Notre Dame Football: Handing out Some Midseason Awards
We're halfway through the 2012 season, and Notre Dame has the same number of losses as it did to start the season: Zero. There have been blowouts (Navy, Miami), defensive dominations (Michigan State, Michigan) and escapes (Purdue, Stanford), causing Irish fans an entire season's worth of emotions over the first six weeks.
Notre Dame heads into the second half of the season with all of its goals still on the table. A BCS bowl seems likely. A BCS Championship Game berth? Not so much, but it's becoming more and more realistic with each passing Saturday.
Let's look back at the Fighting Irish's unforgettable first half and hand out some proverbial hardware to the best players, performances and moments thus far in the 2012 season.
Best Offensive Player: RB Cierre Wood
It doesn’t say for much for the Notre Dame offense when the best player only played in four of the six games, but it is fitting of the Irish’s current struggles moving the football. Wood has shown he’s the most complete running back on the Notre Dame roster, with 279 yards and a pair of touchdowns since returning from suspension.
His 6.0 yards per carry average is more than two yards better than that of Theo Riddick. With two very good defenses coming up in BYU and Oklahoma, Wood must continue to carry the brunt of the load in the backfield for the Irish to keep winning
Runners-Up: TE Tyler Eifert, QB Tommy Rees
Best Defensive Player: LB Manti Te'o
This is a no-brainer. Perhaps no player in college football has meant more to his team over the first seven weeks of the season than Te’o. His personal losses are well documented, and the mutual adoration between Te’o and the Notre Dame community has truly been a sight to behold, never more so evident than the student body waving leis in the air following a win over Michigan.
The senior is averaging almost 10 tackles per game and three interceptions, two coming in the Irish’s win over the Wolverines, the same day in which his girlfriend was buried back in his native Hawaii. Is Te'o a Heisman Trophy candidate? In reality, probably not. However, Te'o has already proven he's capable of doing the nearly impossible.
Runners-Up: Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt
Best Freshman: CB KeiVarae Russell
Russell was moved from running back to cornerback upon his arrival in South Bend from his native Washington over the summer. The move seemed a bit curious at the time due to his potential to be the next Theo Riddick, but has proved to be arguably the best decision the coaching staff made during the offseason.
After some early struggles adapting to his new position, Russell has shown he’s a natural fit at cornerback, consistently improving his ball skills and open-field tackling. The first true test of his progress will come in two weeks at Oklahoma, but for the time being, Russell’s development has been nothing shy of remarkable.
Runners-Up: SS Matthias Farley, WR Davaris Daniels
Most Improved Player: CB Bennett Jackson
There was always the thought that Jackson could become a No. 1 cornerback at the major college level, but there was little evidence to support that theory. Jackson has provided that evidence over the first half of the season, with four interceptions in six games, including one in the red zone last week against Stanford.
He’s not a finished product yet, but the junior has helped solidify a position that appeared very thin after the departures of Robert Blanton and Gary Gray and the injury to Lo Wood. A former receiver, Jackson is just another example of how the coaching staff has proven it can maximize the program’s talent, even if it involves moving players to new positions.
Runners-Up: K Kyle Brindza, LB Prince Shembo
Best Position Coach: Kerry Cooks (Cornerbacks) and Bob Elliott (Safeties)
The secondary has been the biggest surprise of all of Notre Dame’s position groups thus far in 2012, as an already young unit has had to overcome the loss of two veterans. Achilles’ tendons have been the culprit, as junior cornerback Lo Wood and fifth-year senior safety Jamoris Slaughter were lost for the season with identical injuries—Wood in fall camp and Slaughter against Michigan State.
Neither Matthias Farley nor KeiVarae Russell saw the field last year: Farley because he was redshirting as a backup wide receiver and Russell because he was still in high school. Both were recruited as offensive players but have emerged at positions of need despite a lack of experience. Credit the players themselves, but also credit Cooks and Elliott for expediting their development at a critical time.
Runner-Up: Mike Elston (Defensive Line)
Best Offensive Play: Tyler Eifert Touchdown vs. Stanford
The Irish were only pushed to the limit in two games this season, in Week 2 against Purdue and last week against Stanford. Prospects appeared grim in the fourth quarter against the Cardinal, but Eifert came up with a vintage Eifert catch on a third-and-18 play with 14 minutes remaining for the game-tying touchdown.
Notre Dame would fall behind again on the next drive before ultimately winning in overtime, but momentum truly begin to swing in the Irish’s favor. Eifert’s catches have been low in number this season, but high in impact.
Best Defensive Play: 4th-and-Goal vs. Stanford
Despite the controversy surrounding when the play truly ended and if Stepfan Taylor did get in the end zone, the four consecutive stops from inside the five-yard line will go down as one of the greatest defensive stands in the storied history of Notre Dame football.
Most of the Irish’s big plays this year have come on defense, but none were bigger than the final play of last Saturday’s overtime victory over the Cardinal. The stand was a team effort rather than one individual forcing a fumble or intercepting a pass.
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