Pregame Twelve Pack: Western Michigan edition

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We’re back for another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Western Michigan game.

1. The Irish will be wearing new uniforms this Saturday.

Thanks to some new technology from Adidas, the Irish will be donning the new TECHFIT compression jersey this Saturday.

“They’re really excited about them,” Kelly said about his players, who practiced this week in the uniforms to get used to them. “They’re 30 percent lighter. It’s a compression fit and we put them on today because there are some fitting issues relative to the pads.

“But they look great, the kids love them, and we’ll put the defense in them so we can have everybody get a feel for them. It’s a terrific product by Adidas.”

If you’re looking to get a first look at the jerseys, check out some guy carrying Dayne Crist’s jersey while reciting the fight song.

2. Game four of the Brian Kelly vs. Bill Cubit era happens Saturday.

So it may not be Frazier/Ali, but there’s quite a bit of history between the Western Michigan head coach and Kelly, a duo that’ll be squaring off for the fourth time — with Kelly coaching his third different squad against Cubit’s Broncos.

Kelly’s got the upper-hand against Cubit, winning two of three against the Broncos, including the rare feat of beating Cubit’s squad with two different teams in the same season — Central Michigan in November of 2006, and Cincinnati during their International Bowl victory over WMU in January 2007.

“Bill Cubit is an outstanding football coach,” Kelly said this week. “I know Bill very well and I know
his teams will be prepared and this will be, for them, an opportunity
that they are not going to want to come in here and not play their very
best.”

3. Mike Ragone is ready for his shot to contribute.

It’s been a winding road for the tight end from New Jersey, who finds himself in position to really contribute with the injury to Kyle Rudolph. After a trying offseason, a major health scare during preseason camp, and injuries that hobbled him in previous years, Ragone seems confident he’s ready to contribute.

But instead of quoting him here, I’ll let him speak for himself — with an accent that Mike, Pauly, Vinnie, and Snooki would even be proud of.

4. While he’s not getting carries, Theo Riddick is still contributing to the run game.

We talked about the run/pass ratio in our previous post, but the short passing game also factors into what the coaching staff considers the run game.

Dayne Crist does a good job describing the “half pass” plays in the offense.

“In the spread and this is something that I learned since I just continue
to gain knowledge of spread philosophy, you really want to work with a
five to six man box in the run game. You can get away with running with a
six man box, but it’s a little more difficult, because I mean,
obviously you’ve got five guys blocking most of the time. So it really
depends on your box counts. We normally have a player that we are
throwing off of; so if he’s playing in run support, we are throwing to
where he can’t cover. So that’s just a lot of times that you see what we
are doing with swings and just things like that. So I mean, that’s part
of the spread philosophy and how we run things, and you can say, well,
man, they are really not running the ball that much, why aren’t they
running more. Well, then you see Theo catch the ball and has a seven
yard average on catching swings, that’s basically like a great run for
us. That’s just kind of how that will develop and continue to develop.
Teams will either play one way or another, but that’s just kind of why
that run stat is a little off.”

Charlie Weis always believed that his quick throws to Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Jeff Samardzija, or any of the other receivers catching hitches operated as defacto run plays as well.

At seven yards a play, a quick swing pass is a great weapon to keep defenses honest.

5. The Irish are in need of more explosive plays.

With playmakers like Theo Riddick, TJ Jones, Mike Floyd, Armando Allen and Cierre Wood, there’s no reason why the Irish offense doesn’t make more big plays. Last week, Notre Dame won in spite of only having one explosive play, a diving 37-yard catch by TJ Jones.

Part of the problem was the Irish shooting themselves in the foot, losing two 40-plus yard plays by Floyd and some poor accuracy by Dayne Crist on seam throws have hurt the Irish as well.

Look for the Irish to force the issue this week with match-up problems and speed, trying their best to get their playmakers out in the open field as well as getting Cierre Wood some room to run the football.

If the Notre Dame offense is going to put the Irish on a roll, they’ll need to make a few big plays this Saturday.

6. The first points for Western Michigan will be their first against Notre Dame… literally.

While this is the third time the Broncos have played the Irish in football, their first points will be the first in school history against Notre Dame, one of only two opponents to never allow a point against WMU (Virginia Tech is the other).

The 1919 and 1920 Irish shut-out Western Michigan, the Irish blanking WMU 53-0 in 1919 and 41-0 in 1920. 

