Award Season: Irish Illustrated’s Staff Picks

With Notre Dame’s awards show set for this evening, Irish Illustrated hands out our staff picks for MVP, Biggest Surprise, Most Improved, Story of the Year and more.

Most Outstanding Player
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Jaylon Smith
You’d like your best player to take the players with him for the ride, but that’s not Smith’s fault as much as it is the scheme’s. The fact is there’s no more physically-gifted player on the Irish roster than this one-of-a-kind, all-time Irish defender. 
– Tim Prister

Jaylon Smith
There’s not a metric I have that doesn’t designate Smith as the defense’s top player – and that includes the eye test. Without Smith, Notre Dame would have been heavily compromised defensively against every foe with the exception of Texas and UMass. The only argument against him is that the offense was easily the better side of scrimmage.
– Tim O’Malley

Jaylon Smith
Let’s not overthink this. He’s the nation’s top linebacker. He’s Notre Dame’s best player by a wide margin. And his success was inevitable in any scheme at any school. He could have been a good safety, receiver or running back. Instead, he’s the most athletic linebacker in school history. Hope you enjoyed him. I did.
– Pete Sampson

Most Valuable Player
USA Today Sports Images

DeShone Kizer (offense)
From third-string QB in the spring with little hope to the most consistently clutch player on the squad, particularly with the game on the line on the road. One of the all-time clutch seasons at Notre Dame, leading the Irish to a New Year’s Six Bowl and near playoff bid.
– Tim Prister

Sheldon Day (defense)
While the back seven of the defense generally was hit-and-miss, there was one consistent force up front, and that was Day, who always held the point of attack and almost always made penetration/plays when the Irish needed it the most. The true backbone of the Irish defense.
– Tim Prister

Will Fuller
Made everyone better around him, and that includes both the running game and his rookie quarterback. Had a direct impact in wins over Virginia, USC, Temple, and Pittsburgh and starred against Texas, Georgia Tech, and Stanford. A more focused week-to-week approach marks the remaining next step toward greatness.
– Tim O’Malley

The Offensive Line
Notre Dame’s success started with this group that should ultimately prove to have five NFL talents. It’s not a coincidence the Irish offense rushed for 299 yards yards on Stanford with a backup quarterback and fourth-string running back. That’s the most a David Shaw defense has ever allowed.
– Pete Sampson

Biggest Surprise
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Romeo Okwara
Of course, it’s Kizer, but since he snags the offensive M.V.P. vote, the choice is Romeo Okwara, who became a true force, which most thought would never surface. Over the last half of the 2015 season, he became the pass rush threat the Irish needed from the edge as well as a vastly-improved point-of-attack run stopper.
– Tim Prister

DeShone Kizer
He’s a candidate for Team MVP and perhaps the most effective and productive running quarterback (non-option division) in program history. Won two games in the final minutes with clutch drives and that number would total an astounding four with any luck. He guided the Irish to within two snaps of an undefeated season. Eradicated an obvious (not to mention stated) early-season weakness in his delivery. Wait, why isn’t he my MVP again?   
– Tim O’Malley

DeShone Kizer
Consider the fact Notre Dame played just five road games this year and Kizer almost led fourth quarter comebacks in four of them. He pulled it off at Virginia and Temple, falling short at Stanford because of the defense and coming up short at Clemson after a couple two-point conversion calls went bad. That’s an incredible “freshman” season for a quarterback who was supposed to be third-string at best this season.
– Pete Sampson
                       

Most Improved
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Tyler Newsome
Kyle Brindza’s relentless desire to succeed as both kicker and punter had something to do with it. So, too, did Newsome’s “unique” personality, which gave Brian Kelly pause to use Newsome as a true freshman. Newsome was a true weapon for the Irish as a punter and kickoff man in ‘15. Of his 49 punts, 18 (36.7 percent) were 50 yards or longer, and only seven went for touchbacks. None of the 18 punts returned against Notre Dame was longer than 18 yards. When the Irish desperately needed to swing the field position, Newsome was up for the task.
– Tim Prister

