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Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2016 Team Awards

Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly

At 4-8, Notre Dame won’t be up for any team awards this season unless it’s of the most disappointing variety. But the Fighting Irish did play 12 games and certain performances will stick out to those faithful fans that endured the ugly 2016 season.

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Offensive MVP: DeShone Kizer, QB

It was a season that Kizer would probably like to forget, starting with the quarterback shuffle at Texas and continuing with the criticism from his head coach after the Duke game and his benching for much of second half against Stanford. But the junior was still the offense’s best player, throwing for 2,925 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He is projected to be a high pick in the next spring’s NFL Draft and most wonder if we have seen the end of Kizer at Notre Dame.

Defensive MVP: James Onwualu, LB

The senior from St. Paul, Minn., was hardly the most talented player on the Notre Dame defense this fall. But he was the smartest Irish defender and played with passion despite loss after loss. Onwualu led the team with 11.5 tackles for lost yardage, was third on the team in tackles, and tied for second with three sacks. On a unit with few stars, Onwualu was the most impactful.

Best Freshman: Kevin Stepherson, WR

Defensive backs Devin Studstill, Julian Love and Donte Vaughn also merited consideration, but Stepherson is the choice after becoming a big-play threat in his first season in South Bend. The Florida native averaged 18.2 yards on his 25 receptions and had five touchdown catches. As he gains strength and develops confidence, Stepherson could become a go-to receiver for the Irish.

Best Play of the Season: Kizer to Equanimeous St. Brown on the First Series of the Year

Notre Dame received the opening kickoff of the season opener against Texas and drove right down the field. Tarean Folston set the Irish up with a 54-yard run and the series was finished off when Kizer connected with St. Brown on a back-shoulder fade in the end zone. After that, very little went right for the Irish all year.

Best Performance By a Player in 2016: Jarron Jones vs. Miami

In a year when the defense struggled, the senior defensive tackle’s play against the Hurricanes was the best individual performance of the season. Jones lived in the Miami backfield that day, registering six tackles for lost yardage and one sack. Beyond the numbers, his presence affected everything Miami did on offense.

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Best Game (Team Performance): Beating Army 44-6

It speaks volumes that Notre Dame’s high point this season was a win over Army. The best team that Notre Dame beat was Miami, but in that game the Irish made key mistakes that allowed the Hurricanes to come back from a 20-point deficit. The game in San Antonio was Notre Dame’s most complete performance of the season.

Defining Moment: Special Teams Turnover in the Michigan State Game

Notre Dame led 7-0 and was set to get the ball back from Michigan State early in the second quarter. But on the punt, the ball struck Myles Boykin and was recovered by the Spartans, sparking a 36-point run by Michigan State. In a year filled with special teams blunders and mistakes leading to big runs by the opposition, no play epitomized the season more than that turnover.

Biggest Surprise: Freshmen Defensive Backs

Due to injuries, suspensions and poor play, Notre Dame had to rely heavily on three freshmen in the secondary. Devin Studstill, Donte Vaughn and Julian Love have a lot to learn, but their development during the course of the year was a pleasant surprise. There are a ton of issues going forward for Notre Dame, but there is now some hope on the back end of the defense.

Biggest Disappointment: Head Coach Brian Kelly

Just about every aspect of Notre Dame was disappointing this fall. But the decisions made by the head coach have to be the most discouraging. The handling of the quarterback situation, the retention and support of defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder after everyone knew it wasn’t working, the deflection of responsibility at every turn, and his overall demeanor summed up everything that was wrong with this Irish football season. Yes, the players were terrible. But when things go this wrong it starts with the guy in charge.

Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Jarron Jones, DT

Jones was not the most consistent performer for Notre Dame this season, but when he played his best, he was very good. As noted, he was dominant against Miami and was a challenge for most of the offensive linemen that he faced. Plus, he plays a position where the Irish are very thin. With Daniel Cage a question mark going forward due to concussion issues, the loss of Jones will be a big blow to the interior of the Notre Dame defensive line.

Player to Watch in 2017: Brandon Wimbush, QB

With Kizer probably heading to the NFL and Malik Zaire transferring, the Teaneck, N.J., product will have his shot to be Notre Dame’s quarterback in 2017. A talented athlete that was heavily recruited out of high school, Wimbush will be entering his third season and should be ready to go.

Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Coaching Staff Decisions

There is a vacancy at defensive coordinator and changes could be made on special teams and in the strength and conditioning program. Brian Kelly will enter 2017 on the hottest of hot seats and putting together the proper staff will be a key component to an Irish bounce-back.

— 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.