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Leftovers & Links: On Phil Steele’s expectations for Notre Dame


It begins innocently enough with a question from a dinner companion, “How good could Notre Dame be this year?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t started my deep dive yet, but I do think the defense could be pretty special.”

A few days later, the friend waiting on the cashier with you reaches for a conversational topic, “That Michigan game could be a fun one, huh?” Would any reasonable college football devotee reply negatively? Rather, attendance was encouraged; it should be a fun atmosphere.

A day or two after that, the mailbox is filled with college football preview magazines. Sure, Phil Steele’s annual brick arrived a few weeks ago, but its spine broke only this last week. The rest await that fate now.

If there is such a thing as a football offseason — and when discussing the Irish there is an easy argument against such a concept — those doldrums are quickly reaching their close. That became clear when Steele excited Notre Dame fans by declaring the Irish his “No. 1 surprise team” this season, essentially his preferred dark-horse title contender.

That may be a bit of a leap for a team considered 40:1 to win the national championship, but Steele cites nine returning defensive starters and a “stout” offensive line as enough when combined with a deceptively-favorable schedule.

Again, it is still only the second week of July. This scribe’s annual summer deep dive on every college football possibility with a focus on Notre Dame and its opponents does not commence for another week or two. That is a measure taken to preserve sanity. It is desperately needed.

Nonetheless, Steele’s broad strokes make sense, even if his finer points appear to contradict each other. His Irish pick hinges on its defense, already acknowledged as something to await with hope, but he considers the Notre Dame defensive line only the No. 21 up-front grouping in the country. Even if senior Te’von Coney and fifth-year Drue Tranquill are two of the top draft-eligible linebackers in the country, per Steele, the Irish linebacker unit rates as the No. 13 nationally, while the secondary is at No. 17. The first two of those ratings feel underrated, while Notre Dame’s unknowns at safety make that No. 17 spot feel a tad high.

If that defensive set is enough to drive a team into national title contention, one should really take notice of Michigan, Steele’s No. 4 surprise team and with a roster holding the No. 6 defensive line unit, the No. 12 set of linebackers and the top secondary.

That “stout” Irish offensive line Steele expects to drive Notre Dame will not keep it from a massive drop-off in the running game, per his computers. To some degree, that makes sense. The Irish could have a solid ground attack but still not come close to matching last year’s numbers. After all, Notre Dame did lose two offensive linemen to the NFL draft’s top-10 and a Heisman thought at running back to the Philadelphia Eagles.

A final piece to ponder as these conversations gain steam: Steele thinks Notre Dame “will have the most potent offense in [Irish head coach Brian] Kelly’s eight years.”

Such a possibility has not come up at dinner, at a cash register or in hours of mindless mental meandering. At least, not yet.

On Friday, three-star receiver TJ Sheffield (Independence High School; Thompson’s Station, Tenn.) committed to Notre Dame … with a disclaimer: “My plans are to officially visit several colleges to confirm my decision and leave no regrets.”

In every way, that sounded like Sheffield was keeping his recruitment open, throwing doubt onto his understanding of the definition of commitment, although also a prudent strategy when making a life-changing decision. By Sunday evening Sheffield had changed his tune.

“After committing to the University of Notre Dame, I have decided to forego all of my recruitment/official visits with the exception of the one I spend with [Notre Dame],” he posted to Twitter. “Thanks again to all who have participated in my recruitment. #allin100%.”

December remains five full months away, but it appears Sheffield is on board with the Irish at this point.

“Fight On*”
Dan, the taskmaster mentioned in the “Leftovers” post of last week, signed an email with that farewell a few days later. A Notre Dame alum with an Irish football-loving father, it certainly stood out as unexpected, but that asterisk pointed to a footnote.

“*I use the stolen USC battle cry throughout the year after we beat them. Man, I hate when we lose to those guys; I become relegated to mundane and prosaic closings such as ‘Sincerely’ and ‘Regards’.”

You do you, Dan. It is a bold strategy, that’s for sure.

