A to Z: Your comprehensive spring breakdown

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While the Irish were thrown a major curve ball with Michael Floyd’s arrest and indefinite suspension the weekend before spring practice was set to start, there’s plenty to be excited about as Brian Kelly kicked off the spring season for the Irish Tuesday with some opening comments.

For those of you that’ve been away from the computer since the Irish drubbed Miami in the Sun Bowl, here’s a quick A to Z breakdown of what to expect during these 15 practices that culminate with the Irish playing the 82nd Annual Blue-Gold Game live on Versus on April 16th.

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A is for Aaron Lynch. One of the crown jewels of the 2011 recruiting class has been on campus adding weight and muscle to his frame since January. We’ll finally see him in an Irish uniform on Wednesday, where we’ll find out how close he is to making an impact.

“Physically, he’s as developed as some of our juniors and seniors,” Kelly said.

B is for Bob Diaco. While some fans were wondering if he’d last his inaugural season in South Bend, Diaco put together one of the best defensive improvements in college football last season, thanks to a constant message and stressed fundamentals. He’ll have virtually all the same tools to play with this season, with a year of experience under their belts, only now he’ll coach both inside and outside linebackers.

C is for Crist, Dayne. This time last year, Irish fans (and coaches) held their breath as Crist returned to the field ahead of schedule after a major knee injury ended his season. Fast forward 12 months and the song sounds the same, with Kelly pointing to last year’s practice model as essentially the same thing going forward. One thing Irish fans have to feel good about is Crist’s development mentally, even if he’s struggled to stay healthy these last two years.

“I can sense that when I talk to him, it’s a lot more of a comfortable situation,” Kelly said. “He knows the offense, he knows what’s expected of him, he knows what to expect from me. There’s a very good communication base between him and I.”

D is for Dog linebacker. While Carlo Calabrese hasn’t solidified his job opposite Manti Te’o yet, the position opposite Darius Fleming is wide open, with Kerry Neal and Brian Smith graduating. It’s the only spot on the defense where a player with starting experience doesn’t return, and four players seem like they’re in line to battle for the job: Danny Spond, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo, and Steve Filer.

E is for Early Entries. With the rest of the 2011 recruiting class set to join their teammates this summer for informal workouts, five freshman will take the field for the first time. Joining Aaron Lynch will be kicker Kyle Brindza, defensive end turned offensive lineman Brad Carrico, Everett Golson (more on him in a second), and Ishaq Williams. Brindza will battle David Ruffer at placekicker, but probably holds the inside position for kickoffs, while he’ll also battle Ben Turk for the punting job.

F is for Filer, Steve. As we mentioned earlier in the week, the future is now for Filer. I expect the coaching staff to give him every chance to win the job at ‘Dog’ linebacker, and the Chicago native certainly has the athleticism needed to succeed. Whether Kelly meant to do it or not, Filer’s name wasn’t one of the first he mentioned for the open linebacking job, so consider the message sent.

G is for Golson, Everett. Enter Golson, the first true spread quarterback of the Brian Kelly era. The head coach has already hinted that Golson will likely see the field early, and during spring practice he and freshman Andrew Hendrix will wear both red jerseys and blue — live — jerseys.

H is for Hamstrings. Kelly also formally announced the move of former team trainer Jim Russ into a leadership role and Notre Dame’s hiring of Rob Hunt as head athletic trainer for Irish football. With that hiring, the Irish medical staff completely turned over, and used the offseason to take a comprehensive look at what seemed to cause all those balky hamstrings.

“We were able to evaluate everything,” Kelly said. “All of those areas have been addressed. It wasn’t one particular area and we feel pretty good that we’ve made very good strides in that area.”

I is for Ishaq Williams. While Darius Fleming might be entrenched at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position, expect to see Ishaq Williams running around chasing quarterbacks a lot this spring.

“Physically, he’s a gifted young man and the transition is a whole lot easier for him,” Kelly said, before hinting at some evolutionary changes the Irish might make.

Last season the Irish lined up with a three-man front 53 percent of the time, a nearly 50-50 proposition, hinting that the influx of big-time edge players like Lynch and Williams, joining guys like Prince Shembo, might be enough to push the Irish into more multiple fronts.

J is for Jackson, Bennett. As Jackson announced earlier this offseason on his Twitter page (something the staff wasn’t exactly happy about), Jackson is switching to cornerback where he’ll take his special teams prowess and apply them to the defensive side of the ball.

