Five things we learned: Notre Dame 29, Pitt 26

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Make no mistake, this is a football game that Notre Dame finds a way to lose. Yet down 14 points in the fourth quarter, the No. 4 Fighting Irish kept plugging away, failing to let the litany of mistakes they made Saturday afternoon get in the way of a season that seems destined for greatness as they pulled out a stunning triple-overtime victory 29-26.

In the end, it was Notre Dame that spoiled things for the underdog. The Irish pulling out an unlikely victory. And while most Notre Dame fans felt sick to their stomach as they watched the home team commit six penalties and lose the turnover battle 3-0, Brian Kelly’s squad found a way to eke out a triple-overtime win, advancing to 9-0 for the first time since 1993.

“We made uncharacteristically some mistakes turning the football over obviously twice in the end zone,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “Last year that would have been a loss for us.  But our team kept fighting, kept playing.”

Against an undermanned Pitt team that gave the Irish their best shot, Notre Dame did just enough to escape with a win, relying on the late game heroics of Everett Golson, who ended an up-and-down battle when he plunged into the end zone on a quarterback keeper from inside the one-yard line in triple overtime. After surviving a 33-yard field goal attempt that would’ve ended the game with a Pitt victory, the Irish — and fans all across the country — can breathe a sigh of relief as Notre Dame lives to fight another day, their national championship aspirations still intact.

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 29-26 victory.

***

He’s still the ultimate loose cannon, but this is Everett Golson’s offense.

A look at the stat sheet doesn’t explain why Brian Kelly started the second half with Tommy Rees at the helm. But the Irish head coach sent a message loud and clear to his sophomore quarterback, and Everett Golson responded.

After nine games, Golson is no longer viewed as the young talent learning as he goes. He’s now the key cog to an Irish offense that desperately needs Golson to be its best play-maker and decision-maker. And in the first half, Golson wasn’t playing up to the elevated standards Kelly set for the quarterback. He missed open receivers for big gains, like a near-certain touchdown to a wide-open Troy Niklas. He put his head down and scrambled, choosing sandlot rules instead of proper reads. And he failed to capitalize in the red zone, leaving points on the board when the Irish offense was able to move the ball.

“I was a little upset just because of the competitor in me just wanted to be out there,” Golson said of the brief benching. “But I think it was good for me that I actually saw it this time. I think previously in the beginning of the year, I come out and they would end up telling me, but I think that just comes from a lot of film study with coaches.  You know, actually seeing my mistakes and kind of seeing it in the sidelines and seeing what they were doing kind of helped me come back and lead.”

Yet for all the frustrations Golson gives a coaching staff, the youngster proved that he was more than worth the trouble, coming alive late in the game and leading the Irish offense. Sure, he still makes the devastating decision — throwing an end zone pick when two other reads were open. But he also makes his share of magic happen, finding Davaris Daniels deep down field after the play broke down for a 45-yard reception. He capped that drive off with another improvisational wonder, hitting Theo Riddick dragging across the end zone for a touchdown, and then scored the game-tying two-point conversion for good measure, pulling the Irish even with just over two minutes to go.

Golson finished the night 23 of 42, throwing for 227 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He ran for 74 yards on 15 attempts, breaking a huge 27 yard run in the fourth quarter and plowing in for the game’s winning touchdown. And most importantly, he took another step forward, picking himself up off the mat and getting a victory for the Irish when a devastating loss seemed all but certain.

“He knows he didn’t play quite as well, but did when it counted,” Kelly said of Golson.  “He got a chance to go back in there and got the game ball tonight.  So it’s all a process of learning and developing and getting thicker skin, paying more attention to detail and practice.”

***

Notre Dame’s special teams almost cost them the game.

Another Saturday, another wretched performance by the Irish special teams. For a football team with a razor-thin margin of error, Notre Dame is doing itself no favors with its performance in the game’s all important third unit.

Obvious mistakes are probably the easiest to clean up, with Kyle Brindza missing a field goal as the first half expired and a low-snap lead to a pull-hook left that cost the Irish an all-important extra point. But just as costly is another game where the Irish are continually losing the battle for field position.

Pitt returns killed the Irish, with Lafayette Pitts putting together a nice day on kickoffs and Cameron Saddler showing a Notre Dame Stadium crowd that returning punts is possible, ripping off a 31-yarder to set the Panthers up nicely.

