Ian Book's insertion as starting quarterback was a key turning point for the Fighting Irish's season
After finishing the regular season 12-0, Notre Dame has received its share of national accolades. Here are some Irish team awards before their College Football Playoff Semifinal showdown with Clemson at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Dec. 29.
Offensive MVP: Ian Book, QB
A case could be made for Dexter Williams, but the El Dorado Hills, California, product transformed the Irish offense. Book finished as the fifth-most accurate passer in the nation and had a 19:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. While he was not Brandon Wimbush as a runner, he did have 250 yards on the ground and four rushing touchdowns.
Defensive MVP: Julian Love, CB
There was not a shortage of quality candidates as the defense was loaded with high-level producers. But for the second year in a row, Love was among the nation's leaders in passes breakups even though the opposition didn't throw his direction that often. He also had three fumble recoveries, including one against Virginia Tech that he returned for a score.
Best Freshman: Tariq Bracy, CB
Because of an experienced roster, not many freshmen contributed in crunch time this year. Houston Griffith got quality reps in the secondary, but as the season wore on Bracy got more of those minutes in nickel and dime situations. Beaten at times, the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder did have 18 tackles, 14 of them solo stops.
Best Play(s) of the Season: Two Book Runs Against USC
Down 10-0 in the second quarter, the Irish were facing 3rd-and-11 at the USC 47-yard line. With no one open and flushed from the pocket, Book took off to his left and slammed forward to pick up a key first down. Five plays later, Book connected with Chris Finke on the first Notre Dame score of the game. In the fourth quarter with Notre Dame clinging to a 17-10 lead deep in their own territory, Book gained 16 yards on 3rd-and-12, stepping out of the grasp of a Trojan defender along the way. A Tony Jones touchdown moments later gave the Irish an insurmountable 14-point lead.
Best Performance by a Player: Dexter Williams vs. Virginia Tech
The senior running back had 202 yards rushing against Florida State, but his 178 and three scores in Blacksburg were more impactful. The Irish entered the second half up by only a point, but Williams’ 159 yards and two touchdowns in the final 30 minutes blew the game open. The key moment was his 97-yard touchdown run on Notre Dame's first possession of the third quarter.
Best Game (Team Performance): Rout of Syracuse in Yankee Stadium
The biggest win was the season opener over Michigan, but the most complete performance was the drubbing of Syracuse at Yankee Stadium. The Orange came into the game as the No. 12 team in the country but Notre Dame dominated the proceedings from the very start. The offense rolled up 463 yards and the defense stifled the Orange in the 36-3 victory.
Defining Moment: Wimbush Out, Book In
Notre Dame was 3-0 to start the season, but the offense wasn’t right. Championship contenders don’t score 24 points against Ball State and 22 points against Vanderbilt. But after Ian Book got settled in at Wake Forest, the Notre Dame offense took off. There were games like Pittsburgh and USC where the points weren’t as plentiful and the defense had to carry the day. But Notre Dame became a viable College Football Playoff contender the moment Book was inserted into the starting lineup.
Biggest Surprise: Jalen Elliott, S
With Julian Love and Troy Pride at the corners and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman expected to make an impact at safety, the secondary was considered a Notre Dame strength entering the season. But Elliott’s improvement at the other safety spot took it to another level. In his two years at Notre Dame prior to this fall, Elliott’s only havoc plays were two passes defended. This season, he broke up six passes, had four interceptions, and forced a fumble is currently sits fourth on the team with 63 tackles.
Biggest Disappointment: Kickoff Team
It started in the opener against Michigan. Jonathan Doerer’s first kick of the year went out of bounds. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened. Later in the game, Doerer got a penalty for a late hit on a Michigan player, as well. But the biggest issue has been the actual coverage of the kicks. The seven-point win over the Wolverines wouldn’t have been as close had the Irish not allowed a 99-yard Ambry Thomas return for a score. And the Pittsburgh game became increasingly more difficult when Maurice Ffrench took the opening kick of the second half all the way back. On the season, Notre Dame is 112th in kickoff coverage and is one of only five teams that has allowed two to be returned for touchdowns.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most: Drue Tranquill, LB
It only seems like Tranquill has been at Notre Dame for about 10 years. He’s played safety; he’s played linebacker. Wherever the Fort Wayne, Indiana, product has been placed, he has excelled. Beyond his on-field production, Tranquill has been the unquestioned leader of this defense over the past two years and that is a void that will be difficult to fill. Tranquill also was recently honored with the Wuerffel Trophy, which recognizes exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement.
Player to Watch in 2019: Shayne Simon, LB
There was talk in camp that Simon could compete for the starting job at Rover. That spot eventually went to Asmar Bilal, who has put together a solid season. But there is a chance that Bilal follows Drue Tranquill’s path to Buck, putting the Rover position up for grabs again. Simon currently has ideal size (6-3, 222) and athleticism for Rover, though if he adds some more weight he could land at Buck with Bilal sticking at Rover. Simon was one of the heaviest recruited players in the 2018 class.
Offseason Storyline: Roster Management
When the current commits sign, Notre Dame will be over the 85 scholarship limit and there are a couple more prospects that the Irish are pursuing. There are some players on the current roster that are expected to make a jump to the NFL and some that are expected to transfer. But there will be four or five scholarships that will have to be maneuvered so the Irish can get under the mandated limit. In reality, Notre Dame hasn’t been in this situation in a while and having so many quality bodies returning is not a bad problem.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.