthers upset both Penn State and Clemson in 2016 and topped then-No. 2 and undefeated Miami to close last year.

2017 REVIEW
Pittsburgh went through three quarterbacks last season, originally due to injury and then out of ineffectiveness. Max Browne started five games in the first half of the year before getting knocked out, at which point Ben DiNucci took over. When freshman Kenny Pickett subbed in and nearly pushed the Panthers past Virginia Tech in the penultimate week of the year, he earned the start against the Hurricanes.

Pickett’s first career start marked a high note for all involved. He scored three total touchdowns, two on the ground and one through the air.

The other change for Pittsburgh as the season progressed came from its defense. Early in the year, the Panthers hardly stopped anyone — Oklahoma State most notably hung 59 points in the season’s third week. In their final five games, however, only one opponent broke 17 points, winning three of them to push the record to a nearly-respectable posting of 5-7.

WHAT PITTSBURGH LOST
Browne and DiNucci, for starters, but Pickett’s closing and age made him the frontrunner for the starting quarterback gig, anyway. He will need to find new receivers, with leading man Jester Weah (41 receptions for 698 yards and four touchdowns) done and multi-positional threat Quadree Henderson (17 catches for 186 yards; 36 rushes for 251 yards; 46 combined returns for 767 yards and two punt return touchdowns) now working his way onto the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster.

Pickett will also have to trust a new offensive line, having lost three starters, including first-team All-ACC left tackle Brian O’Neill.

Defensively this listing is rather short. Cornerbacks Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead are the only names not returning among Pittsburgh’s top-15 tacklers.

WHAT PITTSBURGH GAINED
Pickett’s dual-threat abilities make him the almost-certain starter, but if he struggles in his first extended time, the Panthers can turn to former USC and Arkansas quarterback Ricky Town, eligible immediately thanks to a year in junior college. Pittsburgh also added four-star running back Mychale Salahuddin.

Returning nine defensive starters means not much is needed on that side of the ball. First-year coordinator Randy Bates likely will not complain about that, having arrived from Northwestern, where he was the linebackers coach.

Pat Narduzzi. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

HEAD COACH
Pat Narduzzi is a known name for Irish fans. He is, indeed, the same Pat Narduzzi who used to coordinate the Michigan State defense. He did quite well there, but has yet to find a groove in Pittsburgh.

Narduzzi began with two 8-5 campaigns before tailing off last year. Nonetheless, the Panthers are a worthwhile 2-3 against top-10 opponents in Narduzzi’s three seasons.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
If Pickett gets off to a strong start, he will get the attention. Part of that strong start will presumably derive from a running game, one most likely hinging on a committee of …

Junior Darrin Hall: 128 carries for 628 yards and nine touchdowns last year.
Senior Qadree Ollison: 90 carries for 398 yards and five touchdowns.
Sophomore A.J. Davis: Preserved a year of eligibility.

Pittsburgh’s ground attack regressed last year, but that is in part due to losing two-year starter James Conner. Even then, it was an emphasis for Narduzzi. He has kept a balanced offense throughout his Panthers tenure. There is no reason to expect that to change now.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
This defense could be vintage Narduzzi. It returns its entire front-seven, its top-six defensive linemen and 13 of its top-15 tacklers, including eight of the top nine.

Last year those players gave up 26.6 points per game, to establish a middling comparison point.

SEASON OUTLOOK
More than looking at 2018, a strong season from Pickett could spark a good amount of Pittsburgh hype for 2019 and 2020, but that is getting ahead.

Staying ahead, November could halt that hype, though that will be a bit of a short-sighted overreaction. Ending the year vs. Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest and at Miami is not anybody’s idea of an ideal finish. That stretch could also short-circuit any chances of the Panthers exceeding the win total over/under of 5.5 or them even finishing as high as No. 5 in the ACC’s Coastal division, as the media projected in a preseason poll, only ahead of North Carolina and Virginia.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Virginia Tech

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There is not inherently a spot below to discuss Virginia Tech’s entrance to the field at Lane Stadium. This space makes too much of it, admittedly, considering the scribe has long been a fan of former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

The soon-to-be first-ballot Hall-of-Famer used the same entrance song the Hokies use: Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

The classic piece of metal sets the atmosphere in Blacksburg, one that should not reach the crescendo of Hard Rock Stadium last November, but will still very much test Notre Dame’s lessons learned from that 41-8 debacle at Miami.

2017 REVIEW
Virginia Tech relied on a first-year starter in sophomore quarterback Josh Jackson last season, and he began very well, exceptionally well, to win a 31-24 rivalry matchup with West Virginia in the opener. Jackson completed 15 of 26 passes for 235 yards and a score, adding 101 rushing yards and a touchdown.

Such success continued until Clemson visited in week five, picking off the youngster twice.

As the season progressed, though, Jackson seemed to regress. Conference competition and available film will do that. In the regular season’s final six games, he did not break 218 passing yards, throwing for as few as 153 at Georgia Tech and 143 at Virginia. In three of those six, Jackson’s completion rate fell below 50 percent.

Sound familiar, Irish fans?