Irish specialists had a crummy day, with Brindza also failing to find the end zone on a single kickoff and punter Ben Turk not doing much to help either. Turk’s 41.4 average wasn’t bad, but with the game hanging in the balance and after the offense fighting back to tie the game, Turk barely got his foot on a punt with a minute left, sending a low roller that depended on a fortuitous roll to get 40 yards. No, it didn’t cost the Irish, but after four seasons on the job, you’d expect a veteran like Turk to be an asset not a liability.

It was no banner day for Irish return men either. George Atkinson looked timid as he tiptoed for yardage, getting drilled on the game’s opening kick to set the tone. And Davonte Neal fumbled a returnable punt late in the game while letting another kick roll 56 yards, once again flipping the field.

Brindza came up big in overtime, making a crucial field goal to extend the game. But with difference between winning and losing so slim, the Irish need to find some answers and stability on special teams, or get ready to lose a close football game.

***

Ray Graham was the first running back to expose some weakness in this Irish defense.

It didn’t take long for Notre Dame to realize that the Pitt offense wasn’t all that impressed with the Irish’s lofty defensive rankings or stout run defense. Ray Graham burst off the left side of the offensive line, sprinted by Heisman candidate Manti Te’o, and rumbled for 55-yards before cornerback KeiVarae Russell finally made the tackle.

That was far from all the damage that Graham did for the Panthers, with the senior runner going for 172 yards on 24 carries. He broke loose multiple times, as did the Panthers’ screen game, and Bob Diaco‘s unit had its toughest day at the office of 2012.

Yet when it came down to it, the Irish defense stiffened, holding Pitt to just 21 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime. And while Louis Nix didn’t start after spending two nights in the infirmary this week with the flu, the junior nose guard came up big along the front line, making four tackles from his nose guard spot and taking over the inside spot for Kona Schwenke.

Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore were both very active for the front line, with Tuitt notching six tackles and 1.5 sacks and Lewis-Moore adding 1.5 sacks of his own and three stops. And after a quiet first half where he made only one tackle, Te’o came up with a huge sack of his own and ended the game with seven stops. Add in another sack from Prince Shembo and two tackles for loss, and the Irish worked their way to five sacks and eight TFLs, rebounding nicely.

We tackled sub-par for us in terms of our defense,” Kelly said. “I know Coach Diaco would not be happy right now. But they found a way to shut them down in the second half, and that is the key. We shut them down in overtime. We took (Graham) and really were able to control him late in the game.”

The Irish showed the first cracks in their armor on Saturday, but came up big when it counted.

***

The Irish ran for 230 yards. And it still felt like they abandoned their running game.

Usually a 230 yard day on the ground means good things for the Irish. But Saturday felt like a lost opportunity for a Notre Dame rushing game that felt got lost in the mix and missed too many blocking assignments. No series of plays comes to mind more than the Pitt goal line stand, where the Irish had three shots at the end zone from two yard line, but each time Theo Riddick was stopped short, with the last two coming after Pitt defenders crashed through the Irish offensive front untouched.

Series like that — not to mention trailing by 14 points late in the game — help explain Kelly’s decision to go away from a ground attack that was still doing a nice job gaining yards. At one point in the second half, the Irish ran 19 straight plays without getting one of their talented running backs involved in the game. It helps explain Golson’s Denard Robinson-like existence, where Golson accounted for almost 75 percent of the team’s total offense in the fourth quarter and overtimes, throwing for 105 yards and running for 59, 164 of the Irish’s 223 yards.

Kelly explained the decision to lean heavily on Golson and go away from the run, crediting Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who made seven tackles for a Pitt defense that depended on a ton of man coverage.

“They were playing a lot of cover one, moving the front,” Kelly said. “As you know we were having some problems inside blocking No. 97 in particular. We just felt if we could spread him out, that would give us an opportunity to move the football down the field.”

Spreading the Panthers out meant more Riddick in pass-heavy formations for the Irish running game, relegating Cierre Wood to an after-thought for much of the second half, even though Wood once again was having a good game on limited touches. Even with a 60-yard run called back, Wood ran for 5.4 yards a carry, while Riddick once again failed to average four yards a carry.

But Kelly showed why he puts his trust in Riddick as his primary ball carrier, even if he’s a far less dynamic option. With Wood getting his number called in double-overtime, the senior back extended the ball while leaping for the goal line, and fumbled just inches short of scoring, turning himself from hero to potential goat, if Pitt kicker Kevin Harper didn’t bail him out.

Does Wood try to do too much because he’s getting less touches? Was it simply a very good play by a defender and a very risky play by a runner who knows better? Probably somewhere in the middle. But the Irish run game felt like it didn’t do as much as it could on Saturday. And that they still manage to gain 230 yards on the ground means Harry Hiestand‘s troops are being held to a higher standard.