A Notre Dame mailbag highlighted by an apology
Notre Dame lands both a QB and a WR commit on Fourth of July
Speedy Tenn. WR TJ Sheffield chooses Notre Dame over Ohio State
No. 20, Shaun Crawford, nickelback, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 19 Justin Yoon, placekicker, senior
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, defensive end, incoming freshman
No. 18 Joe Wilkins, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 17 Isaiah Robertson, safety-turned-rover, sophomore
No. 16 Noah Boykin, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 15 D.J. Morgan, safety-turned-linebacker, junior

Maryland athlete Cam Hart picks Notre Dame: It’s all about fit
Notre Dame’s practice facility construction continues
Notre Dame vs. Michigan: What’s on the line in opener?
The 15 most important assistant coaching hires of the 2018 season … No. 10: Clark Lea, Notre Dame
Notre Dame invites Garth Brooks to play first-ever concert in legendary stadium
CJ Holmes finds second chance at Penn State

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Stanford

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Modern medicine may be the key to Stanford’s 2017 season, and modern travel will allow the Cardinal a unique chance to test modern medicine’s effect on its starting quarterback’s ACL in opening the season tonight against Rice in Sydney, Australia. (10 p.m. ET, ESPN.)

In retrospect, Stanford’s “down” 2016 was actually a solid season. Such is the standard the Cardinal have set by now. Outside of one nine-day stretch, Stanford only fell in a fluke-filled 10-5 loss to Colorado. Yes, that score was 10-5. On top of that, the Buffaloes missed three field goals and had a touchdown called back.

The nine-day span covered a trip to Washington and a date hosting Washington State. The Cardinal secondary was battling injuries at that point, and it showed, losing the two games by a combined score of 86-22.

That was it, though. Stanford finished 10-3 in a disappointing season, ending it with a 25-23 victory over North Carolina in the Sun Bowl and highlighting it with a 27-10 win vs. USC in the season’s third week.

For that matter, Stanford was hardly tested in any other games. Aside from the bowl game triumph and the drop to Colorado, the Cardinal partook in only one other one-possession game, the 17-10 victory at Notre Dame.

Few teams in the country lost as much talent as Stanford did this offseason. The same can be said for how many teams lost as few players as the Cardinal did. While those two sentiments may seem contradictory, they stand true when the three departed players of note include two top-10 NFL Draft picks and the defense’s second-leading tackler.

Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas went No. 3 overall after leading Stanford with 62 tackles, eight sacks, seven more tackles for loss and seven additional quarterback hurries. One tackle behind him, safety Dallas Lloyd also contributed five interceptions last year.

Running back Christian McCaffrey went No. 8 in the draft. Suffice it to say, he drove Stanford’s offense the last couple seasons. In 2016, McCaffrey totaled 2,327 total yards, led by 1,603 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 6.3 yards per carry. He added 310 receiving yards and three scores, plus 414 return yards.

Stanford signed a seemingly-intentionally small recruiting class in February, pulling in only 14 prospects, but those baker’s dozen-plus one were touted enough to warrant the No. 19 ranking, per

Three of the recruits were five-stars, yet none of those three are likely to see playing time this year. Quarterback Davis Mills joins an already-crowded position group, and the two offensive linemen Walker Little and Foster Sarell will not be forced into action right away.

The younger brother of Irish junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, four-star receiver Osiris St. Brown could become part of the Stanford offense.

David Shaw enters his seventh season leading the Cardinal. Stanford has not missed a step since Jim Harbaugh handed off the program to Shaw, winning 64 games across the last six years, making three Rose Bowls and winning two.

Stanford will trot out junior Keller Chryst at quarterback tonight, fewer than nine full months since tearing his ACL in the Sun Bowl victory. There was a time not long ago such a quick recovery would have defied any version of medical logic, but it is becoming increasingly common, though still not necessarily normal.

Keller Chryst (Getty Images)

Chryst took over at quarterback following the Colorado loss last season, leading the way through the year’s last six games. He had a 56.6 percent completion rate while throwing 10 touchdowns against only two interceptions.

He took over for now-senior Ryan Burns, also still around. If Chryst struggles — for rust reasons or otherwise — it will be either Burns or sophomore KJ Costello who steps in. Based on spring reviews, perhaps Costello has the pole position as backup.

Extracting Chryst’s five healthy and started games shows some distinct offensive trends, but they deserve some qualifiers: Those five games also coincided with McCaffrey at his best last season, and while the opponents were solid, they were not the same fare as Washington, USC or Washington State.

In that stretch, Stanford averaged 39.6 points and 479 yards per game. In the other eight games last season, the Cardinal struggled to 18 points and 297.1 yards per contest. Clearly, Chryst made a difference.

