Brian Kelly and his squad have to be a little down after flirting with a College Football Playoff spot all November and then coming up a bit short. But earning a Fiesta Bowl bid following a season that was riddled with injuries has to be considered a success.
The Irish had some great performances and major surprises in 2015 with some disappointments mixed in as well. Here are some awards for the 2015 Notre Dame football team.
Offensive MVP: DeShone Kizer, QB
When Malik Zaire broke his ankle in the second game against Virginia, most thought the season was lost. But Kizer, who was the third-string quarterback in the spring, stepped in and the Irish didn’t miss a beat. The sophomore from Toledo ranks in the top 25 nationally in passer rating and has a 63.4 percent completion rate with a 19:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Without Kizer’s ascension, Notre Dame would not be playing on New Year’s Day.
Defensive MVP: Jaylon Smith, LB
The junior All-American led the Irish in tackles with 113, which is 48 stops more than Joe Schmidt, who is second on the team in that department. Sheldon Day had a great year and Romeo Okwara came on strong, but Smith is the best player on the Irish defense.
Best Freshman: Josh Adams, RB
In the middle of the season, Kelly said several times that he wanted to get Adams some carries to ease the burden on running back C.J. Prosise. When Prosise was injured, Adams stepped forward to carry the load. More than half (495 of 757) his rushing yards came in November when the Irish needed him to fill in for Prosise. Expect Adams to be a big part of the Fiesta Bowl game plan.
Best Play of the Season: Kizer to Fuller to Beat Virginia
With 20 seconds remaining and the Irish trailing the Cavaliers 27-26, Kizer hit Will Fuller down the left sideline and Notre Dame escaped Charlottesville with a 34-27 victory. After losing Zaire earlier in the game, the Notre Dame spirits needed a lift and the game-winning score was the perfect medicine. That one play may have changed the entire course of Notre Dame's season.
Best Performance by a Player in 2015: C.J. Prosise vs. Georgia Tech
Coming into the game, many wondered if Notre Dame would be able to stop the Yellow Jackets' rushing attack. The story ended up being Georgia Tech’s inability to contain the Irish running back. Prosise ran for 198 yards and three scores, including a then-Notre Dame Stadium record 91-yard touchdown run. It was the best game in a breakout season for the senior from Petersburg, Va.
Best Game: Season-opening Win Over Texas
The Irish destroyed the Longhorns from beginning to end in the season-opening 38-3 victory. Zaire was 19-of-22 for 313 yards and three touchdowns while the Prosise-led running game churned out 214 yards. The defense was nasty as the Irish held Texas to 163 total yards and eight first downs. The ease of victory was an indication that the Irish could have a pretty good season.
Defining Moment: Clemson Response
When Clemson stopped Notre Dame’s two-point conversion attempt, the Irish knew a big opportunity had been lost. Some Notre Dame teams of the past may have lost focus and struggled the following week against Navy. Actually, that is exactly what happened in 2014 following the difficult-to-swallow Florida State defeat. But this Irish unit played a very solid game against an eventual top 25 Navy team and then put away USC the following week to climb back into the Playoff mix. Their resiliency was proven in the way they played after the Clemson heartbreak.
Biggest Surprise: DeShone Kizer, QB
A case could be made for Prosise since he was a first-time running back after splitting time between defensive back and wide receiver during his first three years on campus. And Romeo Okwara’s development also must be noted. But Kizer was behind Everett Golson and Zaire in the spring and the reports coming out of those practices on the sophomore were not glowing. Saying that his performance was a surprise is a huge understatement.
Biggest Disappointment: The Secondary
It was supposed to be a team strength. KeiVarae Russell returned from his suspension to join fellow cornerback Cole Luke, who was more than solid in 2014. Max Redfield was expected to fulfill his five-star promise at free safety and Elijah Shumate was poised to have a big year at strong safety. But the corners regressed and we are still waiting on Redfield. Shumate had some good moments, but as a group they allowed too many big plays in both the passing and running games. The defensive front seven was outstanding for much of the year, so it is unfortunate that the back end could not do its part.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Sheldon Day, DT
The defensive tackle from Indianapolis was more than just a stalwart on the defensive line. He was the unquestioned leader of the defense, the guy that got the entire team ready to play. He was a mentor to many of the younger players, including freshman Jerry Tillery. Day’s production on the field will certainly be missed, but his departure may have an even bigger impact off the field.
Player to Watch in 2016: Alize Jones, TE
The tight end from Las Vegas was one of the jewels of the 2015 recruiting class. However, he had difficulty adapting to the college game his freshman year and has caught just 11 passes for 166 yards entering the bowl game. Look for those numbers to skyrocket in 2016 as Jones adds strength and becomes more comfortable with the offense.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Defense
The offense returns many of its playmakers and there are younger players ready to make an impact on that side of the ball. On defense, the secondary has to be fixed and replacements have to be found for Day, Schmidt, and most likely Smith, who is expected to declare for the NFL Draft.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.