While I think there are plenty of reasons to be really excited about watching this game, the Broncos rate out as the Irish’s softest opponent on the season, with the Sagarin ratings putting them at No. 97 in FBS football, 11 slots ahead of Army.

There offense has been the strong point of the season, averaging 29 points a game and putting up 45 last week against Ball State, but the Irish defense should have a goal of keeping the shutout streak alive.

7. While it may not have seemed it, the Irish had their best running game against Pitt.

No one should be slapping high fives about a 2.8 yards a carry, but the Irish actually graded out as having their most efficient running game of the season.

I’ll let Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson explain:

But grading Notre Dame by land in a offense designed for the air
requires a curve. Not only do the Irish coaches go inside the numbers,
the reinvent them too.

“We were 72 or 73 percent efficient in our run game which was 20
percent higher than we’d been in any game this year in terms of what did
we need on this play,” said offensive line coach Ed Warinner. “Are we
trying to get five yards? Are we trying to get a first down? We were
real pleased with the efficiency.”

Here’s where it takes some digging to understand Warinner’s point.

Notre Dame faced five second or third down plays against Pittsburgh
needing one yard to move the chains. The Irish picked those up on the
ground all five times, gains of one, two, three, four and five yards.
That’s five carries for 15 yards, a modest three-yard average nobody
inside the Guglielmino Center will complain about.

Three times the Irish picked up six yards or more on 1st-and-10 runs,
meaning the offense stayed ahead of schedule. That doesn’t include Dayne
Crist’s 10-yard touchdown run on 2nd-and-goal that doesn’t need next
level explanation.

I don’t feel like making excuses for a ground game that’s still rounding into form, but I think this is a very interesting way to look at how the coaching staff views the run attack. It’s a complementary piece of the offensive puzzle.

8. Commitment? Not a commitment? Recruiting doesn’t end until Signing Day for Kelly.

Earlier in the week, Irish fans received a bit of a jolt when they found out offensive tackle recruit Jordan Prestwood reopened his recruitment, bringing back into play home-state schools Florida and Florida State.

While Urban Meyer’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons this week, it seems proximity to home is an issue with Prestwood, who committed to the Irish way back in April.

Under Charlie Weis, the coaching staff adopted a firm stance on commitments and visits, taking a “if you’re looking, we’re looking” stance. Under Kelly, the Irish aren’t going to stop recruiting until Signing Day.

“”The reality of it today is, there is so much scrutiny
relative to the kids in the recruiting process. I’ve told our staff,
unless I see a letter of intent, you need to keep recruiting them,” Kelly said.

“Certainly we would all like to say the value of a person’s word is a
bond, but there are so many shifting and moving pieces out there that
I’m not tripping over that. Would I like somebody to be that guy that
says, that’s my word and it’s a bond and we’re not going to break it?
Certainly. Because we’re not going to do it on our end. So I’ve told our
staff, gotta keep recruiting. It’s the University of Notre Dame.
Nobody’s going to give it to you for free.”

From the sounds of it, Prestwood is still considering the Irish, with his high school coach, Wayne Ward telling the South Bend Tribune, “(Notre Dame) is a golden opportunity. But at the same time he is a
kid,” Ward said. “I don’t really think he thought things through before
he made that decision.”

Good news for Irish fans: Tony Alford is on the case.

9. Kyle Rudolph is set for surgery on Friday.

After discussing his options with his family, tight end Kyle Rudolph is staying local with his hamstring surgery, choosing Dr. Brian Ratigan of the sports medicine program to operate on his detached hamstring.

“Dr. Ratigan will be doing the surgery,” Kelly said. “So he’ll stay within the sports medicine program here at Notre Dame. We will get it done here.”

The decision for Rudolph to talk with the media was a good one and showed how good a kid the star tight end is. Even though he was surprised about the devestating prognosis, he’s kept a good attitude.

“We went in with a positive mindset with the MRI,” Rudolph said earlier this week when he met with the media. “We were expecting to get good results and go get an ultrasound and take a week off and go from there To come back and get that news was a little shocking.”

Rudolph is in the hands of someone that knows first hand what it’s like to play college football under the Golden Dome, with Ratigan playing linebacker for Lou Holtz from 1987-1990, before moving on to the NFL. 

