Before moving onto our bowl coverage, Irish Eyes wraps up the 2014 season with our annual Best in Class awards.
Top Senior -- Joe SchmidtWith him, Notre Dame's defense showed grit for 7.5 games, kept points to a respectable total in all but one outing (North Carolina) and at times early, dominated.
Without him? No wins. No chance. No hope. Turns out head coach Brian Kelly wasn't kidding when he noted, "We can't take him off the field."
Of course, that was in April.
Also considered: 5th-year CB Cody Riggs. Missed similar time to Schmidt (Arizona State, Louisville, USC, and hampered vs. Northwestern). It's not a coincidence the defense couldn't function properly without either.
Top Junior -- Sheldon DayThe team's best football player prior to suffering a season-ending injury late in the loss to Northwestern. Day will enter 2015 among the nation's most undervalued defenders. His good health next fall is differentiator No. 1 between a title-contending season and another year of also-ran status.
On the flip side: Keivarae Russell. Hopeful for captain duties entering August, Russell let his teammates, staff, and program down with a previous decision to cheat, albeit as a younger student. His suspension was felt most in November when the defense lost Riggs, but could have been a major difference maker against Florida State, North Carolina, and especially in the desert on Nov. 8.
Top Sophomores -- Smith and FullerCandidates for honorable mention honors abound but Jaylon Smith was Notre Dame's best 12-game defensive competitor and Will Fuller ranked as the team's best overall offensive player. Both will be much better players next season, with Smith a potential first-team All-American and Fuller a potential leader rather than game-day "dog" as coined by teammate Everett Golson.
A disjointed effort against USC in the season-finale notwithstanding, Fuller's ascent from potential starter in August to star target throughout the 12-game slate was the most pleasant surprise for Kelly's 2014 offense.
On the flip side: Greg Bryant, or at least the usage of his skills. If Bryant struggles in pass protection, or in terms of grasping every concept necessary in Kelly's offense, perhaps the staff should have found a way to simplify it for him, at least enough to carve a weekly role.
Though the redshirt-freshman is certainly culpable in his development, Bryant is far too talented to have floundered for the bulk of his second season, especially for a five-loss team.
Top Freshman -- Andrew TrumbettiMade good on his head coach's mid-August offering that he'd already evolved into a "starter" at defensive end, splitting time throughout the season with junior Romeo Okwara opposite Rochell. (Trumbetti didn't technically start, but played nearly half the snaps and was a member of both the base and sub packages.)
Dime linebacker/safety Drue Tranquill deserves the honorable mention nod among 12 freshmen used. Ironically, Tranquill the sub package LB of nine games played far better than did Tranquill the two-game starting safety. His season ended with a torn ACL against Louisville
On the flip side: The fact that the staff had to use Jay Hayes for the final two games, thus burning his redshirt season.
Two notable truths regarding this matter:
1.) In terms of defensive line numbers, Hayes' activation to the varsity was wholly necessary for the Irish to enter both the Louisville and USC contests with a faint hope of victory. Hayes' presence was needed as an oft-used rotational player. He nearly contributed to a win against the Cardinals.
2.) The odds of Brian Kelly coaching at Notre Dame for what would have been Jay Hayes' fifth season (2018) are quite slim. Once the player was on board, there was no reason for his head coach not to be.