“We like Bennett’s speed and playing with athleticism on the defensive side of the ball gives us an opportunity to have length and speed at cornerback,” Kelly said about the new No. 2, taking over Darrin Walls’ old number.

K is for Kerry Cooks. The news has been in the works for some time, but Kerry Cooks is shifting back to coaching cornerbacks after his one-season run at outside linebackers coach. Cooks came onto the staff having never coached linebackers, and was shifted likely because Chuck Martin was already in control of the secondary. Martin’s basically like having a second defensive coordinator, and keeping Cooks working hand-and-hand with a group of corners without much margin for error is a smart decision.

L is for Louis Nix. With Kelly announcing that Sean Cwynar is out for the spring as he recovers from multiple offseason surgeries, the focus shifts to one of ND’s most highly touted redshirts. It sounds like Kelly expects some big things from an equally large  Louis Nix.

“He’s going to be a guy that when you turn on the tape, you can recognize Louis Nix,” Kelly said. “Louis just needs to continue to work on his volume and what he can handle. He’s a big fella, he’s close to 345 pounds and to carry that weight, it’s a matter of how many quality reps can he give us. We know what we can get in very short spurts, but this spring is about what he can handle in volume.”

M is for Michael Floyd. This wouldn’t be a comprehensive breakdown without including the plight of the Irish’s returning MVP and co-captain, but after being prodded two or three times, Kelly finally gave a logical explanation of what he was going through when he heard the news of his star receiver’s arrest.

“There’s a range of emotions that you have,” Kelly said. “I think it’s a lot like a parent would have — from anger to disappointment to making sure that something like that in his life never happens again. I think you go through the gamut of all those things. We want to be able to support Mike, but also understand that this was a serious, serious offense, and so I think all of those emotions play in it when you first hear about something like that.”

Kelly wouldn’t put a timetable on the suspension, nor the university decision, but at the very least, the head coach both understands that Floyd did something incredibly serious and stupid, but he also needs support as he tries to get through this tough time.

N is for Nose Guard. Cwynar’s limitations this spring almost clarify an interesting situation on the interior of the defensive line as Cwynar is the only defensive tackle on the roster not listed as a nose guard.

With Cwynar out, the Irish will see what they have in a talented group of reserves, highly touted guys like Brandon Newman, Nix, Tyler Stockton, and Hafis Williams. That foursome had plenty of recruiting stars, but so far have done next to nothing on the football field.

O is for offensive evolution. If you’re looking for Brian Kelly’s offensive contemporaries, look no farther than his guests for his coaching clinic — Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly. Neither of those coaches inherited a personnel package as polar opposite as the grouping they needed to run their preferred offense. As players become comfortable with the system and Kelly begins to bring in players to fit his scheme, look for the offensive attack to evolve.

The installation of Ed Warinner to running game coordinator is a likely first step in that process, as it was far from coincidental that the Irish’s running game helped kickstart a team badly in need of some wins. The promotion might be the product of Warinner staying put and not chasing an open offensive coordinator position at Nebraska, but it’s well deserved for a coach that’s already been one of the best coordinators at the collegiate level.

P is for Prince Shembo. Watching Shembo develop this spring will be very interesting, as the freshman spent last season almost exclusively chasing the quarterback and not worrying about much else. If he’s going to be one of the top 11 guys on the field, he’ll need to do it with some semblance of a skill-set at drop linebacker. If Shembo can make strides covering the pass instead of chasing the passer, he might make his move to the top of the OLB depth chart.

Q is for QB competition. Who would’ve thought this time last year that Dayne Crist was more of a question mark at quarterback entering the spring of 2011 than he was replacing Jimmy Clausen?

“My expectations are it’s going to be a very competitive situation at quarterback,” Kelly said, “and Dayne can include his name in that competitive battle.”

Another knee injury certainly contributed to the competition, but the impressive play of freshman Tommy Rees and the development of Andrew Hendrix helped turn a position that was a huge question mark heading into last season into a spot where the Irish already know they can win with two different guys.

“It’s going to be fun to watch,” Kelly said.

R is for Running Backs. Gone from the backfield are Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, leaving Cierre Wood as the No. 1 starter and Jonas Gray as the primary backup. While Cameron Roberson impressed last season on the scout team, it’s clear that Kelly believes it’s now or never for Gray.

