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

USC v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 21: Brandon Wimbush #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks to pass while under pressure from Uchenna Nwosu #42 of the USC Trojans in the second quarter of a game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 21, 2017 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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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

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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

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