It’s understandable that many feel there should be no awards given out to a 4-8 team, but as someone who took part in a 2-8 season as a high school football player I remember we put on ties, ate some pretty darn good prime rib, and trophies were distributed. So in that spirit, if I can eat some prime rib for my awful football team then I can hand out some fake awards for Notre Dame Football 2016. And really, there were some performances worth celebrating and once we’ve all gotten over the shock and dismay of the season, we’ll likely see some light at the end of the tunnel. So, in honor the Notre Dame banquet being held this weekend, I figured UHND should give out some awards of our own.
Equanimeous St. Brown, Sophomore Wide Receiver
This one is a bit of a no-brainer, pound for pound he was probably the brightest spot on the Notre Dame team for the entire year because he encapsulated everything that you want from a break out player: He played well in all of the big games (against Texas, MSU, Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech and USC he had 31 catches for 454 yards and five touchdowns), he was consistent, he lived up to his recruiting ranking, and most importantly he has to come back next year because the rules say so.
Normally, I’d say something like “where would the team have been without him?”, but when you go 4-8 that’s not really the thing that you say. But, seriously, where would they have been? The only reason the offense could be taken seriously at all is because St. Brown lived up to his hype at wideout.
It’s probably a good idea to stay out of the predictions game, at least until we bring in the new year and Bruce Feldman writes an April article projecting him as a first team all-american, but if you let your imagination run wild, a 6-5 receiver with the athleticism and pedigree that he possesses, he could do some things. And if for some reason DeShone Kizer decides to return next year, I may not be able to restrain myself.
Jarron Jones- Miami- 7 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 1 sack
The shame about a 4-8 season is any performance like what Jarron Jones turned out against the Hurricanes is glossed over because who cares about an individual game when the overall product pretty much stinks? This award is pretty much in honor of the 2003 Julius Jones season, where the guy ran for 262 yards on the road against Pittsburgh yet it’s pretty much a forgotten season because of the 5-7 record.
Jarron Jones dominated the Hurricanes from the start registering two tackles for loss on the first series, a pass broken up and then a sack on the next series. It was reminiscent of the 2013 Stephon Tuitt USC game where he just decided USC wasn’t going to score touchdowns or even get a first down in the second half. Of course, eventually Miami figured out the Notre Dame defense because, you know, 2016, but that shouldn’t take away from the effort Jones gave on that day.
Rookie Of The Year
Julian Love, Defensive Back
This one was actually difficult, with the choice being between Love and receiver Kevin Stepherson. A reasonable case can be made that Stepherson had more of an impact, scoring five touchdowns and making the Pac 12 defensive player of the year (Adoree Jackson) look a little silly in the season finale.
Honestly, I’m not even sure I’m making the right choice here. I think I give extra credit to Love for being the type of player that Notre Dame doesn’t really have and that is someone who carries the title of what people call a “baller”. The young man just knows how to play the game. This is probably why he dabbled in the slot against Texas, played corner after Shaun Crawford–the other baller on this defense–went down with his achilles injury, and then played a game at free safety against Army.
Those who have paid close attention will note that in this defense, guys just don’t move from position to position like that; they have a hard enough time focusing on and learning just the one spot. But, in his lone start at safety Love earned three tackles, a tackle for loss, and brought in an interception at the goal line. It is that versatility in a difficult defense to learn that gave him the nod in this spot.
Offensive Player Of The Year
DeShone Kizer, Quarterback
Another no-brainer here, Kizer had himself an up and down year, but clearly the best overall player on the offense on a game to game basis. Whatever Notre Dame was on offense, Kizer was the driving force. For the most part Kizer had up and down games as well as an up and down season. At times he looked down right unstoppable.
It’s telling that his best game was by far the opener against Texas when he was forced to share time and engineered five regulation touchdown drives and gave the Irish another 10 points in two over times. His throws to Torii Hunter Jr on the controversial non-targeting call, and the wheel route to Josh Adams to give Notre Dame their first lead were sublime and the types of plays that could propel him to being a first round pick in the 2017 draft.
In all, Kizer finished with 3,400 yards of total offense and 34 touchdowns, which is more than good enough to be named the teams top offensive player.
Defensive Player Of The Year
James Onwualu, Linebacker
A well earned bit of recognition for the senior captain linebacker who played the best ball of his career in his last opportunity to do so. He finished the season third on the team with 77 tackles, led the team in tackles for loss with 11.5, and was second in sacks with three. And really, his most meaningful contributions can’t really be counted on the stat sheet when you consider the jump this defense made from week 4 to week 12.
As was noted in my column that ran earlier this week, after week 4 this defense was 103rd in the nation in total defense; by the end of the season, they had risen all the way to #45 after being ranked 15th in October and 36th in November. That doesn’t happen without leaders who in the face of adversity, embarrassment, and a fan base that largely gave up on them, continuing to strive for excellence and demanding the same from their teammates. Onwualu and Isaac Rochell were widely credited with keeping the locker room together during the time when Notre Dame could have seriously been non-competitive down the stretch against some talented teams.
James Onwualu deserved better this year and hopefully whatever lessons were learned from him by the underclassmen will pay dividends for the 2017 defense.