1 – Awards Rewards: It’s both fitting and telling that Irish head coach Brian Kelly was able to reward each of his key players at the “Echoes” Award this season. In no particular order Will Fuller, Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, C.J. Prosise, DeShone Kizer, Chris Brown, Joe Schmidt, Matthias Farley, and Sheldon Day would be the first 10 players named by any Irish fan or follower asked to recount the 2015 season.
To ensure each of the above received a post-season honor, Prosise won “Next Man In” and Kizer took home the “Newcomer of the Year” award, but let’s be real: in the history of the phrase, “Next Man In” who better defined it than Kizer over the last three months?
2 – One Man In: Has there been a more talent-laden pending quarterback competition than what awaits Kizer, Malik Zaire, and future star Brandon Wimbush this spring? Unless the latter is otherworldly in March and April, you can expect Wimbush to take a back seat (and it is to be hoped, a redshirt season) for 2016, but the Kizer/Zaire duel ranks as the most compelling of the off-season – anywhere.
In terms of talent and ability, only Rick Mirer vs. Jake Kelchner (transferred and later guided West Virginia to an 11-1 record) in 1990, and Tony Rice vs. Kent Graham (transferred to Ohio State; played in the NFL for 12 seasons thereafter) in 1987 seem apt comparisons over the last 30 seasons.
3 – Best of Kelly’s Best: Stephon Tuitt 2012 or Louis Nix 2012 or Sheldon Day 2015. Discuss…
4 – Two Other Guys: Jaylon Smith, Joey Bosa, Ronnie Stanley, Ezekiel Elliott, Taylor Decker, Michael Thomas, Will Fuller, Sheldon Day, Vonn Bell, C.J. Prosise, Braxston Miller, Nick Vannett, Pat Elflein (OSU G), Darron Lee, Nick Martin, Joshua Perry, Eli Apple (OSU CB), Isaac Rochell…and sans KeiVarae Russell (injury), Adolphus Washington (umm, judgment?), Jarron Jones (injury as a hinderance), and Cardale Jones (the bench).
That’s a lot of NFL-ready talent on one field. In fact, it’s the most you’ll see in any bowl game this season including the first round of the playoffs and perhaps, the championship.
But quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and DeShone Kizer – two competitors not yet on that list – will play larger, singular roles than any of the above.
5 – A Who’s Who: You could make a reasoned argument (and I’m about to) that Ohio State possesses one of the two best players Notre Dame will have faced this season at QB, OT, OG, RB, WR, DE, OLB, S, and CB.
Fortunately for Irish fans, Ohio State will face arguably the best QB, WR, RB, OT, C, LB, and DT it has seen, plus an additional top five DL (Rochell).
6 – Gains and Losses: The following ranked as my Top 10 Irish at season’s end, one year ago: Day, Fuller, Smith, Folston, Rochell, Luke, Schmidt, Stanley, Everett Golson and Cody Riggs. Relevance? The first eight were sure to return for 2015, as were all six of my honorable mention selections (J. Jones, Corey Robinson, Prosise, Martin, Brown, Elmer.)
Now look at the same list for 2015 heading into 2016: Smith, Fuller, Day, Stanley, Martin, Rochell, Prosise, Kizer, Okwara, and Brown with honorable mention going to KeiVarae Russell, Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Cole Luke, Josh Adams, Torii Hunter, Tyler Newsome and Elijah Shumate.
The Irish clearly have an impressive collection of developed talent to replace entering ’16.
7 – Best Football Game of the Kelly Era: Considering quality of play, the game’s tenor, and dramatic events: Stanford 2012, Florida State 2014, Stanford 2015. Discuss…
8 – Do You Realize That… Had the Irish beaten Clemson on Oct. 3, Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard field goal on Nov. 28 would have supplanted David Gordon’s 41-yard knuckler in 1993 as the most painful play in Notre Dame Football history?
At least you were spared of that.
9 – Undervalued: Considering the following (subjective) grades:
-- Rookie Punter Tyler Newsome: A
-- True freshman place-kicker Justin Yoon: A
-- True freshman punt returner C.J. Sanders: B
-- True freshman kick returner C.J. Sanders: A- (fumble lost at Clemson hurt)
-- Punt return defense: A
-- Kickoff return defense: B minus/C+ (it had been an unqualified F the previous two seasons)
-- Three fumbles forced; two recovered
-- Plus: a blocked punt TD vs. USC
-- A fake field goal touchdown in a game won by 7 points (@ UVA), and…
-- Successful recoveries of four of five onside kicks against and successful defensive stops of both fake punts against…
After a six season hiatus (pre-dating Kelly), Special Teams has returned as a strength South Bend.