***

You could call it the luck of the Irish. But give Notre Dame credit for pulling out a football game that seemed all but lost.

Things weren’t pretty for the Irish late in the third quarter. With freshman tight end J.P. Holtz rumbling loose through the Irish secondary, it looked like Pitt was going to put the game out of reach when Graham gave the Panthers first and goal at the Notre Dame two-yard line. But the Irish held Pitt out of the end zone, limiting them to a chip-shot field goal and a 20-6 lead. From there on, the Irish scored 14 points, sending things to overtime and eventually winning in dramatic fashion.

“Good teams do what Notre Dame did,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said after the game. “And that is win the close ones.”

The Irish won’t likely be rewarded by the pollsters for their win, but the dream undefeated season is alive. And it’s still possible thanks to some gutty efforts by some unheralded guys. Like safety Matthias Farley, who played with a cast on his hand just days after surgery in a move even Ronnie Lott would applaud.

“Matthias was operated on Tuesday, he was out cold on an operating table on Tuesday,” Kelly said of his safety now entrenched in the starting lineup after Jamoris Slaughter’s season-ending Achilles tendon injury. “They put two plates and six screws in his hand, put a cast on him, he came back and practiced Wednesday and Thursday you know, did the best he could.”

Kelly also had strong words of praise for Louis Nix, defending his player when an interviewer sounded like he questioned the validity of Nix’s illness.

“The kid was sick all week, and he busted his butt to try to help our football team today,” Kelly said. “So, you know, Louis Nix has got a lot in the bank of trust with me.  He was in the infirmary two nights, and he came out and helped our football team.”

And while Kelly wanted to steer the conversation away from any comparisons to the 2011 team that found ways to lose games like this, it was clear that the mental toughness that’s been preached about daily since December came through and helped this team rally for a season-saving victory.

“I’m proud of how passionate both our offense and defense are,” Golson said after the game. “The defense with their backs up against the wall, and Cierre fumbled, and just to have all the adversity. We had guys on the sidelines just saying, ‘Stay up.  Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re going to be good,’ and stuff like that.  I’m just proud of the character that we have.”

Character won’t help your BCS rankings or gain you points with pollsters looking for ways to differentiate undefeated teams. But it helps you win games, keeping the Irish in the conversation when it seemed they had done everything they could to play their way out of the national title hunt.

But on a Saturday that seemed all too eerily familiar to big game debacles of seasons’ past, Brian Kelly’s squad rallied to win on Saturday. That certainly counts for something.

In this case, a 9-0 record.

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL

Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

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Notre Dame will host its annual awards ceremony tonight, “Echoes.” The evening of laughs and good food serves as a coda to the regular season, always taken with a light-hearted approach. Nonetheless, the event is, in many respects, as much about the future as it is anything else. Along with a marquee game (or, this season, two) and the summer’s Irish Invasion camp, Echoes has become one of Notre Dame’s pivotal recruiting weekends.

On the surface, that latter dynamic may seem diminished this year. With the early signing period fewer than two weeks away, it would make some sense for recruits on the fence to put off a public commitment for that much longer and enjoy the subsequent luster the week leading into Christmas. Whether those high-profile recruits commit or not, they will get a look at the Irish program away from the field. There is value to that. It is not quite a normal evening on campus, but it is more like the 25 non-football weeks than it is otherwise.

As for the awards themselves, rarely is there a surprise. Consider this somewhere between a declaration of who should win and a projection of what will come.

MVP, both deserving and projected: Junior running back Josh Adams should have this locked up. No one player on the defense had a season worthy of taking attention away from the rushing attack, and the argument to be made for senior left guard Quenton Nelson will be devalued in the next entry. This may not be the conclusion the “33 Trucking” campaign envisioned, but it is the only award awaiting it.

Offensive Player of the Year, both deserving and projected: Nelson fits this to the letter. It also sets the night up well for each offensive stalwart to get some recognition. It is not that Nelson cannot win multiple awards, it just is not the usual trend of this evening — Adams deserves the MVP, though, so do not question that for a moment. Nelson was the best lineman on a great line, and he was certainly worthy of Thursday’s Outland Trophy, which instead went to Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, deserving: The entire offensive line. That may seem a cliché, but it worked as an impeccable unit this season.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, projected: If looking past Nelson, then this obviously goes to fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

Defensive Player of the Year, deserving: Junior linebacker Te’von Coney led Notre Dame with 99 tackles, including 13.0 for loss and three sacks. For four weeks stretching across October and November — the peak of the Irish season — Coney led the defense in tackles each and every Saturday.

