It’s officially awards season in college football as everyone’s All-American teams come rolling in and various individual awards being given out around the country, with several Notre Dame players representing the school with their stellar play throughout the season. Linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive lineman Sheldon Day were named to the USA Today All-American first team, while receiver Will Fuller was named to the second team of the same publication. Apparently, having one of the most efficient run games in all of football and being perhaps the best left tackle in college football wasn’t enough for Ronnie Stanley to make the list, but he was recently named the Polynesian Player of the Year, which probably means a lot more to him anyway. To round out the honors this week, Jaylon Smith was awarded the Butkus Trophy, which goes to the nation’s best linebacker, in the least surprising development since adding bacon to donuts turned out to be delicious.
With the Notre Dame banquet on deck for this Friday, there will be plenty of columns written about the MVP’s for each unit, team MVP, offensive and defensive MVP’s etc. I’d like to give out some awards that you won’t see given out at the banquet, but were vitally important to Notre Dame’s success in 2015.
Most Improved Unit: Special Teams
Since the dawn of time, Notre Dame fans have complained about Brian Kelly’s poor special teams and pointed to it as a sign that he wasn’t a big time coach. Special teams play was rarely talked about during the season, mostly because the offense was so good and the defense was at times so bad, so those two units generally dominated the headlines. But, in 2015 the special teams was pretty darn special. They accounted for four touchdowns scored–two via punt and kickoff returns, one via a blocked punt, and finally a fake field goal touchdown, which will one day be a trivia question answer to how DeShone Kizer threw his first touchdown pass. They also yielded no touchdowns via special teams, and suffered no blocked kicks. Freshman kicker Justin Yoon was everything that Brian Kelly said he would be; he finished 5th in the nation converting 88.2% of his field goals, and was perfect in the months of October and November. Punter Tyler Newsome finished 25th in punting average, as well as having several punts downed inside the 20. And finally, in a sure sign of a well coached unit, Notre Dame snuffed out two fake punts on the season, one against UMass and one against Boston College. It makes sense that Kelly’s deepest and most talented team also had the best special teams during his era.
The Senior Bump Award: Romeo Okwara
Given to the player who saw the biggest jump in play during his senior season, Okwara went from a player who many thought would never become a serious factor, to being the Notre Dame sack leader with nine. His sack total put him at 19th in the nation and only a half sack behind defensive end stand out from Clemson, Shaq Lawson. Okwara also finished with 13.5 tackles for loss, only one behind first team All-American Sheldon Day. He also had one of the more physically impressive plays on the Notre Dame season, executing a flying sack of Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford.
The Star Who People Don’t Know is a Star Award: Mike McGlinchey
Ronnie Stanley is Notre Dame’s best offensive lineman, but McGlinchey might have had the best season of the entire unit. Coming into the year with one career start, in 375 pass blocking attempts this season, McGlinchey gave up just a single sack, two quarterback hurries and two quarterback hits, for a team leading 98.7% pass blocking percentage. It’s tough for McGlinchey to get a ton of notoriety when most of the line focus is on Stanley and linemate Nick Martin, the lone captain of the Notre Dame offense, but his stellar play opposite of Stanley helped Notre Dame to one of the best running games in the country and gave quarterback DeShone Kizer extra time to find receiver Will Fuller on deep routes. His matchup with Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa will be one the best subplots of the upcoming Fiesta Bowl with the Buckeyes.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Keith Gilmore
It’s tough not to give the nod to one of the offensive coaches like Mike Sanford, Autry Denson, or Harry Heistand, but the job Gilmore did in his first season at Notre Dame was nothing short of outstanding. When you consider that the defensive line was the biggest question mark coming into the season from a talent standpoint–and this was before losing Jarron Jones to injury– and that Gilmore is responsible for four different positions, gives him the nod here. Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochelle, and Romeo Okwara all enjoyed the best season of their careers, Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage filled in admirably for Jones throughout the season, and this unit helped tally the most tackles for loss of the Brian Kelly era, which includes the stellar 2012 defense. What was supposed to be the weakest unit of the 2015 defense turned out to be the strongest and full credit goes to Gilmore for that.
Most Outstanding Performance: DeShone Kizer vs. Temple
Kizer accounted for all three of Notre Dame’s touchdowns on Halloween in Philadelphia as well as tallying 442 total yards in the biggest game in the history of Temple football. Kizer was not without error on this game–he did throw two interceptions in the red zone–but he scored on a four yard touchdown run on Notre Dame’s first possession, then immediately answered Temple taking the lead in the second quarter with a 78 yard touchdown scamper to quiet the sellout crowd. In a game where the #18 ranked Temple defense was intent on taking away running back CJ Prosise and receiver Will Fuller, Kizer had to shoulder the load to keep the Notre Dame playoff hopes alive. He came through on the game clinching drive, going 3-3 for 75 yards and the 17 yard winning throw to Fuller. It was a big time performance in a prime time game that enhanced his reputation as a late game, clutch quarterback.
Most Outstanding Play: DeShone Kizer to Will Fuller (Virginia)
In a season where big plays were the norm, this was a tough category to select. There were two 90+ yard runs by two different players, multiple 70+ yard passes to Will Fuller, and kickoff and punt return touchdowns. But, none of those plays were bigger and more well executed by all those involved than the Kizer pass to Will Fuller to defeat Virginia in the second game of the season. It wasn’t just the throw, it wasn’t just the catch, it was also the blocking by the line, and the blitz pickup by Prosise. It was Kizer filling in for Malik Zaire, who had just broken his ankle in brutal fashion, with a promising season on the brink of disaster. If this play isn’t made and Notre Dame goes on to lose, who knows where Notre Dame is sitting right now, but it almost certainly isn’t playing in the Fiesta Bowl as the #8 team in the nation. It was Brian Kelly’s motto “Culture beats Scheme” played out on the biggest stage. The backup quarterback, with a blitz pickup from the backup running back, finds the star receiver to win with 20 seconds left. In a season where backup players continually made play after play, this one was the best.