You don’t get to 12-0 with star players alone. In fact Notre Dame did it without any real superstars but a deep roster from top to bottom with a lot of star quality players. Along the way though, any team needs its role players to make a difference to complete a perfect regular season as well. Today we’ll take a look at 8 unsung heros that played a huge role in the Irish making their first College Football Playoff appearance thanks to their undefeated regular season.
It is about time that we always stop referring to Chris Finke as a former walkon because at this point he is an accomplished college wide receiver who would be a scholarship player at almost every program in the country. Case in point, take Notre Dame’s opponent in the Cotton Bowl and their own former walkon wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. Here’s a stat comparison between the two in 2018.
- Hunter Renfrow – 43 receptions, 472 yards, 1 TD
- Chris Finke – 47 receptions, 547 yards, 2 TD
Renfrow just won the Burlsworth Award as college football’s most outstanding player who started his career as walkon. Finke outperformed Renfrow in almost every statistical category this year at Notre Dame’s third option most weeks. Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin both had more yards, receptions, and touchdowns than Finke, but Finke came up huge when Notre Dame needed him.
Finke’s 43 yard touchdown against Michigan helped set the tone for Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory. Then in the season finale Finke was one of the few bright spots for the Irish in the first half against USC. He led the Irish with 7 receptions for 83 yards and his second touchdown. He might have only had two touchdowns of the season but they both were huge.
There was not a more improved player on the Notre Dame roster in 2018 than Jalen Elliott. In 2017 the safety position was a liability for Notre Dame. In 2018, it started to become a weapon thanks to Elliott and former Navy transfer Alohi Gilman. The Irish didn’t get a single interception from the position a year ago but it only took until week two for Elliott to record one and it took less than a game for him to get his second with a two INT performance against Ball State.
Elliott added another two interceptions throughout the season – one against Navy and another on Syracuse’s first drive of the game in the Shamrock Series in Yankee Stadium. Elliott was much improved against the run as well in 2018 and will head into 2019 with the arrow trending up for him. Everyone, myself included, assumed that one of the youngster would unseat Elliott but he has made a remarkable turnaround.
When Alex Bars was lost to an injury in the Stanford game, Notre Dame turned to a lineup that featured Tommy Kraemer and Trevor Ruhland at the guard positions. After a few weeks though, the Irish needed to shake things up as the line struggled to find much consistency. Coming out of their bye week, Brian Kelly and Jeff Quinn inserted sophomore Aaron Banks into the lineup.
Since being inserted into the lineup Banks has started to come into his own and has helped solidify the Notre Dame offensive line. It is still not to the level that it was at in 2017 when the Irish won the Joe Moore Award, but the line is trending in the right direction. They will have their toughest test of the season against Clemson, but inserting Banks into the lineup in October will have Notre Dame in the best position possible to handle the challenge.
Trevor Ruhland could easily be listed here as well since he has been a Swiss Army knife on the offensive line for Notre Dame this season.
One area of the Chip Long offense that has not quite fully come into view for Notre Dame just yet is the tight end position truly being a weapon. Long utilized the tight ends more effectively at Memphis than we’ve seen at Notre Dame thus far for a variety of reasons. While we haven’t seen the tight end position rack up receptions and yards, Nic Weishar has made some sneaky good big plays for the Irish this year.
Weishar only had three total receptions this year, but two of them went for touchdowns. In week three Weishar hauled in a touchdown pass from Ian Book when Book came in near the goalline for Brandon Wimbush. Two weeks later Weishar caught another touchdown pass from Book against Stanford. He was a solid blocker for the Irish throughout the season as well even though it went largely unnoticed.
It seems odd to list the quarterback who started the season as QB1 for the Irish as an unsung hero for the season, but the way Wimbush handled his benching to Book in week four qualifies him. Wimbush had every reason to pout and sulk when he was sent to the sideline, but he didn’t. He was the consummate teammate and did everything he could to help his team week in and week out. All the while he and Book continued to not only get along but be friends.
Sure enough, Wimbush had his number called again after Book suffered a rib injury against Northwestern. Wimbush led the Irish to a victory on Senior Day against Florida State with three touchdowns passing while running for 68 yards on the ground. It remains to be seen if Wimbush will return in some capacity next year, but without Wimbush, Notre Dame is not 12-0 this season.
Notre Dame’s defense line has been one of its strengths this year but against Virginia Tech, the Irish were dangerously thin on the edge. Daelin Hayes was out with an injury and Julian Okwara sat out the second half after a targeting penalty right before half time. Jamir Jones who was a linebacker in spring but moved to the DROP was called upon and he answered the call. He wasn’t needed much the rest of the season, but when he was needed to rose to the occasion.
A couple other defensive ends could be listed here as well. Ade Ogundeji and Justin Ademilola didn’t get the headlines of Okwara, Hayes, or Khalid Kareem but they also helped give Notre Dame the kind of rotation that allowed them to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
We saw some immediate results from the makeover that the Notre Dame strength and conditioning underwent under Matt Balis in 2017, but everyone knew that too much work needed to be done that a total transformation would take more than one season. Notre Dame was not strong in November in 2017 so they made one of their goals for this year to win November. That is where Matt Balis comes in.
When Notre Dame completed their perfect regular season with their season finale victory over USC, the game ball went to Matt Balis because the Irish would not be 12-0 this year without the work that Balis got this team to do not this off-season, but the last two off-seasons since he took over the strength & conditioning program. Notre Dame played four of its last 5 games away from Notre Dame Stadium. They don’t do that if Balis doesn’t do the job he did.
While we are talking about members of the coaching staff who don’t get enough attention, how about the efforts of Tom, don’t call me Tommy Rees. Not only did Rees get Ian Book ready to start against Wake Forest and prepared each week after the entire off-season was focused on preparing Wimbush, but he also helped keep the quarterback room together. He had great material to work with both in terms of raw talent and attitudes but Rees also kept that room together all season long.
Last year at this time Rees wasn’t even a full fledged member of the staff. That didn’t happen until the NCAA approved the 10th assistant coach position. In a short time though Rees has become a valuable member of the Notre Dame coaching staff and could be a rising star in the coaching ranks.