Defensive Player of the Year, projected: Senior linebacker Drue Tranquill is far from undeserving. He finished third with 74 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, with an interception and three fumble recoveries. To some degree, this may be a career perseverance acknowledgement before Tranquill heads to the NFL Draft.

Defensive Lineman of the Year, deserving: Either defensive coordinator Mike Elko or defensive line coach Mike Elston should walk away with this. The job transforming the defensive line from a position of weakness to a source of strength cannot be lauded enough.

Defensive Lineman of the Year, projected: Junior tackle Jerry Tillery put together the best statistical year along the defensive front with 52 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks.

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3) in the 38-18 Irish victory on Sept. 23. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Play of the Year, deserving: Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford’s fumble-causing punch at Michigan State quite literally stopped the Spartans from a touchdown. There is no likely or sure or play away qualifier in that claim. Without Crawford’s heads-up play, Michigan State would have been in the end zone a blink later. Instead, he both forced and recovered the fumble. This was much more unique and heads-up than any deep touchdown pass, leaping interception or lengthy scoring run.

Play of the year, projected: Insert a long Adams touchdown run here, likely the one featuring a stiff-arm against Miami (OH).

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, deserving: Freshman right tackle Robert Hainsey was not expected to contribute this season. Even as a backup, that was likely to be in name only, with sophomore Liam Eichenberg the next man in at both tackle positions. Instead, Hainsey split time with sophomore Tommy Kraemer all season with Eichenberg becoming the in-name-only reserve.

Hainsey’s pass blocking completed the stout offensive line. Without him, as great as the unit was, it would have had a glaring hole likely exposed by Boston College’s Harold Landry, North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb and Wake Forest’s Duke Ejiofor. Hainsey handled all three ably. To be clear, that is a true freshman holding his own against the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year (Chubb), a second-team all-ACC end (Ejiofor) and a third-team all-ACC end (Landry).

Notre Dame sophomore running back Deon McIntosh was not expected to be a vital cog to the Irish offense this year, but in many respects, that is exactly what he was.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, projected: As crucial as Hainsey was, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh’s statistics earn some acknowledgement. Splitting his carries between garbage time and providing needed rest for a banged up position, McIntosh took 65 rushing attempts for 368 yards and five touchdowns, finishing the season third among Notre Dame rushers in all three categories behind only Adams and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, deserving: If Coney does not receive this nod, it is simply because it is a stretch to call him a “newcomer.” He had appeared in 24 of a possible 25 games before this season, making 75 tackles with two for loss. He was 2017’s greatest surprise and holds the most 2018 promise, finishing this year with 99 tackles, including 13.0 for loss with 3.0 sacks.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, projected: Can Crawford count as a “newcomer?” He had appeared in just two games before this year, twice stung by season-ending injuries. Finally healthy, he finished 2017 with 32 tackles, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one fumble forced (the aforementioned punch) and 1.5 sacks.

If not Crawford, then sophomore Khalid Kareem undoubtedly qualifies, and deservedly so.

Next Man In, deserving: The regular season was remarkable in its health, such that it may be hard to remember the Irish were without two defensive tackles they had expected to count on. Junior Elijah Taylor suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice and senior Daniel Cage stepped away from football to focus on recovering from concussion symptoms and knee surgery.

Without those two, finding someone, anyone, else became a priority. Freshmen Myron Tagovaiola-Amosa and Kurt Hinish filled that role with aplomb.

Next Man In, projected: Even though no Notre Dame running back was ever officially out for more than a week, McIntosh essentially served this role throughout most of the season’s fourth quarters. By then, the other backs were too banged up to offer much acceleration, and McIntosh’s spells were genuinely needed.

Special Teams Player of the Year, deserving: Can this go to senior holder Montgomery VanGorder if for no other reason than to expose more people to this video?

Special Teams Player of the Year, projected: Can’t really go wrong with junior kicker Justin Yoon, right?

Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc., deserved: If this doesn’t land in the hands of either senior linebacker Drue Tranquill or fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, it is only because their qualities are known and recognizing someone beneath the radar holds some merit.

Pietrosante Award, projected: Former walk-on and senior captain Austin Webster could arise here without shocking anyone.