Bryce Love (Getty Images)

Losing McCaffrey would set back any offense. Stanford will attempt to recover with junior running back Bryce Love getting those opportunities. Considering who he had in front of him the last two seasons, it is impressive Love managed 476 total yards as a freshman and 866 last year, with 783 yards and three touchdowns coming on the ground with a 7.1 yards per carry average. He gashed the Notre Dame defense for 129 yards.

If Stanford’s offensive line lives up to expectations and gives Chryst time, he will likely target a receiver more than anyone was picked out last year. Again, the equal distribution may have been a side effect of trotting out McCaffrey. Both junior Trenton Irwin and sophomore JJ Arrega-Whiteside return. The two leading receivers combined for 61 catches, 821 yards and six touchdowns last year. Junior tight end and former Irish recruiting target Dalton Schultz should emerge, as well.

Losing Thomas cannot escape notice, but Stanford returns four linebackers who started all 13 games last season, providing a new focal point for its 3-4 base defense. There are even enough proven commodities at linebacker, the Cardinal often could and will reasonably shift to a 2-5 look, allowing junior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips to stuff the middle. Phillips notched the fifth-most tackles on the Stanford defense last season with 46 and 6.5 sacks.

Harrison Phillips (Getty Images)

The Cardinal return its entire secondary aside from Lloyd, offering more margin for error without Thomas wreaking havoc in the opposition’s backfield.

The 2016 season-long average of 26.3 points scored per game was the lowest of Shaw’s tenure as head coach. The same goes for the average of 367 yards per game.

The point is, Stanford’s defense held its own last season, and can presumably be expected to do so again this year. If Chryst’s five-game stretch of success was more than an anomaly of a small sample size, then the Cardinal should easily cruise past an over/under win total of 8.5 (sometimes seen at nine).

The greatest litmus test for that will likely come in a reminiscent six-day stretch in early November. This year, Stanford will travel to Washington State before hosting Washington less than a week later. Those results could very well determine the Pac-12 North Division, otherwise known as the “Who will face USC in the Pac-12 title game?” sweepstakes.

Monday, the 14th: Temple
Tuesday, the 15th: Georgia
Wednesday, the 16th: Boston College
Thursday, the 17th: Michigan State
Friday, the 18th: Miami (OH)
Saturday, the 19th: North Carolina
Monday: USC
Tuesday: North Carolina State
Wednesday: Wake Forest
Thursday: Miami (FL)
Yesterday: Navy

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy

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With Notre Dame playing Navy so late in the season this year, the penultimate scheduled game, the best way to learn about the Midshipmen during the next three months will be to tune in to Showtime every Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET. The “A Season With” series that began with the Irish in 2015 will now feature the Midshipmen.

If it takes Navy a while to get back to a conference championship game, 2016 will be looked at as a lost opportunity. After a strong season in which the Midshipmen did not shy from any opponent, they never genuinely contended with Temple in the AAC title game, starting a three-game losing streak to close the season.

To start the season, Navy earned some national headlines while routing Football Championship Subdivision’s Fordham 52-16. Why in the world would such a lopsided game warrant attention? When the Midshipmen lost their starting quarterback for the year in the second quarter and struggled with some play after that, they quite literally pulled a player from the stands to take the snaps in the fourth quarter.

From there, Navy won its next two, including a 28-24 victory over former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s Connecticut team, aided by truly disastrous clock management by the Huskies offense. Navy finished the season 5-3 in one-possession games, including its 28-27 victory vs. Notre Dame and, more impressively, a 46-40 win over Houston when Houston was at its peak.

A week later, Navy beat Memphis, putting the Midshipmen in the driver’s seat in the AAC’s West Division. That positioning led to the chance against Temple, a game in which, again, Navy lost its quarterback, this time to a broken foot. Then-sophomore Zach Abey struggled to find a groove, part of why the Midshipmen never got closer than 24-10 in the eventual 34-10 defeat.

A week later, Navy lost its second military matchup of the season, falling 21-17 to Army. (Navy lost 28-14 at Air Force in the fourth week of the season, a week before the Houston game.) To complete the disappointing close, the Midshipmen lost to Louisiana Tech 48-45 in the Armed Forces Bowl on a field goal with no time remaining.