Ratigan is truly an amazing story, one of the most impressive Notre Dame graduates you’ll ever read about and an alum that truly gives back to the school. No doubt, Kyle picked the right doctor for the job.

10. Dever sitting for second straight week, Romine and Nuss to fill his shoes.

Taylor Dever is going to spend another week getting healthy, one of the benefits of finally taking a step back from six consecutive BCS opponents. And thanks to the good play by Zack Martin at right tackle and senior Matt Romine filling in for him, there shouldn’t be much of a step back in play.

“Taylor, I would say right now will probably be a backup on Saturday,” Kelly said. “Matt and Andrew have handled that position well. We’re going to stick
with them and make sure Taylor is 100 percent. I think he would be
afforded to us if we needed him. But right now we’ll move with the plan
we had last week.”

One of the great benefits of playing Kelly’s offensive system is the fact that positions like offensive tackle are more interchangeable. Under Weis, there was so much stress on the left tackle position that great defensive ends could neutralize the offense, like Pitt did last year to tackles Paul Duncan (and to a lesser extent Sam Young). You could only imagine what would’ve happened if Duncan or Young went down.

Give credit to offensive line coach Ed Warinner for cross-training versatile players like Andrew Nuss, who should get significant snaps at tackle to help speed the development process.

11. Luke Schmidt and Dan Wenger see first hand the dangers of concussions.

Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune did a great job on his article about concussions, as he followed the decision process for center Dan Wenger, who has to decide if an application for a sixth year makes sense, in light of the lingering brain injuries he suffered this year with two concussions in the first month of practice.

Lesar caught up with Wenger’s classmate Luke Schmidt, the former Gatorade State Player of the Year in Indiana who was forced to walk away from football after three concussion by his junior year that ended his career involuntarily.

“It was very tough,” Wenger told the Tribune. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. There were no maybes for me. I knew it was over. At least Dan’s got a chance.”

After listening to Wenger, it’s clear that he’s not sure what choice he’s going to make, but he’s glad that he’s still got the chance to play the game.

“I’m not ready to be a coach yet,” Wenger said. “Do I wanna be a coach? Yeah, but not just yet. I’m 22, I still want to play. I love this game. Practice, lifting, games — it’s a different feeling.

“Be patient, get healthy, then make a decision. Think with a clear mind. You’re emotions run wild with this thing. It’s up and down. One day, you’re thinking about hanging in up. One day, you’re thinking about ‘Hey, I can do this. I can still play.’ It’s looking at the overall picture. But then again, you’ve worked so hard for what you love, what you love to do.”

It’s great to see Schmidt making the most of his Notre Dame degree, working as a credit analyst at a bank in Greensburg, Indiana, 50 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

12. Gary Gray just got reckless.

In one of my favorite stories of the week, Gary Gray has officially joined Team Reckless — an unofficial weightlifting/condition/bizarro group consisting of Mike and Jake Golic, Dayne Crist, Braxston Cave and Kyle Rudolph.

In one of the funnier things I’ve read in a while, the crew covering sports for the Observer got an absolutely priceless interview with Gray, detailing the process of joining such an illustrious team.

Observer: You are currently vying for a spot on Team Reckless. What made you decide to attempt to join?

Gary Gray: Dayne had said a long time ago that I should join, but we never got around to it. We’re trying to set that up.

Observer: Is it a very selective process?

Gray: I’m not ever sure what the process is. We’ll see in the next couple of days what I have to do.

Observer: How reckless do you think you’ll have to be?

Gray: I think I’m pretty reckless. So I don’t think I’ll have to be too much more reckless than I already am. I think I’ll fit right in.

Observer: Would it be an honor to be the first member of the Notre Dame defense on Team Reckless?

Gray: Yeah, it’d be a great honor, first defensive player. It’d be nice.

Consider this my standing ovation to the Observer staff for an absolutely terrific interview with Gary Gray. You can see the actual copy here.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame avoids silliness of postseason

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Bowl season can beget silly season, a month of idle time leading to far too many conversations about April’s draft, roster decisions, unlikely offensive wrinkles and so forth. In that respect, Notre Dame making the College Football Playoff diminishes those concerns. With so much at stake, there is no chance the Irish have to worry about any players sitting out the bowl game to declare for the NFL draft earlier than early.