As Jackson struggled, the Hokies could rely on a fantastic defense. Even with Clemson scoring 31, Miami and Georgia Tech each tallying 28 and Oklahoma State reaching 30 in the Camping World Bowl (all losses), Virginia Tech gave up only 14.8 points per game last year along with an average of 319 yards.

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH LOST
This offseason could have been worse for the Hokies, but not by much. For a few days, smoke swirled around Jackson’s eligibility, but when it cleared there was nothing to see.

That was not the case with likely starting senior cornerback Adonis Alexander, gone in June. Senior nickelback Mook Reynolds was dismissed from the program, and junior college transfer cornerback Jeremy Webb furthered the difficulties with an Achilles injury knocking him out for the year.

Even without those unexpected departures, Virginia Tech’s secondary had already lost Greg Stroman (20 tackles, 11 passes broken up plus four interceptions) and Brandon Facyson (19, 2, 5).

If that sounds like it would result in a dearth of depth, it pales in comparison to the Hokies’ linebackers. Tremaine Edwards (109 tackles with 14 for loss including 5.5 sacks) heard his named called 16th overall in the NFL draft and Andrew Motuapuaka (92, 11.5, 3.5) is gone, as well. Including others, Virginia Tech essentially lost all of its linebacker rotation to natural attrition.

To top off the defensive woes, tackle Tim Settle (36 tackles with 12.5 for loss including four sacks) went to the Washington professional football franchise in the fifth round of the draft.

Offensively, the losses seem minimal in comparison. Running back Travon McMillian (104 rushes for 439 yards and two touchdowns) transferred to Colorado, top receiver Cam Phillips earned first-team All-ACC honors in his final season (71 catches for 964 yards and seven scores), and first-team All-ACC right guard Wyatt Teller finished his collegiate career.

WHAT VIRGINIA TECH GAINED
Not necessarily intentionally, the Hokies counteracted some of those defensive farewells by bringing in 10 early-enrolled freshmen. That may not pan out in production, but given the NCAA’s relaxed views on eligibility concerns, there is a better chance than ever that some of those freshmen make their presences felt.

More specifically, speedy freshman running back Cole Beck will be a local favorite throughout his career, hailing from Blacksburg. His quickness alone could get him onto the field.

Justin Fuente (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Junior receiver Damon Hazelton sat out last season after he transferred from Ball State, where he caught 51 passes for 505 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. That debut campaign made him think he could play at a higher level, and Virginia Tech agreed.

HEAD COACH
Justin Fuente enters his third year in the unenviable role of being the guy to replace a legend, but thus far Fuente has fared well following in Frank Beamer’s footsteps. The Hokies won the ACC’s Coastal division in 2016, finishing 10-4, and then fell to second in the division last year behind Miami.

Fuente’s system might be a bit more familiar to Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long than it is to most. Long arrived at Memphis immediately after Fuente and his staff headed east. In familiarizing himself with his new team, Long undoubtedly studied an abundance of Fuente’s film. That does not necessarily mean he knows the intricacies and nuances, but it is a starting point.

If any Virginia Tech receiver is going to present problems for Notre Dame’s secondary, it will most likely be sophomore Sean Savoy. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
This offense will go as far as Jackson takes it. By season’s end, his will likely still be the only name on it known nationally. The best other chance would be sophomore receiver Sean Savoy. As a freshman, Savoy caught 39 passes for 454 yards and four scores. If he emerges as Phillips’ replacement, those numbers could all easily double.

Fuente has made a career of preferring a running back by committee approach. Three look ready to share carries this season:
Junior Deshawn McClease: 108 carries for 530 yards and three touchdowns.
Senior Steven Peoples: 70 carries for 267 yards and two touchdowns.
Sophomore Jalen Holston: 70 carries for 226 yards and three touchdowns.

As such, do not be surprised if Jackson actually leads the Hokies in rushing yards, having gained 324 yards and six touchdowns on the ground in 2017. One way or another, Fuente generally insists on running the ball, even if unsuccessfully at points.

Three returning starters along the offensive line will attempt to keep Jackson upright, but it was not inherently an excellent front last season, so development will be needed. It cleared the path for the Hokies’ offense to average a mere 3.9 yards per rush last year, including four games of less than 3.0, one of which was against FCS-level Delaware.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Any other year this would be a much greater concern for opponents, but defensive coordinator Bud Foster returns only five full-time starters and even less overall experience.

Then again, Foster has been leading the Virginia Tech defense for more than two decades, and he has a strong building block to start with in three returning defensive line starters, led by third-team All-ACC tackle Ricky Walker (41 tackles with 12.5 for loss including 4.5 sacks). Pertaining to Notre Dame concerns, this defense will have had four relatively unconcerning games to come together immediately before facing the Irish.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Of all seasons to have a young defense, the Hokies undoubtedly wish it was not one in which they opened at Florida State on Labor Day. Blame the ACC conference offices. However that game ends, Virginia Tech should cruise to four wins before facing Notre Dame (vs. William & Mary; vs. East Carolina; at Old Dominion; at Duke).

Doing so would get the Hokies halfway to the bookmakers’ projected win total.