“It’s pretty clear that Jonas Gray is a very integral part to our success,” Kelly said. “He is no longer that guy that tells jokes and goofs around, and you guys get the message there. But the fact of the matter is, football has got to be, outside of academics, a priority for him because he is in an absolute crucial position for us. We have to play with two tailbacks. You can’t get by with one guy. We all know that. So this is extremely important for him to show that we can count on him this spring.”

S is for Slaughter, Jamoris. This will be a huge spring for Slaughter to prove that he’s healthy after having a season essentially ruined by an ankle injury suffered in the season opening win against Purdue. When healthy, Slaughter’s a perfect defender for Bob Diaco’s defense, a strong tackling safety that has the coverage skills to play as a corner in the Cover 2.

T is for Tyler Eifert. If you’re looking for a guy that proved his worth last year, consider that heading into the season many weren’t sure if Tyler Eifert was even going to be playing on the football team, after a major back injury made it seem like his career was in doubt. But Eifert filled in for Kyle Rudolph more than valiantly, and his receiving ability brought a dimension that even Rudolph didn’t bring last season before he got hurt.

U is for Justin Utupo. While most Irish fans probably forgot about him, Utupo was listed in the conversation as a potential starter opposite Manti Te’o, who will spend the spring severely limited after having his knee cleaned up. Utupo enters the battle along side fellow redshirt Kendall Moore, who won rave reviews for his play at middle linebacker on the scout team.

Utupo’s move to the inside is a semi-surprise, as he was recruited by Charlie Weis to be a defensive end. The fact that this coaching staff thinks Utupo can play in both space and at middle linebacker means that the California native has the athleticism needed to be a run-stuffing playmaker.

V is for Victories. The only currency worth anything after an eight win season came when a four game winning streak helped people forget the frustration that came with starting 1-3. Injuries and the transition period are a long way from being understandable excuses to a fanbase not known for its patience.When asked what he wants to do differently this year, Kelly was clear:

“Win more games,” Kelly said. “I think definitely win more games.”

W is W Receiver. Gone indefinitely is one of the best W receivers in the country. Filling in for him? That’s what we’ll find out this spring, as Kelly broke down the indefinite Floyd-less plan.

“I think you’ll see Goody (John Goodman) playing a lot of the W-receiver position for us, and Danny Smith, both of those guys, will get a lot of work,” Kelly said. “Luke (Massa) will also get some work at the W position. I feel pretty good. Obviously from Goody’s standpoint, a guy that’s got a lot of football in him, can make plays and we know what he can do. Danny is kind of that unknown, big, physical, strong kid and he needs a lot of work this spring and Luke we are breaking in.”

X is for X receiver. Flipping over to the other side of the offense, the pressure ratchets up on TJ Jones as well, who got off to a blistering start before getting slowed down by some bumps and bruises. But one name Kelly put front and center was another promising recruit who has yet to made a different in his four seasons at Notre Dame: wideout Deion Walker.

“He’s had a great offseason,” Kelly said. “I’ve love the way he’s competed. He’s a changed young man in the way he goes to work every day. I questioned last year his love for the game and his commitment. He’s shown a totally different side of himself in our workouts up to this point. Quite frankly, Deion’s a guy I want to see and he’s going to get some reps and some work. We’re going to have a clear evaluation as to where he is in this program after the spring.”

That sounds an awful lot like a challenge.

Y is for Youth development. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last four or five seasons it’s that signing talented recruits is only step one of the process. Step two — and a step that’s far more important — is developing the youth your roster has.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in the entire Floyd Fiasco, or injuries to Sean Cwynar and Manti Te’o, it’s the opportunity to give young players important reps throughout the spring and get the development process jump-started.

How Kelly decides to use players like Lynch and Williams, Utupo and Moore, even Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth — first time defenders looking to crack the two-deep, will determine whether or not Notre Dame can build a consistent winner under Kelly.

Z is for Zeke Motta. Thrown into the fire last year and playing much of the season without a safety net, Motta held up incredibly well, and might have played his way into a starting job. Nobody would’ve confused Motta for a pass-first center fielder, but his cover skills improved as his knowledge of the defense and scheme continued to grow. If the Irish can keep Motta on the field for all three downs, they’ll be able to use the trio of Motta, Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter to really tighten up the passing defense.

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.