West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, for example, has opted to miss the Camping World Bowl to prep for the draft process. A first- or second-round pick, Grier’s decision has merit, and it is one undoubtedly somewhat inspired by the injury to former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith three years ago.

“My situation has affected college football forever,” Smith recently told Sports Illustrated. “I’m going in the history books.”

Judging Grier or Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary, a possible top-10 pick, is an exercise in ego for anyone who has not been in those shoes. Rather, simply accept it as a fact of life in 2018.

The Irish do still need to put up with the agents and natural wonderings inherent to the NFL draft being within sight on the football calendar. Notre Dame tries to ready the pertinent players for that process for months so as to lessen the load now.

“We lay out a timetable where we don’t get into distractions,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “We’ve had some success with players that have had to answer these kinds of questions of when you deal with the agent and how you deal with it. We take the time in spring to sit down with all of our guys and talk through a timetable of how to handle it and how we will help them with it.

“They’re in no stressful situation as we prepare right now. Their parents can handle any decisions for them relative to representation. We will handle evaluations for them and inquiries. They know that we will put them in the best position moving forward, so they can focus on what’s most important.”

Those evaluations will help inform the decisions of five players in particular — presumably those requests were on the behalf of receiver Chase Claypool, cornerback Julian Love and ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem with a fifth included, as well — while the coaching staff balances those expected results and the returns of a few current seniors with the pending haul in next week’s early signing period.

Kelly said 10 incoming freshmen will enroll early among 21 current commitments. Just like last offseason, there will be subsequent roster math, but that can wait until those national letters of intent have arrived signed and sealed.

Opponents’ bowl dates, times, spreads, etc.
With Navy’s 17-10 loss to Army on Saturday, so ends the regular season. Now eight Notre Dame foes ready for seven bowl games, listed in chronological order:

Wake Forest vs. Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 22 at 12 ET as a 5-point underdog with a combined point total over/under of 73.5.
Vanderbilt vs. Baylor in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27 at 9 ET as 3.5-point favorites with an over/under of 55.
Syracuse vs. Grier-less West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28 at 5:15 ET as a 1.5-point underdog with an over/under of 68.5.
Michigan vs. Florida in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 29 at 12 ET as a 7.5-point favorite with an over/under of 51.
Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati in the Military Bowl on Dec. 31 at 12 ET as a 5-point underdog with an over/under of 53.5.
Stanford vs. Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 at 2 ET as a 6.5-point favorite with an over/under of 52.
Northwestern vs. Utah in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 31 at 7 ET as a 7-point underdog with an over/under of 45.

What is going to be remembered as the most memorable moment of the 2018 season? 2012 had the goal line stand and the triple-overtime Pittsburgh game. — @cmupensfan

This question has percolated in my mind for two weeks, and I have yet to land on an answer. Dexter Williams’ 97-yard touchdown at Virginia Tech? Jalen Elliott’s pass breakup against Vanderbilt? Maybe that moment has yet to arrive?

If 2018 will be remembered for any singular item, it will be the quarterback change three weeks into the season. Kelly made a gutsy move, and it paid off better than could ever have been hoped.

What stat of the season (aside from the W-L record) are you most surprised/shocked by? — @TheBookofChaz

Again, no ready answer presented itself, but in combing through the season book, two did stand out. They never became season storylines like Ian Book’s historic completion percentage or Williams’ undeniable success once he got on the field.

Did you realize Notre Dame gave up only seven passing touchdowns this year? Let’s give context to that number: Last year the Irish gave up 12 scores through the air, including two to LSU. In 2016? Twice as many as this season. And in 2012? A total of 11, with four coming against Alabama.

In other words, this defense has played as well against passing attacks as 2012’s did.

Secondly, a season like this can be skewed by the slightest of things. In a game with a misshapen ball, that is often forgotten, and it is worth remembering that when realizing Notre Dame lost only three fumbles this season, having laid the ball on the ground eight times.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
The ‘Notre Dame can do this, right?’ Mailbag
A statistical comparison: The Best Notre Dame offense of the decade
A statistical comparison: How much better is Notre Dame’s defense than last year’s?
Kelly wins Coach of the Year honor; Love, Mustipher up for positional awards
Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes awards
Notre Dame names Ian Book as MVP

