Coming off the program's second College Football Playoff appearance in three seasons, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish entered the 2021 season with high hopes and aspirations of a fifth straight 10-win season. While an 11-1 campaign left the Irish just a bit short of the playoff, the 11 wins pushed the program's win total over the last five seasons to a program-record 54 — with the bowl game still pending — surpassing the 53 wins collected between 1988 and '92.
In addition to the record-setting win total, many of Notre Dame's top players contributed key moments and plays worthy of additional recognition. Here's a look at some of Notre Dame's most memorable highlights, impacts, and storylines from the 2021 season.
Offensive MVP: Kyren Williams, RB
This will certainly not be the only time that Williams' name appears throughout these awards, and with good reason. Williams fell just short of 1,000 rushing yards in the regular season but still vastly led the team with 995 while the rest of his teammates combined for 945. And that's not to mention Williams' team-high 14 touchdowns on the ground, let alone 42 receptions for 359 yards and three more touchdowns through the air. Williams announced his intent to watch from the sidelines as Notre Dame takes on Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl, but his contributions are certainly a strong reason why the Irish are in that position to begin with.
Defensive MVP: Isaiah Foskey, DL
After playing in just four games as a freshman in 2019 and playing in all 12 as a reserve in 2020, Foskey was called upon to start in all 12 of Notre Dame's regular-season contests in 2021. Labeling the junior's ascent as rapid feels like just scratching the surface, as Foskey managed fewer than two tackles per game last season but more than doubled that with 47 tackles and 11.5 TFLs thus far. Put another way: nearly one of every four Foskey tackles have been behind the line of scrimmage. The junior posted a pair of two-sack games (Florida State, USC) en route to a total of 10 for the season, along with forcing five fumbles and recovering two. His plans for next season have yet to be announced as of mid-December, but his return would be a boost for what already projects to be a highly talented unit.
Best Freshman: Joe Alt, OT
While quarterback Tyler Buchner captured much of the storylines among the freshmen for Notre Dame's offense in 2021, the clear contributor of highest impact has been Alt. A four-star recruit by 247Sports and a three-star recruit by Rivals and ESPN, Alt joined the Irish from just north of Minneapolis-St. Paul after earning All-Metro, All-District, and Academic All-State honors and finishing as a finalist for Mr. Football. Alt played all 12 regular-season games and started the last seven — holding down the fort at left tackle as a true freshman alongside two graduate students, a senior, and a junior — and his continued progression at that spot will be quite valuable for the offensive line going forward.
Best Play of the Season: Kyle Hamilton's second interception vs. Florida State
Plenty of hype surrounded Notre Dame's defense in the preseason with quite lofty expectations surrounding new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. It certainly helped to have a reigning All-American entrenched at safety. And Hamilton — who repeated as an All-American in 2021 — got off to quite a hot start when he made arguably one of the plays of the year in the season opener against Florida State.
Trailing 24-20 on their second possession of the third quarter after both sides opened with touchdowns, the Seminoles faced a third-and-8 from their own 27-yard line. Under intense pressure, quarterback Jordan Travis scrambled to his right and fired a pass down the sideline. Hamilton covered nearly half the width of the field after the ball left Travis' hand to snatch the ball out of the air and drag his foot in bounds, coming away with his second interception of the game — Notre Dame's first two-interception game since fellow safety Alohi Gilman in 2018 against Syracuse — en route to the Irish's overtime win.
Best Performance (Player): Kyren Williams vs. North Carolina on Oct. 30
Williams claimed the “Best Play” honor last season with his 65-yard touchdown run on the Irish's first play from scrimmage in their win over then-No. 1 Clemson, and just one night before Halloween in 2021 he instilled plenty of fear in the Tar Heels' defense in Notre Dame's 44-34 victory over North Carolina.
Evading a pair of tackles more than five yards behind the line of scrimmage, Williams darted toward the far sideline and found nothing but green grass ahead of him en route to a career-long 91-yard touchdown run that helped to put the game away in the fourth quarter. Williams' 91-yard score was easily the longest of the game, but hardly his only impact play. Williams tallied four other rushes for at least 10 yards en route to a 199-yard rushing performance — the best by a Notre Dame running back since 2018 — and a total of 261 all-purpose yards.
A neat link between Williams' 65-yard touchdown against Clemson and his 91-yard score against North Carolina: both of the touchdown rushes were on Notre Dame's first official play of the drive — not to mention on Notre Dame's first official offensive play of the quarter — and on both runs, Williams crossed the goal line on both rushes just 33 seconds into the respective quarters, with 14:27 left in the first quarter against the Tigers and 14:27 left in the game against the Tar Heels.
Best Performance (Team): No. 9 Notre Dame 28, Virginia 3 — Nov. 13
Riding a four-game win streak — the last three of which came at home after a Week 7 bye — Notre Dame headed to Charlottesville for a matchup with a Virginia team that had scored at least 30 points in each of its last five games and 40 or more in each of its last three. The Irish had survived a pair of close calls in its two true road games to start the season against Florida State and Virginia Tech, but they put the Cavaliers away in relatively short order.
Even more impressive: Notre Dame did so without four captains — three of which were on defense — as Hamilton and wide receiver Avery Davis were out with knee injuries while linebacker Drew White and defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa missed the game due to an illness unrelated to COVID-19.
After turning the ball over on downs just outside the red zone on its first possession, Notre Dame scored touchdowns on each of its next three possessions to take a 21-0 lead with 4:33 left before halftime. Picking up on the momentum, the defense forced two three-and-outs, a turnover on downs, and an interception to close the half and Virginia missed a field goal to open the third quarter. All in all, the offense found a comfortable rhythm from start to finish with all the pieces coming together, while the defense continued its strong play against Navy as part of what ultimately would be a run of 14 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown.
