Sheldon Day, John Fadule
AP

Notre Dame Football: 2015 awards banquet predictions

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Notre Dame’s football family will unite on Friday night and celebrate the 2015 season with their annual ECHOES Awards, the 95th Notre Dame football awards banquet. With a slew of recruits in South Bend on an unseasonably warm weekend, it’s a big couple of days on campus as the Irish take a brief break in their preparations for Ohio State and look back on the year that was.

Last year, Joe Schmidt was voted team MVP by his teammates, the headliner among the 15 awards given. This year, we’ll take an opportunity to make our predictions for the awards given out—going out on the rare ledge.

Below are my predictions for the annual ECHOES.

 

Scout Team Player of the Year: Offense Rob Regan

Notre Dame’s SWAG team quarterback has already been heralded plenty this season for his work prepping the Irish for both Georgia Tech and Navy. But the true freshman deserves to take home some hardware Friday night after replicating Justin Thomas and Keenan Reynolds all season.

 

Scout Team Player of the Year: Defense Connor Cavalaris

This one is a bit of a hunch, but Cavalaris fits the mold of a guy that deserves some kudos for his work over four seasons. The fifth-year cornerback has played in 30 games in his Notre Dame career, making two tackles against Alabama in the 2012 BCS title game. He’s chipped in two tackles this year but likely carries the load Monday through Friday on the practice field.

 

Newcomer of the Year: Offense — Josh Adams

The record-setting freshman averages 7.3 yards per carry and is second on the team with 757 rushing yards. He’s scored six touchdowns and provided clutch depth behind C.J. Prosise after Notre Dame got a combined three carries out of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant combined.

 

Newcomer of the Year: Defense — Jerry Tillery

This one seems like a no-brainer to me as well. Tillery went from offensive line prospect to starting defensive tackle, trading starts with Daniel Cage as the Irish defense did battle without Jarron Jones. Tillery’s statistical impact may have been limited to 12 tackles and two TFLs, but he played huge in the trenches as a true freshman.

 

Special Teams Player of the Year — Justin Yoon

This was a toss-up between Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome, but I went with Yoon just because of his ability to step onto the field as a true freshman and deliver a consistent season. Yoon gutted his way through an early-season slump and managed to make 15 of his 17 field goal attempts and 46 of his 48 extra point attempts.

 

Offensive Lineman of the Year — Ronnie Stanley

Stanley looks poised to win this award for the second time in as many seasons. Notre Dame has been spoiled by the play of their left tackles the past six seasons with Stanley filling in amazingly well for Zack Martin.

 

Irish Around the Bend — Matthias Farley

A complete guess on my part, but I just kind of assumed that one of the many hats that Farley wears is that of an active participant in the community. I’m preparing to be wrong here, but this is kind of like those Oscar pools where you’re guessing on the animated shorts. Plus the fifth-year captain just deserves an award for his awesome career and this fits with the many hats that Farley wears.

 

Moose Krause Lineman of the Year — Sheldon Day

Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman was clearly Day, with the senior leading Notre Dame in TFLs and elevating the play of all those around him. I think it’s going to be a big day for the senior captain.

 

Father Lange Iron Cross — Nick Martin

Another hunch, but this feels like a great time to award one of Notre Dame’s toughest guys and a two-time captain. Martin worked his way through another season that presented a nagging ankle injury that could have derailed him. He didn’t let it and played great football at center all season, a position with no established depth behind him. Martin will be missed.

 

Pietrosante Award — Joe Schmidt

I could easily see this going to fellow linebacker Jarrett Grace, but I’ve got him slotted for some different hardware. Schmidt’s senior season wasn’t the MVP campaign that he had in 2014, but he was still at the center of the action, leading the defense and serving as the central nerve center. His physical limitations were often exposed, but he was Notre Dame’s best middle linebacker and a player too valuable to take off the field.

 

Rockne Student-Athlete — Jarrett Grace

Corey Robinson won this last year, otherwise I’d have put him back in this slot. But Grace deserves some type of kudos after an impressive senior season, one that could see him play a lot of football in the Fiesta Bowl, against a team many in his neighborhood grew up cheering for, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

 

Tire Rack Play of the Year — DeShone Kizer to Will Fuller at Virginia

No play meant more to the Irish season that Kizer’s late-game touchdown pass to Fuller. Notre Dame escaped with a win over the Cavaliers, surviving the injury to Malik Zaire. Fuller showed his unbelievable playmaking ability and Kizer displayed the clutch skill-set he utilized so often this year.

 

Offensive Player of the Year — Will Fuller

Notre Dame’s All-American receiver makes too much sense here. One of the most dangerous players in college football, Fuller disappeared a few times this season but still managed to build on his breakout 2014 season, topping his yardage totals even with 20 less catches.

 

Defensive Player of the Year — Jaylon Smith

Another easy selection as Smith led Notre Dame in tackles and served as a dominant force every week. The junior put together back-to-back 100+ tackle seasons for the first time since Manti Te’o.

 

Next Man In Award — DeShone Kizer

Easiest selection of the show (which means I’ll end up being wrong), as Kizer exemplified what Brian Kelly’s mantra is all about, picking up the offense after Malik Zaire went down and putting together an amazing first season.

 

Most Valuable Player — Sheldon Day

While Smith did the most on the stat sheet, the heart of the defense was Sheldon Day, who served as Notre Dame’s only true weapon in the trenches. The two-time captain made the decision to come back to South Bend for his senior season and put together an incredible year, already named to a first-team All-American team. Day led by example, he lead at practice and he mentored the young defensive lineman who’ll try to fill his shoes.

Linebacker Daelin Hayes commits to Notre Dame

Daelin Hayes
Rivals
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Notre Dame landed a commitment from blue-chip prospect Daelin Hayes on Thursday, with the linebacker picking the Irish over Ohio State and Michigan State. The Michigan native is an early-enrollee candidate who at one point was committed to USC before stepping away from that decision this fall. Hayes is rated as the No. 21 player in the country by Rivals.com.

At 6-foot-3 and 254 pounds, Hayes has readymade size that could project to an edge rush position as well as linebacker. His offer list includes schools like Alabama and LSU, though he officially visited Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State before settling on the Irish.

Hayes made his commitment “in style,” paying homage to the Dark Knight in a Bleacher Report video similar to the one made by Iman Marshall and other top-flight recruits.

Outside of that flash, Hayes decision came after a long look at Notre Dame. The 5-star recruit wants to make the same kind of impact that Jaylon Smith has made in his three seasons in South Bend. Hayes credits Smith for the advice that led to him making this commitment.

While Hayes hopes to be the same type of player that Smith is, his game is a different. He’ll likely find multiple ways to be impactful, just like Smith—if he can stay healthy. Shoulder injuries have limited his time on the field, and Hayes has bounced around high schools as well, transferring to St. Bonaventure in California before returning home to the Detroit area, finishing his high school career at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor.

Brian Kelly has already taken to Twitter for his customary commitment tweet. A slew of interviews with Hayes are popping up around the web, where Hayes discusses his decision to come to Notre Dame, including an in-depth video interview with Irish 247.

Hayes makes 19 commitments in Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class. He’s set to be an early-enrollee, beginning his time in South Bend after the semester break.

Here’s a collection of highlights showing Hayes at work on the football field.

 

 

Jaylon Smith’s Butkus Award win a trend in the right direction

Jaylon Smith, Tyrone Swoopes
AP
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For the second time in four years, the best linebacker in the land is from Notre Dame. Junior Jaylon Smith won the Butkus Award yesterday, given to college football’s top linebacker. That’s the second major win for Smith in as many days, named to USA Today’s All-American first team—with the chance to follow Manti Te’o’s footsteps as both a Butkus winner and consensus All-American as well.

Smith’s win came in an interesting year for linebackers. Preseason favorites Scooby Wright and Myles Jack went down with injuries. Smith’s upside and gigantic pro potential likely won him the award over Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, who statistically had a big season as well.

Awards at the end of the year do more than put more hardware on the shelves of the Gug. They help recruit talented athletes, giving coaches someone to point to as they help blue-chip prospects imagine themselves filling Smith’s shoes. That’ll be happening this weekend, as Notre Dame hosts a group of recruits for their annual awards show, and will likely play into the recruiting decision of a dynamic defensive prospect like Daelin Hayes, who plans to announce his college choice on Thursday.

Smith’s kudos also likely silence some of the criticism of Brian VanGorder. In his two seasons playing under VanGorder, Smith’s stats exploded. Confined to the Dog linebacker position under Bob Diaco, Smith’s best work went mostly undetected, his impact felt more off the stat sheet than on it. (To be fair to Diaco, he was also a true freshman playing college football for the first time.) Shifting to the Will linebacker and moving all over the field, Smith’s play this season was his most consistent, and only a fraction of what he could do if he stuck around for a fourth season, a decision that doesn’t seem likely considering his current draft stock.

Smith is the first defender to win both the high school and collegiate version of the trophy. He’s a rare 5-star prospect who has delivered everything that was expected from him, his rapid ascent the product of opportunity, good coaching and elite skills.

With a request in to the NFL’s advisory board and a meeting with Brian Kelly still upcoming, Smith’s final game as a Notre Dame linebacker may come against Ohio State. It’s a contest that’ll mean quite a bit to him, playing a team where his brother played and matching up against All-American running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Day, Smith and Fuller earn USA Today All-American honors

North Carolina v Notre Dame
Getty
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Notre Dame’s trio of top stars earned All-American honors on Tuesday with Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith named to USA Today’s first team and Will Fuller named to the second team. The Irish trailed only Alabama (four) with three players awarded.

That Day and Smith landed first-team honors shouldn’t come as a surprise. Both had excellent seasons by any measurement. Statistically, Day led the Irish with 14.5 tackles-for-loss among his 41 tackles. Smith led Notre Dame with 113 total tackles including nine TFLs. CollegeFootballFocus also graded the duo among the nation’s most dominant players. Day currently ranks No. 2 at defensive tackle among top overall performers, Smith No. 3 among all 4-3 outside linebackers.

Fuller’s inclusion on the second-team All-American team comes after another dominant season for Notre Dame’s big-play receiver. Fuller leads Notre Dame with 13 touchdowns and 1,145 receiving yards on 56 catches. That he was able to top his yardage totals from 2014 with 20 less catches—and much more attention from the opposition—points to his dominance, a startling ability to beat a team deep even when they know it’s coming.

Stanford, Baylor, Oklahoma and Florida also had three representatives on the All-American teams.

Evaluating Notre Dame’s five early NFL Draft prospects

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Justin Thomas
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Notre Dame submitted five names to the NFL Draft advisory board, looking for feedback on juniors Will Fuller and Jaylon Smith and seniors C.J. Prosise, KeiVarae Russell and Ronnie Stanley. Brian Kelly said he’d be meeting with all five players to discuss their NFL future before any decisions are made.

“We’ll see where that goes. I hope they all come back. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case, but we’ll see,” Kelly said Sunday.

For the Irish, it appears that two prospects have bright immediate futures at the next level. Stanley, who’ll graduate at the semester but has a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, and Smith, who has started for three seasons at Notre Dame, notching 100-tackle seasons in both 2014 and 2015. Both are widely believed to be first round prospects, at or near the top of their position group heading into the evaluation season.

The other three players aren’t quite as cut and dry. For Fuller, a two-season run as one of college football’s most explosive players has been undercut by some bad drops. Prosise’s single-season greatness, not to mention his versatility as a receiver, make him an intriguing prospect at the next level, but he’s far from a readymade player at a position already devalued with talent.

Russell’s return to college football wasn’t necessarily as triumphant as many expected. Now he’ll spend the majority of his combine prep time rehabbing from a major leg injury, far from an ideal situation for a defensive back that needs to show great testing numbers to be drafted anywhere in the first three rounds.

To get an outside perspective on the decisions each of these five players have in front of them I reached out to Josh Norris. He’s the NFL Draft writer for Rotoworld and NBC Sports and took some time to breakdown each prospect.

Norris seems to be with just about everybody else who believes that both Smith and Stanley have top of the first round potential. Here’s his quick eval on Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker:

Plenty of games where [Smith] shows complete LB traits. Athletic and quick enough to work around blocks and succeed in coverage, strong enough to take on blocks and shed when necessary. Aggressive finisher. Early round 1 pick is within reach.

While some wondered if Stanley’s “struggles” during the 2015 season would impact his draft grade, it appears that he remains the same type of high-ceiling prospect that finds his way to the first round as well.

Norris believes Stanley will compete with Ole Miss’s Laremy Tunsil for the top tackle off the board, with many NFL scouts keeping a very close eye on the Fiesta Bowl battle between Stanley and Ohio State’s Joey Bosa.

I remain a big fan of Stanley’s. Sure, he was beat a few times against Clemson and sprinkled in some other “losses” against other teams, but all tackles lose. I think he offers great size, length and athleticism, which can equal power. He and Laremy Tunsil will compete for the top tackle spot.

From there, it appears that Notre Dame’s three remaining draft prospects would do their stock a favor by returning to school in 2016. For as dynamic as Fuller has been, he’s projecting as a Round 2 or 3 type player right now, per Norris.

“A team who drafts him (in 2016 or 2017) will have to understand the drops come with the big plays,” Norris explained. “Therefore, benching him or decreasing reps because of drops is pointless. It is who he is. He will atone for a mistake with a huge play.”

Prosise projects to be a similar player to another former Irish running back/receiver, the Detroit Lions’ Theo Riddick. While we all know Prosise has better breakaway speed, Riddick’s instincts as a runner and ability as a pass catcher have allowed him to find a niche at the next level. That might be what teams think they can get from Prosise, which is why Norris sees him as a fourth round-type back entering the offseason.

Lastly, KeiVarae Russell’s senior season left a lot of scouts trying to understand what to make of him. After appearing to be on a great trajectory at the end of his sophomore season, Russell allowed 14 catches on 29 downfield targets, a stat that left many thinking he was rustier than he let on. Russell may have accomplished his goal of returning to South Bend and earning his degree, but he may help his career by coming back in 2016.

“[Russell] was far from consistent. Maybe it can be chalked up to missed time in 2014, and I bet some evaluators will conclude it was,” Norris said.

Last year, Brian Kelly, Jack Swarbrick and a contingent from Notre Dame sat down with Sheldon Day and Stanley as the duo weighed NFL options. Both opted to stay after talking things through.

This year, those conversations will happen—even with Fuller, who pledged his return a few weeks back and Smith, who everybody assumes is gone. As Kelly has shown in the past, his recruiting skills have helped keep Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd. Building on the team’s 2015 success, keeping players like Fuller, Prosise and Russell could lead to a very impressive 2016.