OUTSIDE READING
Notre Dame and Clemson’s redemption stories clash
Notre Dame unveils ‘Rush 4 Gold’ uniform for Playoff
Drue Tranquill named 2018 Wuerffel Trophy winner
Let’s talk Clemson ($)
The moment Alohi Gilman knew Notre Dame was the right choice
Jaylon Smith on skipping bowl games
Injured Duke DT Cerenord gets extra year from NCAA
Mike Gundy reimburses better who lost money on Oklahoma State win total

Notre Dame names Ian Book as MVP

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Notre Dame gave out more postseason awards, or Echoes, than may have been expected Friday night, a direct reflection of how the Irish got to 12-0. One could easily argue more than the 20 players honored deserved such. That is a result of depth, depth which has pushed Notre Dame into the College Football Playoff, but depth that may not have been enough if not for Monogram Club MVP Ian Book.

Even if this space yesterday argued that honor should go to fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill — who won his third consecutive Student-Athlete of the Year Award — Book was certainly worthy. Stepping in as the starting quarterback in week four and leading the way to eight victories while setting multiple program passing records is deserving of recognition, a nod the wisdom of the crowds apparently agrees with.

The quarterback Book replaced, Brandon Wimbush, was named the Next Man In of the Year, a testament to how well the senior handled becoming the first man out as much as it was a reminder of how crucial his performance was against Florida State when a ribs injury sidelined Book.

Many of the rest of the awards were correctly projected Friday, but to remind of those and acknowledge the rest …

Offensive Player of the Year: Senior receiver Miles Boykin, as expected.
Defensive Player of the Year: Senior linebacker Te’von Coney, also as expected.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Junior safety Alohi Gilman, still sticking with the standard script.
Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Dexter Williams needed to take him an Echo of some variety, even if this required a loosening of the definition of newcomer to include the senior running back.

Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, perhaps the most obvious result of the evening.
Defensive Lineman of the Year: Senior tackle Jerry Tillery in what was hopefully a toss-up between him and junior end Julian Okwara.

Defensive Impact Player of the Year: A coin flip made easier by recognizing Okwara here, understandably so.
Offensive Impact Player of the Year: To complete the requisite offensive mentions, junior receiver Chase Claypool, who finished second to Boykin in all receiving categories with 48 catches for 631 yards and four touchdowns.

Defensive Back of the Year: Memory does not think this is an annual award, but if it was created simply to be sure junior cornerback Julian Love got a moment on stage, that is understandable. This may have been Love’s last go-round, and the All-American earned every accolade coming his way.
Walk-On Player Union Award: Senior receiver Chris Finke hasn’t been a walk-on for two years, so this may need an emeritus addendum.

Special Teams Player of the Year Award: This may simply come with setting the Notre Dame career points record — senior kicker Justin Yoon.
Pietrosante Award, for leadership, teamwork, etc.: When fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome was voted a captain by the vast majority of the roster, that spoke volumes about his locker room presence.

Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Sophomore running back Mick Assaf.
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Freshman linebacker Ovie Oghoufo.
Father Lange Iron Cross Award for weight room presence: Fifth-year left tackle Alex Bars, which speaks to how involved Bars has remained since tearing his ACL in week five.

Humble & Hungry Award: Fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner.
Irish Around the Bend Award for community service: Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar.

Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes awards

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Notre Dame has not yet dug into bowl preparations. That will begin this weekend. Before then, the unbeaten Irish will spend Friday night handing out some awards to accompany junior cornerback Julian Love’s first-team All-American honors on this postseason’s first notable listing, the Walter Camp team.

Notre Dame generally does a good job of getting the Echoes awards to the deserving players, but sometimes a want to avoid a repeat or some other factor skews the distribution. Let’s try to balance projecting the awards with acknowledging who deserves them.

MVP, both deserving and projected: It is hard to justify giving this to anyone who played in only eight games when fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill somehow played in all 12. The two-time captain put together a solid stat line, one deserving of recognition but maybe not MVP-worthy in its own right: 75 tackles with nine for loss including 3.5 sacks, plus three pass breakups and a fumble recovery.

But consider his value: Just like was the case with senior Te’von Coney, the Irish needed Tranquill to take as many snaps as possible; there just were not many other viable linebacker options. And Tranquill answered that bell, despite a broken hand, despite a high ankle sprain, despite logging more than 700 snaps.

“Drue is as tough as they get,” Love said Sunday. “… We were preparing for Northwestern, and Drue kind of was getting reps, but we were still trying to figure out if he was 100 percent. I don’t know when it was, I’m lining up, getting a call and I look over at who’s relaying the call to me, and it’s Drue. The whole game it was Drue.

“… That’s just kind of the mindset that Drue has and how he’s kind of shaped the mindset of this team, that we’re in it together. He’s not out there for himself, but for the betterment of this team. That’s why he came back for his fifth year, because he realized how special this was as a unit. No individual is better than the next, and Drue epitomizes that.”

It was at this ceremony a year ago when Tranquill announced, unprompted, he would return for one more season. That bit of good news washed out the taste of a two-loss November and was the first step toward an active 13-game winning streak.

Senior running back Dexter Williams blew through Florida State’s defense for 202 yards and two touchdowns on just 20 carries during Notre Dame’s 42-13 victory. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Offensive Player of the Year, deserved: In only eight games, senior Dexter Williams ran for 941 yards and 12 touchdowns. No running back had ever run for that many scores in Brian Kelly’s previous eight years at Notre Dame. Williams took his first carry 45 yards for a score against Stanford. It is overlooked now, but at the time, that was early in a scoreless game against the No. 7 team in the country. When Williams broke through the line, he changed every dynamic of the entire Irish season.

Offensive Player of the Year, projected: As good as Williams has been, senior receiver Miles Boykin may pull in some accolade simply to recognize how well he played in potentially his final collegiate season. He caught 54 passes for 803 yards and eight touchdowns, including a stretch of six consecutive games with a score. Boykin handled the part of leading Notre Dame’s passing attack, no matter who was throwing him the ball. In two of the biggest games of the year, he totaled 19 receptions for 261 yards and three scores against Stanford and Virginia Tech. Boykin’s 2018 was good enough to justify handing him this award as recognition for career improvement.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, deserved and projected: There is no question and there need be no discussion. On a line that gave up only 19 sacks this season, the lion’s share of the credit goes to fifth-year center Sam Mustipher. Simple as that.

Defensive Player of the Year, deserved: As the season progressed, the Irish need for a third cornerback exposed itself more and more. Virginia Tech relished the weakness; USC exposed it with ease. Imagine how much worse things could have been if Notre Dame did not have two reliable cornerbacks to start with, namely Love, the All-American. He finished with 61 tackles with three for loss and, more importantly, 15 pass breakups, three fumble recoveries and one interception. Love was the best single player on this shutdown defense, one who made it easier for defensive coordinator Clark Lea to compensate for that one deficiency.

Defensive Player of the Year, projected: Not that Coney does not deserve the honor. Anyone making 107 tackles in 12 games earns whatever comes their way.

How good was Julian Okwara’s 2018? He might have reason to jump to the NFL this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Defensive Lineman of the Year, deserved: Good grief Julian Okwara was good this season, finishing with 37 tackles, 11.5 behind the line of scrimmage with seven sacks, not to mention an interception, a pass breakup and a forced fumble. He might as well have lived in the backfield in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh, sniffing out the Panthers’ upset hopes on his own. In the span of one season, Okwara went from backup to someone who needs to ponder heading to the NFL with eligibility remaining.

Defensive Lineman of the Year, projected: Okwara is not in All-American consideration, but senior tackle Jerry Tillery is, thanks to 30 tackles with 10.5 for loss including eight sacks and three forced fumbles. There was a time when interior depth seemed a commodity the Irish could claim, but then sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa broke his foot in the season opener and fifth-year Jonathan Bonner’s time needed to be split with sophomore Kurt Hinish. Tillery needed to carry a workload, and he did so.

Play of the Year, deserved: Notre Dame may have still won, but Vanderbilt was one completion away from a 1st-and-10 within 20 yards of a winning score with only a minute to go. The Commodores may not have scored, but they never got the chance thanks to junior safety Jalen Elliott breaking up that pass for Kalija Lipscomb. If looking back at this season and its closest call, Elliott saved it.

Play of the Year, projected: A one-point halftime lead quickly became an eight-point cushion en route to a 45-23 victory. Backs against their own goal line, the Irish nearly immediately reached the opposite end zone. Yes, this will almost certainly go to Williams’ 97-yard jaunt at Virginia Tech.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, deserved and projected: Does junior quarterback Ian Book count as a newcomer? If so, this thought process need not continue any further. Three halves of football before this year should not rule him out, and it gets Book a nod during the night.

