Notre Dame's strength this season projects to be its offense, which is good because there are a number of defensive fronts on the 2017 slate that will significantly challenge the Irish and everyone else they play.
Three of the best defensive lines – N.C. State, Miami and Boston College – participate in the ACC while USC, never short on talent, figures to put out a quality front as well. On the flip side, the Irish have a chance to make some inroads against Michigan State in September, North Carolina in October and Navy in November.
13) Navy (DE-Jarvis Polu)
When you consider that the Midshipmen allowed 4.6 yards per carry, its rather amazing that opponents had "just" 179.9 yards rushing per game. (Offensive time of possession/ball control helped.) Navy also had just 20 sacks (No. 100). They've lost a ton of starting experience with the departure of DE-Amos Mason and NG-Patrick Forrestal. DE-Polu (53 tackles, 3 sacks) shows great promise with some size and burst, and senior DE-Tyler Sayles had two of those 20 sacks.
12) Michigan State (NT-Raequan Williams)
This was a mostly atrocious unit last year, let alone by Michigan State standards, and that was with second-round draft choice Malik McDowell (7 TfLs) and the legal baggage of DE-Demetrius Cooper. There won't be a senior up front and former walk-ons are frontrunners with three sophomores likely starting. Only Texas State and East Carolina had fewer than Michigan State's 11 sacks a year ago, which makes its 4.14-yard average per rush allowed a decent number (and a credit to the linebacker corps).
11) North Carolina (DE-Dajaun Drennon/DE-Malik Carney/DT-Aaron Crawford)
It's a good news/bad news deal up front for the Tar Heels. The good news: DE-Drennon returns after missing more than half the season with an injury. DE-Carney (47 tackles, 5½ sacks, 8½ TfLs) and DT-Crawford (42 tackles) are active. The bad news: Third-round DT-Nazair Jones (70 tackles, 9½ TfLs) is gone from the worst rush defense in the ACC (227.3 ypg/4.48 yards per carry). Also gone – retired DC Gene Chizik, which is significant.
10) Miami [Ohio] (DT-Ikeem Allen/DT-Nate Trawick)
While eight starters return on the No. 38 rush defense, two of the three missing are DEs J.T. Jones and Austin Gearing, who combined for 10½ sacks and 18½ tackles for loss. That's concerning for a defense that finished 81st in sacks (24). But the Redhawks are solid if not spectacular against the run. How the loss at end will impact a fine set of linebackers is to be determined.
9) Notre Dame (NT-Jerry Tillery)
Among the 11 defensive linemen returning in '17, none recorded a sack last season, and now the Irish must move forward without their two best up front from '16 – Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones. DT-Tillery, with a mere three tackles for loss and zero sacks last year, must ramp up his game significantly. There's promise with first-time starter DE-Jay Hayes, but he's just now emerging in his fourth year in the program. A boost is needed from senior DE-Andrew Trumbetti. The Irish really didn't find a starting three-technique in the spring. With Notre Dame's 14 sacks in '16, new DC Mike Elko needs to create some magic. Sophomore DE-Daelin Hayes may be a possessor of some of that magic.
8) Temple (DT-Michael Dogbe)
A whole bunch of firepower walked out the door with the departure of first-round draft choice DE-Haason Reddick (10½ sacks, 22½ TfLs), 2nd-team all-AAC DE-Praise Martin-Oguike (7½ sacks) and NT-Averee Robinson (7½ sacks), a trio that helped create 40 sacks (No. 14) and the No. 25 rush defense that allowed less than 3.6 yards per carry. A drop-off is inevitable, but DT-Dogbe is a good building block (43 tackles, 5 TfLs). Senior DEs Jacob Martin and Jullian Taylor step into the starting lineup.
7) Stanford (DT-Harrison Phillips)
It's rare when the Cardinal defensive line isn't considered among the nation's best, and now first-round draft choice Solomon Thomas (8 sacks, 15 TfLs) is gone as well. The three-man front still boasts a good one in the middle – DT-Phillips – who had 6½ sacks in '16. The key will be creating an impact off the edge with inexperienced ends Eric Cotton, a senior, and Dylan Jackson, a sophomore. After holding opponents to around 3.0 yards per carry the first half of the decade, Cardinal foes have averaged better than four yards per tote each of the last two seasons.
6) Wake Forest (DE-Duke Ejiofor/DE-Wendell Dunn)
Only time will tell how the loss of coordinator Mike Elko will impact the Wake Forest defense, particularly up front after totaling the 12th most sacks (41) in the country last year. The Demon Deacons return one of the premier pass rushers – DE-Ejiofor – on a unit that helped the defense finish 33rd nationally against the run. They lose virtually all of their experience at tackle, which could impact the effectiveness of Ejiofor (10½ sacks, 17 TfLs).
