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.
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.
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.
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.
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.