Will Worth was not expected to lead Navy last season. That was supposed to be Tago Smith, but when Smith went down in the season opener, it was eventually Worth who caught on at quarterback. He finished the year with 264 carries for 1,198 yards and 25 touchdowns, adding eight more scores through the air.

The vast majority of Worth’s passes went to Jamir Tillman, arguably the only true contributing receiver. Tillman finished second in career receiving yards at the Academy, only 110 from the top spot. In 2016, he caught 40 passes for 631 yards and two touchdowns, good for a 15.8 yards per catch average.

Naturally, Navy spreads the ball around in the running game. All its Nos. 3-5 rushers departed — they combined for 1,740 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Midshipmen also lost starting center, left guard and left tackle.

On the other side of the ball, defensive end Amos Mason, the team’s fourth-leading tackler with 56 takedowns, two sacks and 6.5 more tackles for loss, was the only expected departure of Navy’s top-eight tacklers.

Such attrition, especially on the offensive side, tends to be the norm at Navy. It is partly a symptom of the Academy’s design, and it is partly how head coach Ken Niumatalolo has constructed his roster.

What is not the norm is a star freshman departing after just the one season. In this case, it will not only help Notre Dame when the Irish face Navy in November. It will help Notre Dame long afterward. Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman finished second among the Midshipmen with 76 tackles, adding five tackles for loss and five pass breakups, before transferring to Notre Dame this summer.

The Midshipmen roster is always one of the country’s biggest, but not every year sees five separate three-star recruits join the team. While it will still be hard for any of those freshmen to find much playing time — such is the nature of being a plebe at a military institution — they certainly offer promise for the future.

At first glance, receiver Mychal Cooper stands out among those three-stars, not only because he is listed at 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, but also because the loss of Tillman should create an opportunity at the position. Yet, his is not one of the names Niumatalolo has highlighted this summer. In fact, Cooper is not even listed on the most-recent depth chart.

Freshmen Dalen Morris and Evan Fochtman, both running backs, could conceivably see playing time if reading that depth chart with any validity.

Ken Niumatalolo, on left, shakes hands with Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. (Getty Images)

Niumatalolo enters his 10th year at Navy, presiding over one of the most-stable programs in the country. The Midshipmen have endured a total of one losing season since 2003, a 5-7 mark in 2011. Niumatalolo has taken brief looks at other opportunities in recent years, but for now he continues to rack up the wins with Navy, averaging 8.6 per year in his nine years.

Well, it’s the triple-option, obviously. Can that be enough for this section? No? Really? Well, if insisting …

Navy will likely lean heavily on senior fullback Chris High this season. A year ago, High took 85 carries for 546 yards and seven scores, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Along with senior running back Darryl Bonner, the backfield will try to support Abey as he tries to get off to a better start than he did in unexpected duty last fall.

Chris High (Getty Images)

In some ways, the Midshipmen success from 2016 was a surprise, having lost all five offensive linemen entering the season. With two returning this year, that is infinitely more experience, plus senior left guard Robert Lindsey will return from an early-season back injury, essentially making for a third starter.

Despite that trenches turnover, Navy averaged 37.9 points per game last year. That is exceedingly unlikely to continue, but it was the fourth year in a row with more than 30 points per game. However far the Midshipmen scoring average does or does not fall, the passing yards per game will certainly plummet. On the strength of the Worth-to-Tillman connection, Navy averaged 128 passing yards per game in 2016, the first time north of 100 yards per game since 2012’s 105 yards per game.

The loss of Gilman will hurt Navy. Discovering a freshman adept at handling the passing game was an unexpected delight for the Midshipmen, who often struggle developing a strong secondary considering they rarely practice against a true passing attack.

Micah Thomas, No. 44 (Getty Images)

The strength of the defense this season will come at the second-level. Injuries over the last few years have created linebacker depth at this point, led by senior Micah Thomas, who finished last season with 107 tackles. Though he hardly brought down ballcarriers in the backfield or broke up passes, Thomas seemed to always find himself around the ball.

Led by Thomas, it is highly probable Navy’s defense improves as a whole in 2017. It gave up 31.0 points per game last year, nearly 10 more points than the previous year. Expect that metric to fall somewhere in the mid-to-high 20s this season.

Injuries limited Navy in 2016, and Niumatalolo made understanding that issue an impetus for the offseason. That is a difficult task to quantify, but if successful, it could prove to be the difference for a team facing an over/under win total of seven.

Looking at the schedule, Navy’s season may reach make-or-break status in two road games, at Tulsa on Sept. 30 and at Temple on Nov. 2. Those, along with the annual Army tilt, will determine how the season is viewed in four months.

Monday, the 14th: Temple
Tuesday, the 15th: Georgia
Wednesday, the 16th: Boston College
Thursday, the 17th: Michigan State
Friday, the 18th: Miami (OH)
Saturday, the 19th: North Carolina
Monday: USC
Tuesday: North Carolina State
Wednesday: Wake Forest
Yesterday: Miami (FL)
Tomorrow: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Miami (FL)

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Even if a college football team returns nearly every starter aside from its quarterback, the question mark behind the center can make it difficult to gauge that team before it takes to the field in a real game. Miami does not return every starter, but it returns enough it merits consideration as a top-tier team in 2017 … if its quarterback competes as well as ably.

When the Hurricanes host Notre Dame on Nov. 11, that question mark will presumably be answered one way or another. The first true test will come in the season’s third week in a trip to Florida State.

In a season of three streaks, the Irish fortuitously caught Miami in the middle section, a four-game losing stretch sandwiched between four-game and five-game winning streaks, resulting in a 9-4 season with a 5-3 standing in the ACC, good enough to finish in a three-way tie one game behind Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division.

The initial set of wins brought the Hurricanes to No. 10 in both the AP and coaches polls, heading into a matchup with Florida State. Then, a blocked extra point attempt with fewer than two minutes remaining stopped Miami from tying the Seminoles, instead falling 20-19.

That deflating result started the midseason swoon, but it was not the only factor. In the four losses, Miami managed a dismal 65.3 rushing yards per game and went 0-3 in one-possession contests, including the 30-27 defeat at Notre Dame.

By the time the ship was righted, any 2016 glory had passed, but the Hurricanes still managed a 31-14 win over West Virginia in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

Nine former Hurricanes heard their names called in the NFL Draft, with quarterback Brad Kaaya going in the sixth round most notable for these purposes. Kaaya’s early departure may have been somewhat perplexing, but litigating that now will not shed any light on Miami’s upcoming slate. He finished last season with a 62.0 percent completion rate, throwing 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.

Brad Kaaya (Getty Images)

Kaaya’s two most-reliable targets also went to the NFL. Receiver Stacy Coley caught 63 passes for 754 yards and nine touchdowns, the receptions and scores both leading Miami. Tight end David Njoku went in the first round after catching 43 passes for 698 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

Less vitally, the offense lost two reliable back-up running backs. Joseph Yearby and Gus Edwards combined for 161 carries for 898 yards and eight scores, even though Edwards was injured much of the year. He has since transferred, realizing he would be unlikely to regain the starting gig.

If Edwards had stayed, he would have needed to adjust to a different offensive line, now without last year’s right tackle, right guard and center.

Defensively, the Hurricanes secondary took the biggest hits, led by safety Rayshawn Jenkins and cornerback Corn Elder, who tied for third-most tackles a season ago, each with 76, while combining for 19 pass breakups and three interceptions. Safety Jamal Carter led Miami in tackles with 85, making for a third primary contributor on the defense’s backline no longer around.

To help fill the holes on the offensive line, the Hurricanes will welcome the return of senior center Nick Linder, who missed the end of 2016 due to injury. He may be joined by LSU transfer George Brown, who after spending last season sitting out the year necessitated by his transfer could now step in at right tackle.

If Brown does earn a starting role, he will be beating out, among others, four-star recruit Navaughn Donaldson, perhaps the jewel of a 24-prospect class earning Miami the No. 11 grouping in the country, per Including Donaldson, 10 of the 24 were considered four-star recruits.

Receivers Jeff Thomas and Mike Harley could find playing time this season thanks to the aforementioned departures of Coley and Njoku. It is conceivable 2017 could feature a freshman-to-freshman connection, with quarterback N’Kosi Perry still in the mix for some sub-packages.

Entering his second season at Miami, Mark Richt may be the most-experienced coach on Notre Dame’s schedule this season when also considering his 15 seasons at Georgia.

Last year’s up-and-down nature may have put a ceiling on Richt’s debut season at his alma mater, but anything of a more consistent performance could reap great dividends this year, quickly filling Bulldogs fans with regret.

Perry will not start the season taking the snaps. Richt recently declared junior quarterback Malik Rosier will get the first chance to lead his pro-style offense after spending the past two seasons backing up Kaaya.

Kaaya struggled with a middling offensive line last year, but that was partly due to injuries, such as Linder’s. If the offensive line can hold its own for Rosier, he will target sophomore receiver Ahmmon Richards, a speed threat who took 49 catches for an average of 19.1 yards last season.

Mark Walton (Getty Images)

Sophomore running back Travis Homer will step into the void at back-up running back. A heralded recruit, Homer should hold his own behind junior Mark Walton. The starter gained more confidence as 2016 progressed, averaging more than four yards per carry in each of the final four regular season games, finishing with 1,117 yards on 209 carries, a 5.3 average, and 14 touchdowns.

Miami’s front seven could not be in much better shape, as they all return, looking to build on a season in which the defense allowed only 132 rushing yards per game and totaled 37 sacks.

Three freshmen started at linebacker last year for the Hurricanes. Suffice it to say, much is expected of them this season. (And, if thinking ahead, even more if all three return as two-year starters in 2018.) Inside linebacker Shaq Quarterman finished second on the team in tackles with 84, including 3.5 sacks and 6.5 more tackles for loss. Michael Pinckney notched 61 tackles of his own, and Zach McCloud completes the backbone of a staunch defense.

Shaq Quarterman, No. 55 (Getty Images)

Defensive ends senior Chad Thomas and sophomore Joe Jackson combined for 13 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss in 2016, bookending an attack buttressed by junior tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh.

The only defensive question will be the secondary, which will rely quite a bit on sophomore cornerback Malek Young, though he made only four starts and 23 tackles last year.

Expectation are high for Richt and Miami this season, but they may go only as high as Rosier — or Perry — can take them on offense. The defensive front is up for the task, and should help compensate for a young secondary. If the offense can come within a touchdown of matching last season’s 34.3 points per game, that should be more than enough. (The defense gave up an average of 18.5 points per game.)

In that scenario, topping the over/under win total of nine should come with ease. The bigger question will be how Miami fares against Virginia Tech, hosting the Hokies the week before Notre Dame’s arrival, its primary competition in the Coastal Division yet again.

Monday, the 14th: Temple
Tuesday, the 15th: Georgia
Wednesday, the 16th: Boston College
Thursday, the 17th: Michigan State
Friday, the 18th: Miami (OH)
Saturday, the 19th: North Carolina
Monday: USC
Tuesday: North Carolina State
Yesterday: Wake Forest
Tomorrow: Navy
Saturday: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Wake Forest

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Have you heard? Notre Dame hired Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator Mike Elko during the offseason. Let’s mention that up top here on the nearly-impossible chance you read this space but missed that news.

Without Elko, it will be curious to see how, or if, the Demon Deacons defense continues to improve. Though without the orchestrator of the defense, Wake Forest is also without someone exposing the defense’s tendencies to opponents before the games. That certainly cannot hurt its performance.

Years from now, only the “WakeyLeaks” controversy of the Demon Deacons’ 2016 season will be remembered. The 4-0 start, 7-6 finish including a 3-5 mark in conference play, and the first touchdown scored in a conference victory under head coach Dave Clawson will all be forgotten. Still less than a year removed from the season, let’s not forget them here.

Indeed, in the two previous ACC wins under Clawson in his first two seasons, Wake Forest had managed only field goals. The Deacons topped Duke 24-14 to record a more-legitimate feeling in a conference victory in the season’s second weekend.

Aside from the 34-26 win over Temple in the Military Bowl, the two other 2016 results warranting mention are the 17-6 loss at Florida State, simply because Elko’s defense held the Seminoles to a mere 17 points, and the 44-12 defeat at Louisville. In the latter loss, Wake Forest led 12-10 with only 11 minutes left before the Cardinals ran away with it.

That defeat prompted the first allegations that the Deacons’ radio analyst was slipping intel to opponents. Indeed, he was. Obviously, that led to his departure from the gig. In 2017, it should hold no pertinent effect aside from remaining an intriguing, noteworthy and hard-to-believe story.

A more pertinent note: Wake Forest went 4-2 in one-possession games last season.