Defining Moment: No. 14 Notre Dame 32, Virginia Tech 29 — Oct. 9
While many would point to Notre Dame's only loss of the season against Cincinnati as the defining moment of 2021, expectations were that this team would have a fairly strong season but few anticipated another playoff appearance. With that in mind and the Cincinnati loss thus not necessarily being the single divider for the season, Notre Dame's roller-coaster midseason win at Virginia Tech — just a week after the Cincinnati loss — takes the cake.
Quarterback Jack Coan started for the Irish but was quickly benched after Notre Dame opened the game with three straight punts. The Hokies notched the only touchdown of the first quarter and trailed 14-13 at halftime after Tyler Buchner ran for a touchdown and threw for another in the second quarter. But after Buchner threw a pair of second-half interceptions and injured his ankle in the fourth quarter, Brian Kelly re-inserted Coan into the lineup, and the veteran signal-caller made the decision pay off.
Down 29-21 with under four minutes left in regulation, Coan led a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive (with two-point conversion) in just 89 seconds to tie the game and followed a Virginia Tech three-and-out with another seven-play drive for a game-winning field goal. Notre Dame's ability to come back for the win and rebound from the previous week's loss was a key turning point in the season, bringing the Irish back to their winning ways as they won each of their six remaining regular-season games while scoring 30 or more points in all but one and only once allowing more than 17 points in the second half of the season.
Biggest Surprise: JD Bertrand, LB
After being largely a practice-squad player in his first two seasons, Bertrand made his first career start in the 2021 season opener at Florida State and promptly led the team in tackles with a career-high 11. The Georgia native became a fixture atop the leaderboard, as he paced the Irish in tackles in eight of the 12 regular-season games en route to a team-high 92 for the season, along with five tackles for a loss. Between Bertrand's jump from 2020 (when he notched seven total tackles in 11 games) to 2021 and the gap separating him and White — who finished second on the team with 49 tackles — his play was key to defensive-coordinator-turned-head-coach Freeman's impressive performance in his first season at Notre Dame.
Biggest Disappointment: Offensive line's struggles
While the injuries and subpar play at left tackle to start the season were certainly notable, they were hardly the only contributors to the offensive line's poor performance in the opening weeks. Notre Dame rushed for a little more than 80 yards per game in its first five games, including 65 in the season opener in Tallahassee against Florida State and 84 in the loss to Cincinnati, a team that entered that game ranked in the bottom 10 nationally against the run.
Neither of these two come close, however, to the Irish's 32-carry, three-yard tally against Wisconsin. You read that right: 32 carries for a total of three yards. Notre Dame allowed 22 sacks and 46 TFLs across its first five games, the fourth- and third-worst marks in the FBS. While the line ultimately shored up and provided Coan, Williams, and the rest of the offense enough time to make plays, the slow start was quite concerning. Next year's unit will be fairly inexperienced but extremely talented, and hopes for their improved play compared to this year's group have already been widely expressed.
Senior(s) Who Will Be Missed the Most: Defensive leadership of LB Drew White, DL Kurt Hinish, DL Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
While Bertrand may be the team leader in tackles heading into the postseason, the experience that can be found throughout Notre Dame's defense means that there won't be just one single senior whose absence in 2022 will be felt more than another. White finished second on the team in tackles with 49, alongside 4.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown. Up front, defensive linemen Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa combined for 11 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. Their collective presence anchoring the defense will be a tough hole to fill come the 2022 season.
Player(s) to Watch in 2022: Playmakers on offense — WR Kevin Austin Jr., TE Michael Mayer, WR Lorenzo Styles, QB Tyler Buchner
The offense will feature a handful of players to keep close tabs on in 2022. Austin (42 rec., 783 yds., 6 TDs) and Mayer, an All-American, (64, 768, 5) were the clear leaders in the passing game for Notre Dame in the regular season. Austin has been a deep threat along the outside while Mayer possesses strong, reliable hands, which help him make plays over the middle of the field.
Styles has played in eight of Notre Dame's 12 regular-season games with 16 catches for 208 yards primarily out of the slot. These guys will likely line up alongside Buchner, who saw the field intermittently over the course of 10 games and rushed for more yards (336) than he totaled through the air (298). Buchner posted six total touchdowns — three rushing, three passing — but added three interceptions on some ill-advised decisions. His continued growth and development as a passer and decision-maker — combined with the experience of Mayer and Austin (should Austin return next season) as well as Styles' electrifying speed and versatility — projects to form the basis of an extremely dynamic and impactful group in 2022.
Offseason Storyline: What does Freeman do in his first year as head coach?
Plenty of chatter arose when Kelly suddenly was being pursued by LSU for the Tigers' head-coaching vacancy and ultimately chose to leave Notre Dame before the Fiesta Bowl to take the job in Baton Rouge. To the joys of seemingly the entire team, Freeman was tabbed to fill in both for the bowl game and beyond as the next head coach of the Irish.
Sources have indicated that Freeman is very well liked within the locker room as he is extremely relatable and gets what it's like to be a player. Kelly, meanwhile, appeared inaccessible and hardly approachable — seemingly portraying himself as being on a CEO-esque pedestal — which led to levels of distaste for his leadership style by both players and coaches.
Already recognized as a stellar recruiter during his first season, Freeman will undoubtedly be called upon to be even more engaging with players in the hopes of attracting more and more top-tier talent to the program. But whether he brings in one five-star recruit or a dozen, what Freeman accomplishes in his first season as head coach will be the focus of players, fellow coaches, administration, and fans alike as the Fiesta Bowl marks the start of the new era of Notre Dame football.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.