5) USC (DT-Rasheem Green/DE-Porter Gustin/DE-Uchenna Nwosu)
The Trojans lost a game-alterer in Utah grad transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (53 tackles) on a line that had just 8½ of the team's mid-range 26 sacks. But a ton of talent returns, led by the outside-inside punch of DE-Gustin and DT-Green. In a rarity, Gustin finished second on the team in stops (68) from an end position while collecting 5½ sacks and 13 TfLs. Green was fourth in tackles (55) from an interior defensive line position, adding an impressive six sacks. Nwosu looks to be ready to explode at the other end spot following a 53-tackle/7½-tackle-for-loss junior campaign. Keep an eye out for highly-regarded early-entry freshman nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, a likely starter.
4) Boston College (DE-Harold Landry/NT-Ray Smith)
Former Syracuse head coach Paul Pasqualoni instructs a defensive line that finished fourth in the country in sacks (47) and ninth in tackles for loss (106). One man in particular is responsible for these huge numbers – DE-Landry – who had an incomparable 16½ sacks, 22 tackles for loss, seven QBH and four PBU in '16. The only other returning starter is NT-Smith (24 tackles, 3 TfLs). There could be a drop-off with the loss of DT-Truman Gutapfel (6½ TfLs) and DE-Kevin Kavalec (51 tackles, 4½ sacks, 14½ TfLs), but Landry will require extra attention, freeing things up for junior end Zach Allen (4 sacks, 10 TfLs) and senior defensive tackle Noa Merritt. The Eagles had the No. 7 rush defense (108.5 ypg.) while allowing just 3.3 yards per carry.
3) Georgia (DT-Trenton Thompson/DE-Jonathan Ledbetter/NG-John Atkins)
Here's a unit that looks like it's ready to put it all together after snagging a middling 29 sacks and just 62 tackles for loss (105th nationally). Tackle Thompson – the Liberty Bowl MVP against TCU -- truly alters the game between the tackles, finishing third on the team in stops (56) with five sacks and seven QBH. A full year of Ledbetter (24 tackles, 5 QBH) – he was suspended the first six games of '16 -- will make a difference. A pair of sophomore 300-pounders -- David Marshall and Julian Rochester -- join senior NG-John Atkins to form one of the nation's best one-position trios. Sophomore David Marshall also was impressive as a freshman at end.
2) Miami (DT-Kendrick Norton/DT-R.J. McIntosh/DE-Chad Thomas/DE-Trent Harris)
The suspension of Al-Quadin Muhammad, a sixth-round draft choice this spring, and some injuries "limited" the Hurricanes to 37 sacks. But the Hurricanes finished eighth in the country in tackles for loss (108, 8.3 per game). On the inside, DT-Norton and DT-McIntosh combined for 86 tackles, 4½ sacks and 19½ tackles for loss, which makes it tough to run against them between the tackles. Thomas and Harris, the projected starters at end, combined for 7½ sacks. Joe Jackson had 8½ sacks as a true freshman…and he's not listed as a starter. Miami is loaded up front.
1) N.C. State (DE-Bradley Chubb/DT-B.J. Hill/DT-Justin Jones/DE-Kentavius Street)
A year ago, Irish Illustrated listed the Wolfpack defensive line as the best on the 2016 schedule. With all four starters returning and seven of the top eight, N.C. State's defensive front is the best on Notre Dame's 2017 slate. DE-Chubb (58 tackles, 10½ sacks, 7 QBH) is a terror off the edge, and DE-Street (5 ½ sacks, 14 TfLs) really should take off this season. The interior defensive line of Hill-Jones combined for 82 tackles, four sacks and 12 tackles for loss. How good is this unit? Junior DE-Darian Roseboro isn't a starter…and had seven sacks in '16. The Wolfpack were No. 8 in rush defense (108.6 ypg.) while allowing just 3.3 yards per carry.
1. USC (13 – QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR/TE 2nd, OL 2nd, DL 5th)
2. N.C. State (19 – QB 3rd, RB 8th, WR/TE 3rd, OL 4th, DL 1st)
3. Georgia (20 – QB 2nd, RB 1st, WR/TE 6th, OL 8th, DL 3rd)
4. Notre Dame (23 – QB 7th, RB 5th, WR/TE 1st, OL 1st, DL 9th)
5. Stanford (24 – QB 4th, RB 2nd, WR/TE 8th, OL 3rd, DL 7th)
6. Miami (30 – QB 10th, RB 6th, WR/TE 5th, OL 7th, DL 2nd)
7t. North Carolina (42 – QB 6th, RB 9th, WR/TE 11th, OL 5th, DL 11th)
7t. Temple (42 – QB 13th, RB 7th, WR/TE 4th, OL 10th, DL 8th)
9. Boston College (43 -- QB 12th, RB 11th, WR/TE 10th, OL 6th, DL 4th)
10t. Wake Forest (46 – QB 8th, RB 12th, WR/TE 7th, OL 13th, DL 6th)
10t. Michigan State (46 – QB 9th, RB 4th, WR/TE 12th, OL 9th, DL 12th)
12. Miami (Ohio) (49 – QB 5th, RB 13th, WR/TE 9th, OL 12th, DL 10th)
13. Navy (58 – QB 11th, RB 10th, WR/TE 13th, OL 11th, DL 13th)