In addition to Elko and his right-hand man, new Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea, the Deacons lost significant players from their defense. No. 1 tackler and inside linebacker Marquel Lee heard his name called in the NFL Draft’s fifth round, a deserved honor after totaling 105 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 12.5 more tackles for loss last season.

Their No. 3 tackler and linebacker Thomas Brown (65 tackles, four sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss) and No. 4 tackler and cornerback Brad Watson (63, six pass breakups, two interceptions) also graduated from the program.

Offensively, Wake Forest returns much more intact, losing only its center and left guard.

In the No. 74 recruiting class in the country per, the Deacons signed only one four-star prospect, defensive lineman Mike Allen. Listed at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, it may take some time into the season for Allen to become a prominent contributor.

Clawsen enters his fourth season with the Deacons, having come from Bowling Green. His 13-24 Wake Forest record may be dismal, but 2016 could have marked a turning point for the program. Not only did the Deacons win their first bowl game since 2008, but Clawsen notched his first winning record in Winston-Salem, following two consecutive 3-9 seasons.

To mention this odd factoid again: Clawsen’s first two ACC victories came entirely thanks to field goals, a 6-3 victory vs. Virginia Tech in double overtime in 2014 and a 3-0 win at Boston College in 2015.

Wake Forest literally returns all its contributing skill players from last year’s offense. That unit may not have been dynamic, averaging only 20.4 points per game, but the offense has improved each year under Clawsen, and returning so much of the roster implies it should again. In 2014, the Deacons averaged 14.8 points per game, raising that to 17.4 in 2015.

Even the running game, though still hampered by limited yards per carry averages, has improved every season under Clawsen, rising from 40 rushing yards per game in 2014 (yes, you read that correctly) to 105 a year later and 146 a year ago. That may be very gradual improvement, but it is improvement, nonetheless.

John Wolford (Getty Images)

What may hamper the Wake Forest offense would be a quarterback controversy. Senior John Wolford has started 33 games in the last three years, including 11 last year. His statistics were lacking, though, finishing with only nine touchdowns against 10 interceptions and a 55.5 percent completion rate. Undoubtedly somewhat due to those struggles, Clawsen named junior Kendall Hinton the starter before preseason practice.

Last year, Hinton suffered a knee injury, thus pushing Wolford into the starting position. More of a dual-threat, Hinton presents an arguably-higher ceiling. Wolford, meanwhile, has performed so well in preseason practice, Clawsen may have to reevaluate his decision and perhaps give both quarterbacks chances this season. He has said he expects to need both, and thus has given both first-team repetitions in practice, but that may simply be a precaution given Hinton’s injury history.

Similar to the gradual offensive progression, Elko’s defense improved consistently during his Deacon tenure. In 2014, they allowed 26.4 points per game, dropping that to 24.6 in 2015 and 22.2 last year. Mirroring that trend, the Wake Forest defense gave up 183 rushing yards per game in 2014 before lowering that to 161 in 2015 and 142 last season.

Now, former Minnesota defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel takes over the unit. As it will likely come up in November conversations, let’s note now: Sawvel was a Notre Dame graduate assistant from 1996 to 1999.

Duke Ejiofor (Getty Images)

He inherits a roster led by senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor, who filled the stat line in 2016, recording 10.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and one interception.

Sophomore safety Jessie Bates broke onto the scene as a freshman, finishing second on the team in tackles with an even 100, while adding five interceptions and four pass breakups. Sawvel coached defensive backs at Minnesota before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2016, so he should see the block of marble that is Bates and marvel at what he could become.

The over/under win total for Wake Forest is set at 5.5, and this scribe has already made it clear he expects the Deacons to fail to meet that mark. That is in no small part due to the schedule. Wake Forest travels to Clemson, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame while hosting Florida State, Louisville and North Carolina State.

If the Deacons fail to win any of those games, they would need to run the table to reach bowl eligibility and exceed that win total. Even a theoretical “gimme” game will not be such for Wake Forest, which travels to Appalachian State within the first month of the season. Unlike the Deacons, the Mountaineers received votes in the preseason polls du jour.

Monday, the 14th: Temple
Tuesday, the 15th: Georgia
Wednesday, the 16th: Boston College
Thursday, the 17th: Michigan State
Friday, the 18th: Miami (OH)
Saturday, the 19th: North Carolina
Monday: USC
Yesterday: North Carolina State
Tomorrow: Miami (FL)
Friday: Navy
Saturday: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)