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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.

Leftovers & Links: Brandon Wimbush heads to Central Florida for his final season

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Former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush will continue his career at Central Florida. Wimbush announced his graduate transfer destination Tuesday morning.

“The journey continues on …,” Wimbush wrote on Instagram. “A sincere thank you to Notre Dame for giving me endless opportunities on and off the field. Words truly can not (sic) describe what this incredible University and the PEOPLE mean to me and always will mean to me. I’m truly thankful. Cannot say it enough.

“With that being said, I am excited to announce that UCF has granted me an awesome opportunity to play my last year of collegiate football for their great University.”

Wimbush will enter into a starting opportunity, although an unfortunate one and a competitive one. The late November horrendous knee injury to three-year starter McKenzie Milton will almost-assuredly sideline him through the 2019 season. If not for the injury, Milton would either be starting 2019 for the Knights or headed to the NFL.

In his first year of any action, sophomore Darriel Mack played in 10 games for Central Florida, completing 51 of his 100 pass attempts for 619 yards and three touchdowns, including going 35-of-71 for 526 yards and three scores in the two-plus games Milton missed.

In other words, Mack put up Wimbush-esque numbers, despite Heupel’s high-scoring offense.

Wimbush finishes his Irish career with a 13-3 record as a starter, including four wins during 2018’s unbeaten regular season. After the Notre Dame offense failed to break 24 points in the first three games of the season, offensive coordinator Chip Long turned to Ian Book for a spark, one Book provided and then some.

Wimbush’s role became non-existent after that, aside from a Senior Day start in place of an injured Book, throwing for 130 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 68 yards.

RELATED READING: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

In the lead-up to the Cotton Bowl, word broke Wimbush would seek a graduate transfer, confirming what had long been obvious. It had been so clear, it did not faze anyone within the Irish locker room.

Mustipher and Co. will now have reason to keep an eye on the Knights in 2019. After going 25-1 in the last two seasons, Central Florida will want to keep the momentum rolling, particularly with Stanford arriving in Orlando on Sept. 14, a week before the Knights head to Pittsburgh. The Knights genuinely entering the College Football Playoff conversation remains unlikely, but topping those two before rolling through the American Athletic Conference would at least start the discussion, especially if a former Irish quarterback headlines the way.

A consensus three-star prospect out of Virginia, Mack held offers from eastern schools in the Big Ten (Maryland), Big 12 (West Virginia) and ACC (Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh).

Named 2018’s Next Man In, Wimbush finishes his Irish career with 2,606 yards on 193-of-382 passing with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions along with 1,155 rushing yards and 16 additional touchdowns.

AS FOR NOTRE DAME’S QB IN 2019 …
Early Heisman odds came from an online sportsbook Tuesday, betonline.ag. Irish rising senior Ian Book was given 16-to-1 odds, tied for ninth on the listing. Given the names ahead of him, Book’s realistic chances of winning the Heisman Trophy are slim. Only Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa have odds lower than 12-to-1, at 7-to-2 and 4-to-1, respectively.

Then come two Notre Dame opponents — Georgia running back D’Andre Swift and quarterback Jake Fromm, both at 12-to-1. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson checks in at 25-to-1, just ahead of Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello at 33-to-1.

If nothing else, Book can count on some early-season hype if the Irish top Swift and Fromm on Sept. 21.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Even the ‘way-too-early’ 2019 polls already respect Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart entering the 2019 offseason
Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame
Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019
Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

OUTSIDE READING
Brandon Wimbush and UCF are a promising match for a pivotal 2019
The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season
2019 NFL draft underclassmen tracker: Who has declared?
Stanford’s Bryce Love ‘on the path to recovery’ from torn ACL
College football’s 100 best games 2018-19

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett