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?

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

RELATED READING: Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.