A little over half of the 2018 football season has passed, Notre Dame is headed into the bye week undefeated and ranked #4 in the nation. A lot of mid-year All-American teams have been released this week, and it would not be an awards season without the UHND submission. Don’t want to beat around the bush too much, so let’s get right into it.
MVP- Jerry Tillery
Tillery was a first team midseason All-American according to The Athletic, and 2nd team from the AP. Tillery leads the Irish in sacks with seven, is second in tackles for loss with 7.5, and first in forced fumbles with three. He’s been the anchor of a defense that is currently ranked 4th by S&P+, and took over against Stanford with a six tackle, four sack performance that ranks as one of the best from a Notre Dame defensive linemen in recent memory. If he keeps this up over the final five weeks, he will have made himself a lot of money as an NFL prospect.
Julian Love has also been outstanding, but I gave the nod to Tillery based on his huge game against Stanford.
Breakout Player- Ian Book
Book has been a revelation. He’s completely transformed the offense since taking over for Brandon Wimbush in week 4, averaging 39.5 points a game, 474 yards of offense, and 6.3 yards per play. He is currently leading the nation in completion percentage at 75%, and has accounted for 14 touchdowns in his four games as the starter. Most saw him in the preseason as a changeup from Wimbush as more of the passer to his predecessors running ability. Book has been close to the complete package, although he did have a hiccup in the first half against Pitt. He’s taken Notre Dame from a possible double digit win team to a possible playoff team. If anyone tells you they saw THIS coming, well, I just wouldn’t believe it.
Julian Okwara would be second for me just based on his last three weeks, where he morphed into a bonafide game wrecker. This is more about how well Book came in and played, he’s been outstanding.
Most Improved Player(s)- Jalen Elliott and Asmar Bilal
This two players were downright liabilities in 2017 on defense, let alone future playmakers on a top 10 defense. What we’ve seen from them so far in 2018 has been dramatic.
Bilal was 17th on the team in tackles last year with 18 and 1.5 tackles for loss. He is currently 5th in tackles this season, on pace for 69 on the year, and has tallied three tackles for loss. He’s held up much better in coverage this season, something considered to be a weakness of his, and has been disruptive at times in the running game, frequently blowing up plays on the edges and either making the tackle himself or aiding his teammates.
Just ahead of Bilal for the team lead in tackles in Elliott, who started all 13 games last season but what mostly underwhelming in coverage and as a tackler. He finished with 43 tackles in 2017, is on pace for 70 this year, has already broken up five passes this season after just two in 2017, and registered two interceptions after getting none last year.
Top Unit- Defensive Line
This group has been nothing short of elite from the start, with three players playing championship caliber football in Tillery, Okwara, and Khalid Kareem. Daelin Hayes has also been an underrated player against the run, with Ade Ogundeji, Kurt Hinish, and the Ademilola twins flashing in different moments. There is direct correlation between the defensive line putting more pressure on quarterbacks and the secondary making more plays and creating more havoc. This isn’t a secret to anyone who watches football, but it’s nice to see it come to life on the field.
They key to any winning team is a strong defensive line and Notre Dame’s is talented and it is deep. There is no greater indicator of the Irish’s playoff hopes than this unit.
Top Assistant- Clark Lea
This may seem a no-brainer, but Chip Long has really been excellent calling plays this year, people’s distaste for the Pitt game notwithstanding. The team changed quarterbacks and took off, and in the meantime he had to deal with a running unit without it’s clear best player, Dexter Williams, for four games and who’s starter in the opener against Michigan was a former receiver who had never played in a college football game before. So, he’s been really good.
But, the job Lea has done can’t be overstated. They’ve given up 20 points or less in five of the seven games, are currently ranked 4th in the nation in S&P+, and has given up just a single touchdown three times (Michigan, Ball State, Pitt). (Haha, Michigan.) He’s gone up against Don Brown of Michigan, Duane Akina of Stanford, Bud Foster of Virginia Tech, and Pat Narduzzi of Pittsburgh, and come out on top every time. Pretty good for his first coordinator gig.