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Projecting Notre Dame’s Awards Season

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Notre Dame will host its annual season-end awards banquet tonight, an occasion less vital to recruiting than it used to be — before the implementation of the Early Signing Period, a three-day stretch commencing this coming Wednesday — and more a celebration of a largely-successful season.

For the most part, the night’s awards amplify one last chance for seniors to get recognized in front of their peers. Of the 17 or so superlatives, at least 10 will likely end up with seniors. Then again, given the nature of college football, upperclassmen tend to produce the most, too.

Let’s rattle through those awards, at points noting both who should get honored and who likely will instead. All guesses are welcome, though no prize will go to the most accurate.

MVP, both deserved and projected: If this does not go to senior receiver Chase Claypool, there should not even be an awards ceremony. Then-junior quarterback Ian Book won MVP last year, but Claypool’s consistency this season should belie the natural positional pecking order.

Claypool could still crack 1,000 receiving yards this season, with 891 to date on 59 catches, adding 12 touchdowns. He repeatedly churned for extra yards, after making highlight-reel catches. How’s this for a stat — Claypool had as many tackles (5) as he did scoreless games.

Offensive Player of the Year, both deserved and projected: This could obviously go to Claypool, as well, but the different awards exist to get a few more names mentioned, and there is nothing wrong with that on a night marked for fun and laughs more than anything else. In place of Claypool, Book should walk away with this hardware.

It would be more appropriate if there were an “Offensive Play of the Year” award, because as absurd as Javon McKinley’s spinning and bouncing touchdown was against New Mexico, Book’s seven-yard draw in the final minute against Virginia Tech may have saved the Irish season.

But for thoroughness’ sake, here’s McKinley’s score once more …

Defensive Player of the Year, both deserved and projected: A bit of a trickier one, this space gives the nod to senior defensive end Khalid Kareem, finishing the season with 45 tackles, including a team-high 10 for loss with another team-high 5.5 sacks. He had nine more quarterback hurries, forced three fumbles and recovered one for a touchdown.

Kareem was as much a workhorse as a defensive lineman can be, constantly nicked up, but never missing action. He finishes his career with 13 sacks, pending the bowl game, maybe not an outlandish total but one that shows his consistent pressure throughout his career.

Impact Offensive Player of the Year, deserved: Junior tight end Cole Kmet had 482 yards and six touchdowns on 41 catches in only 10 games. If giving this designation solely by the meaning of “impact”, Kmet’s was immediate and distinct. In his return from a broken collarbone, three of the first four Irish plays at Georgia went to Kmet, gaining 33 yards on them.

“We feel like he’s a difference-maker as a player,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said following that 23-17 loss. “He kind of set the tone in the game with a physical run early on and then he got everybody feeling like this is the way we can play this game. He opens up a lot of things for us.”

Impact Offensive Player of the Year, projected: Parts of 2019 were a struggle for fifth-year receiver Chris Finke, finishing with 35 catches for 410 yards and four touchdowns. Injuries limited him more than was let on, and a safety blanket aspect of the Irish offense instead became a hit-or-miss utility. Nonetheless, his name will likely be called at some point tonight, and here would fit.

Impact Defensive Player of the Year, deserved: Statistically, perhaps fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal’s role was not all that noteworthy, finishing with 72 tackles with nine for loss and adding one fumble recovery. But his emergence, unexpected as it was even once the season began, gave Notre Dame’s defense an added set of wrinkles, ones needed for defensive coordinator Clark Lea to deploy his best 11 players at points.

It is hard to imagine now, but two games into the season the Irish coaching staff was still somewhat skeptical of giving Bilal more snaps, and understandably so. Then he flashed early against Georgia and never looked back.

“We’re really seeing some strong improvement from Bilal,” Kelly said the next day. “He played really well. He continues to emerge as somebody that we feel is not even merited getting off the field.”

Impact Defensive Player of the Year, projected: Senior safety Alohi Gilman has earned hearing his name tonight. Maybe that is sappy, maybe that is simplistic, it is still true. Due to an unexpectedly solid linebacker corps and the play of freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, Gilman’s stat line was modest — 66 tackles with three for loss including one sack and one interception, as well as two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. But when he made a play, it was noticed, which is some version of the definition of impact.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, deserved: This gets tough. The South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James has tracked 33 false starts by the line this year, which hints none of the linemen should get an honor, to be utterly blunt. If Kmet counts, then give it to him.

If not, then the options are seemingly limited to the three starters healthy all season, and among them, junior left guard Aaron Banks played the best, while sophomore center Jarrett Patterson was more reliable than may have been expected of a first-year starter.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, projected: A few awards down the list here, there is a two-way tie that is impossible to break. Giving this to fifth-year offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland helps solve the quandary, and will elicit the round of applause Ruhland has earned.

RELATED READING: Ill-advised, unexpected and needed, Trevor Ruhland fills in

Defensive Lineman of the Year, both deserved and projected: If Kareem collects the Defensive Player of the Year award, then it fits to hand this to senior end Ade Ogundeji. Expected to have a reserve role this season, a hefty one but reserve nonetheless, injuries forced Ogundeji into the fray in a leading gig. He responded with 32 tackles including six for loss with 3.5 sacks and one fumble return for a touchdown.

Ogundeji may not get the preseason hype in 2020 that senior Julian Okwara did in 2019, but brace yourself for a decent amount of it. He showed that kind of talent this fall, even moving to tackle for the regular-season finale due to more injuries.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, deserved: As much confidence as there was in Patterson exiting the spring, expectations for him were still muted by the reality of the sophomore being a first-year starter as a fresh tackle-to-center convert.

He never failed in the role. It is hard to genuinely gauge his success given the offensive line’s ebbs and flows, but Patterson should get more credit for his debut season than he has.

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, projected: Which clip of sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy should be embedded below? The 51-yard dash against USC that announced his arrival? The 70-yard touchdown reception against Navy which truly proved Book can drop a deep ball on the mark? The 61-yard touchdown rush against Boston College when he was only touched as he crossed the goal line? The 43-yard completion at Stanford that got the Irish out of dangerous territory and on their way to a decisive touchdown?

It should be the last of those, an underrated play that helped spark the rout of the Cardinal, but digging out one non-scoring reception on FOX is a big ask when that USC score is available at the relative fingertips …

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, so many candidates: At least three names deserve this moment, so as long as one of the three of them gets it, no one should cry foul.

Junior linebacker Drew White went from springtime cautionary tale (Don’t go skiing while on scholarship, kids.) to Notre Dame’s leading tackler with 75, including eight for loss and two sacks, not to mention two fumble recoveries. He played fundamentally, consistently and mistake-free. If there is a greater testament to Lea’s coaching acumen than White’s development, we have yet to see it.

Not that White was the only linebacker Lea burst onto the scene, with junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah finishing with 71 tackles, including 9.5 for loss with 2.5 sacks and four pass breakups. By season’s end, Owusu-Koramoah’s performance demanded more snaps, at the expense of Bilal and/or White, which spoke more to his development than to anything about their play.

But then there is Hamilton, a freshman with four interceptions, six breakups and 39 tackles. His rise was the least unexpected and given his (Warning: About to state a fact of life here …) two more years in the program in an increasingly starring role, let the hardware fall to White or Owusu-Koramoah.

Special Teams Player of the Year, deserved: Who else celebrates a punt coverage tackle so aggressively he momentarily injures himself? Sophomore linebacker Bo Bauer earned himself a reputation this season.

Special Teams Player of the Year, actually deserved as well as projected: Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer went from preseason concern to November reliability. He deserves significant credit for the win against USC, going 3-of-3 in that 30-27 victory.

Pietrosante Award (leadership and courage), deserved and projected: As long as this goes to either Ruhland or fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford, someone deserving has been named. Given there is a legitimate avenue to recognizing Ruhland elsewhere, as mentioned earlier, Crawford likely ends up with this bit.

If this season had ended with one or two more glamorous moments from Crawford, then the anecdote of his injury against Virginia would have found Irish lore. Having already suffered three season-ending injuries in his career, his elbow went the wrong way to end September. According to Kelly, as the training staff reached Crawford, he told them something to the effect of, “Fix it, fix my elbow, I’m walking off this field, I’m playing again.”

And he did.

“He’s one of the toughest-minded and I’ve never seen anybody — our training staff is shaking its head that he’s already out of a sling and moving his elbow,” Kelly said the following week.

Yes, the following week. Crawford’s elbow betrayed him Saturday and Kelly said such the following Thursday. Find a better display of courage on a football field.

Humble & Hungry, deserved and projected: Though without the injury history, senior defensive end Jamir Jones put the team before himself just as Ruhland did. The humility needed to give up another year of football to pick up the slack in light of injury should get Jones this earned round of applause from his teammates.

Father Lange Iron Cross (weight room), deserved and projected: Presuming this story is at all accurate, and knowing the author, it is, then this should be an easy prognostication …

Other awards:
Irish Around the Bend for community service
Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year
Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Kevin Austin, perhaps?