Notre Dame finished off Brian Kelly’s first season in South Bend in convincing fashion with a win over Miami, bringing the season record to a respectable 8-5 mark. While not nearly where Irish fans want it to be, Kelly’s first season at the helm should be viewed more as a success than anything else.
So who were the guys who made it all possible? Let’s break them down.
Offensive player of the year: Michael Floyd
Floyd, who completed his first full season at Notre Dame after having his freshman and sophomore seasons derailed by injury, was one of the nation’s top receivers. He finished in the top-25 in the nation in receptions (t-20, 79) and touchdowns (t-11, 12), while finishing 26th in total yards. What can also be said for Floyd is something that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. Floyd developed into a terrific blocker on the outside. The big-bodied wide out was probably one of the best blocking wide receivers in football last year and that won’t go unnoticed by teams on draft day should Floyd decide to go that route.
Offensive rookie of the year: Tommy Rees
Rees went through his growing pains this season after taking over for Dayne Crist, who suffered a knee injury for the second season in a row. But despite learning on the fly, Rees led Notre Dame to bowl eligibility. Remember that Kelly’s decision to have Rees, who replaced Crist early in the game, to throw into the end zone, instead of kicking a game-winning field goal cost Notre Dame a victory and had them sitting at 4-5 heading into the home stretch. Rees responded and led Notre Dame to victories over Utah at home, plus Army and USC on the road. Albeit with a lighter workload, he accumulated a better QB rating than Crist, a better completion percentage and sparked what should be a battle for the top quarterback spot on the depth chart come spring practices.
Underrated offensive player of the year: The Notre Dame offensive line
A much-scrutinize part of the Irish game over the past few years has been the offensive line. This season, even without having his prototypical spread offense linemen in place, Brian Kelly got some great production out of his line. In 12 regular-season games, Notre Dame quarterbacks were sacked just 19 times, good for 35th nationally. Last season, Notre Dame ranked 65th in that category. In addition to that, Notre Dame’s top 3 running backs – Armando Allen, Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes averaged 4.6, 4.6 and 4.2 yards per carry, respectively on the season.
Defensive player of the year: Ian Williams
Before getting hurt in the Irish’s loss to Navy, Williams was an absolute beast for the Irish. A disruptive force in the trenches, teams specifically had to game plan for the nose guard, usually with double teams that opened up holes for pass rushers in the Irish’s 3-4 defense.
Defensive rookie of the year: Carlo Calabrese
Calabrese was a terrific run stopper for the Irish when healthy. The sophomore had 61 tackles on the season, good for fifth on the team. If he can learn how to defend the pass better, he could become a very key asset to Notre Dame teams over the course of the next two years.
Underrated defensive player of the year: Harrison Smith
Smith was somewhat of a whipping boy for Irish fans last season as he was shuffled back and forth between linebacker and safety by Charlie Weis’ coaching staff and a lot of times found himself out of position, giving up big plays. This year, Smith was the guy making those plays. He ranked second on the team in tackles and led the team by intercepting seven passes.
Special teams player of the year: David Ruffer
Who else? Ruffer took the starting job from Nick Tausch last season and hasn’t looked back, finally registering the first missed field goal of his career in the Sun Bowl. He has been nothing short of terrific for the Irish, who desperately needed to solidify their kicking game.
Irish coach of the year: Bob Diaco
Notre Dame’s defense went from an absolute joke to a respectable unit in less than one year’s time. In 2009, the Irish were 63rd in scoring defense, and 86th in total defense. This season, Notre Dame was 24th in scoring defense and 53rd in total defense. Down the stretch, Notre Dame’s defense went into shut down mode, holding all three opponents to well under 300 yards of offense, including keeping Utah’s vaunted offense to 265 yards and no touchdowns. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but Diaco has also given reason for fans to hope the Irish defense won’t be a liability anymore.