Junior safety Alohi Gilman deftly punched the ball loose from Trojans receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown just as USC was nearing a two-possession lead in the regular season finale. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, deserved and projected: This is even easier. Only Coney had more tackles than junior safety Alohi Gilman’s 76. Only Elliott had more interceptions than Gilman’s two. Only Tillery forced more fumbles than his two. Gilman drove the defense in his first season on the field since transferring from Navy.

Next Man In, deserved and projected: For the second year in a row, Notre Dame enjoyed relative health. Only two starters went down with long-term injuries, senior nickel back Shaun Crawford in August and fifth-year left guard Alex Bars only five games in. The former injury led to the only defensive concern all season, but losing Bars was eventually mitigated by solid play from sophomore Aaron Banks. The offensive line has still been inconsistent, but Banks made things manageable, and really, are there any other options in this category?

Special Teams Player of the Year, deserved and projected: Fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome owned the field position worry against Michigan, booming six punts with two landing inside the 20. He averaged 59.6 yards per punt two weeks later against Vanderbilt, highlighted by a 63-yarder to not only pin the ‘Dores at the 10-yard line in the waning seconds but also to drain enough clock to warrant the adjective waning.

Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc., deserved and projected: It could have been a very different season if senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not taken his demotion with maturity, calm and understanding. Wimbush never balked from his new role, and that kept the Irish locker room united, unlike a couple seasons ago. Tranquill deserves the MVP honors, Williams changed Notre Dame’s offensive capabilities, and Book has played at a record-setting pace — Wimbush’s contributions were not as stark, but they were as vital.

Other awards:
Irish Around the Bend Award for community service: Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar has already been named the captain of the AFCA Good Works Team. It seems a solid bet that is a national precursor to a more-focused honor.
Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Maybe freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec. Maybe receiver Braden Lenzy. Maybe tight end Tommy Tremble.
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Could it be freshman safety Derrik Allen? Linebacker Ovie Oghoufo? Cornerback Noah Boykin?
Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year.
Father Lange Iron Cross Award for weight room presence.

Kelly wins Coach of the Year honor; Love, Mustipher up for positional awards

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Brian Kelly has already beaten Dabo Swinney once this month, winning the Home Depot Coach of the Year Award over the Clemson head coach. Kelly will receive the award tonight during ESPN’s Home Depot College Football Awards (7 ET).

Losing two top-10 draft picks, a defensive coordinator and an esteemed offensive line coach, then losing a third offensive lineman and possible All-American to a season-ending injury, all while navigating a quarterback change en route to an unbeaten season certainly warrants some postseason honors. Swinney himself referenced Kelly as the coach of the year Sunday afternoon. The Notre Dame head coach deferred that praise right back to his Dec. 29 opponent.

“Dabo is good at deflecting that. I think Dabo should get it,” Kelly said. “There’s so many candidates. Coach (Bill) Clark at UAB, there’s a program that for two years was not playing football two years ago. So there’s a lot of deserving candidates.

“I didn’t get into this business to get coach of the year, so that’s great that [Swinney] said that. I think he’s done an incredible job. I think (Alabama head coach) Nick Saban has done an incredible job.”

Kelly has won the honor three times (2012, 2009), the only coach to win it multiple times.

He may not be the only Irish name winning honors tonight. Junior cornerback Julian Love is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award recognizing the country’s best defensive back. Love beat Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker and LSU cornerback Greedy Williams in a fan vote, getting him at least that added tally as ballots were counted.

Initially, Love wanted no part of that fan vote, but certain voices in his ear prevailed.

“It kind of was uncomfortable for me at first to really openly campaign for votes, for the fan vote aspect,” Love said. “It was definitely weird, and it was my mom calling me, and my girlfriend telling me, ‘Why not go all out? You’re in it for a reason. Why not do all that you can, text everybody that you can to see if people can spread the word?’”

Thus, Love took to social media and pulled in nearly 100,000 votes.

Fifth-year center Sam Mustipher is a finalist for the Rimington Trophy given to the nation’s best center, along with Alabama’s Ross Pierschbarcher and North Carolina State’s Garrett Bradbury, while fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill has already been named the Wuerffel Trophy winner for his work on and off the field.