C.J. Prosise
Considered both Romeo Okwara and Nick Martin but Prosise developed from an inconsistent slot receiver that seemed like he might be able to help at running back into a top tier collegiate runner prior to injuries taking their collective toll. What he lacked in between-the-tackles consistency Prosise made up for with a whopping 51 gains of 10 yards or greater (almost 1/3 of his carries). He’s the best homerun hitter at the program since Julius Jones in 2003; perhaps Reggie Brooks in 1992.
– Tim O’Malley

Romeo Okwara
Okwara was just a body on the defensive line the past three seasons and developed into a real player for the Irish as a senior. Playing off Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell, the defensive end brought pressure in one-on-one situations to give the Irish a decent pass rush when Notre Dame didn’t really have one. It’s a shame Notre Dame doesn’t have him for a fifth year considering needs at the position.
– Pete Sampson

Assistant Coach of the Year
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Mike Sanford
Keith Gilmore gets credit for bringing out the best in Romeo Okwara. Autry Denson deserves plaudits for developing C.J. Prosise as well as Josh Adams into six-yard-per-carry running backs. But when a quarterback goes from third-string in the spring to one of the great clutch performers with the game on the line, the vote goes to quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford for his work with DeShone Kizer.
–Tim Prister

Mike Sanford
Remember when Everett Golson was sacked 28 times? Remember when it was more likely he’d fumble a snap under center than execute it? Remember what the read-option running game used to look like? Remember the 22 turnovers? Remember that DeShone Kizer was a third-string rookie with no chance at competing as recently as mid-April 2015? Enter Sanford and the following production by Irish QBs: 23 passing TD, 9 picks, more than 3,000 yards passing, more than 600 rushing with a program record-tying nine rushing scores…and but one fumble lost at the position.
– Tim O’Malley

Autry Denson
You could make an argument for Scott Booker’s work on special teams or Mike Sanford with DeShone Kizer, but Denson was forced to go even deeper on the depth chart with C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams. Remember when Notre Dame’s running back future was supposed to be Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant? Instead, he got a 1,000-yard season out of Prosise and a 7.3-yards per carry mark from Adams.             
­­– Pete Sampson

Best Interview
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

DeShone Kizer
The easy choice is Joe Schmidt. But he’s had two years in the spotlight to get it down, and he’s a ham with a camera turned on. For learning on the fly how to handle the media while providing intelligent, thoughtful interesting feedback, DeShone Kizer — a red-shirt freshman — is as good as it gets. 
–Tim Prister

Matthias Farley
Specific to the afternoon he found out he was named captain and the raw emotion he showed dedicating the honor to his older brother, Nathan. Joked Farley that day through tears: “I found out, I called him and told him. I talked to my mom after that….and then I came here to all of you (media).”
– Tim O’Malley

Joe Schmidt
A lifetime achievement award for Schmidt, perhaps the only player I’ve covered who was disappointed when he did not have media responsibilities. Even better off camera/recorder when Schmidt got that this whole thing doesn’t need to be so darn serious.
– Pete Sampson

Story of the Year
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Completely inexperienced quarterback who looked like his days at Notre Dame were numbered in the spring emerges as a veteran presence in the huddle and in the final four minutes of the most significant games. 
– Tim Prister

A few candidates: the evolution of Kizer…the big-play capability of the Irish offense…resiliency in the wake of injuries…the refreshing, stated goal of playoffs-or-bust post Clemson…a defense that handed out 75-yard touchdown drives as if they were tips at the door in Vegas…Showtime! (just kidding). I’ll go with Kizer: a rookie quarterback that took the Irish to the precipice of the college football playoffs.
– Tim O’Malley

Year Of The Injury: Ultimately Notre Dame’s “Next Man In” mantra ran out of juice, but it’s amazing the Irish kept their playoff hopes alive until the final gun of the final game considering a dozen players went down with serious injuries. Credit the recruiting staff to amassing depth and credit the coaching staff for developing it.
– Pete Sampson


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