Other awards:
Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Whoever wins this, it is often a precursor of things to come. If a freshman offensive lineman or receiver Jafar Armstrong wins it, immediately slot that player into springtime conversations.
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Not as many freshmen are constrained to scout team on the defensive side of the ball, so forecasting this can be more of a shot in the dark.
Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Tranquill won this a year ago. It seems reasonable the engineering major could repeat.
Father Lange Iron Cross Award for weight room presence.
Irish Around the Bend Award for community service.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

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When Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly first introduced his new coaching staff way back in January, he singled out offensive coordinator Chip Long’s penchant for finding ways to use tight ends in his play calling.

“[He] utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position,” Kelly said Jan. 30.

Technically speaking, that was even before the Irish signed two more tight ends on National Signing Day that same week, bringing the roster’s total to six before Tyler Luatau’s career ended with a medical hardship during the summer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
With Durham Smythe’s return for a fifth year, Long had at least one tight end he could trust. Senior Nic Weishar presented a security blanket if need be and junior Alizé Mack brought great hype upon his return from a season lost to academic issues. Having those three around allowed for the two freshmen, Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, to progress as the young luxuries they are.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe saved his best year for his last year at Notre Dame. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Long did use two tight ends with frequency. Smythe usually lined up attached to the line while Mack would be detached as more of a receiving threat. Occasionally, one or the other would line up in the backfield as an H-back, creating a run-pass wrinkle for the defense to diagnose at the snap.

Smythe blossomed in the role, putting together a quality final season both in blocking and in receiving. To a degree, his success serves as a lament exposed. He presumably could have offered just as much in 2016 if the offense had not essentially forgotten about the position.

Weishar also enjoyed a few moments of shine, enough so to give thought to a role — one in the mold of what Smythe fit this season — in 2018.

Mack, meanwhile, formed the mold of frustration, tantalizingly so. Long tried to include him in the offense, going Mack’s direction more than any other name thus far herein, but Mack never grasped the opportunity, that often times being a literal description of the mishaps.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The receiving stats are a bit misleading. With Mack not yet ready for a pivotal role, none of the active trio were going to join the line of recent Irish tight ends with outstanding aerial productions. Rather, Smythe contributed to the Notre Dame ground attack alongside the likes of senior left guard Quenton Nelson and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. For that matter, Mack handled his share of blocking, as well — one area his frustrations may have worked in Irish favor.

Fifth-year Durham Smythe: 13 catches for 234 yards and one touchdown.
Jr. Alizé Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown in 10 games.
Sr. Nic Weishar: Seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.
Fr. Cole Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards.
Fr. Brock Wright: No statistics, but saw action in 11 games, primarily as a blocker, sometimes in a fullback role.

Before figuring out the tight end’s role in Notre Dame’s offense next year, the Irish need to determine if current senior Nic Weishar will return for a fifth year. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

COMING QUESTIONS
Before this fall, looking at the 2018 tight ends and genuinely wondering what will come of Weishar would have seemed absurd. Indeed, such is now the case. Will Notre Dame extend Weishar a fifth-year invite? If so, will he take it, or will he look to serve as a graduate transfer somewhere else he would not need to compete with the likes of Mack, Wright and Kmet for catches?

Weishar showed reliability in the red zone, specifically, this season, and could serve as a locker room and position group leader. The odds are the Irish coaching staff hopes he returns, counting on natural attrition to figure out a scholarship crunch later on.

Ideally, Mack will not be part of that annual tradition like he was two years ago. Instead, he can provide the answer to the wondering of was his disappointing fall largely a result of rust, immaturity/youth or, well, what?

Mack has the physical talent. Combining the speed of a receiver with the size of a tight end can be a game-changing luxury, if that talent shows up ready to play. Perhaps Mack did this year and was just unlucky. A 12-game sample size could obscure that. Two seasons of it, though, would point to a larger issue.

How much more of Wright and Kmet will Long find use for? At least one will be necessary, and that is presuming both do not pass or at least pressure Weishar for playing time — and even that assumes Weishar returns. Long’s two tight end thoughts make a third tight end a necessity, always one injury away from significant playing time.

Kmet saw more chances in passing situations this season while Wright was an erstwhile blocker out of the backfield. Though both arrived at Notre Dame highly-heralded, neither had a chance to make a notable imprint, but there was good reason for that. There were three talented veterans ahead of them on the depth chart. At least one of those will be gone next season, and a full offseason in a collegiate weight room should ready the young duo even more so.

There is an offensive philosophy quandary here. On any given play, Long can fill five skill positions. Assuming a running back is involved in nearly all of those, he is down to four. If continuing with a multiple-tight end emphasis, that leaves only two spots for receivers. While the receivers may not have been an impressive grouping this season, Long could want to see three of those — namely, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool — as often as not.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends