Notre Dame Football: Midseason Awards for Players and Coaches
One game past the halfway mark of Notre Dame's 2013 regular season has marked the outset of the Irish's march to the BCS, and recognition is deserved by those who have carried the team to its 5-2 start.
There have been a slew of outstanding performances, flashy statistics and surprises, all making for what has been a rather eventful 2013 season.
We've coalesced those happenings into a series of awards: Offensive MVP, Defensive MVP, Best Play, Best Coach, Most Improved Player, Rookie of the Year and Surprise Star.
Let's get started.
Offensive MVP: TJ Jones, WR
During the past three seasons, the Irish offense enjoyed the luxury of possessing two of the most productive pass-catchers in school history: Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert.
2013 marked the first season of the Brian Kelly era without either receiving threat on the roster, forcing another player to fill those monstrous shoes and become Notre Dame's clear cut No. 1 receiver.
Senior receiver TJ Jones has done just that, while also providing the type of leadership expected from a four-year starter. The Roswell, Ga. native has hauled in 37 receptions for 527 yards and five touchdowns this season, and is well on his way to eclipsing his 2012 season totals in receptions (50) and receiving yards (650).
The 6-foot, 195-pound receiver wasn't thought to be a legitimate NFL Draft prospect last season, but has quickly altered that perception, as NFLDraftScout.net ranks Jones as the 18th best receiver in the 2014 draft class.
Defensive MVP: Louis Nix, NG
The Irish's 2013 defense has certainly regressed from the legendary 2012 unit, though nose guard Louis Nix has maintained his consistently outstanding play.
"Irish Chocolate," as the 350-pound nose guard has come to be known by, has been just as sweet as expected for a Notre Dame defense seeking to fortify itself for an unbeaten second half of the season. For that dream to become a reality, the Irish will need Nix to continue at his current pace, which has been due in large part to his improved conditioning, via Tony Krausz of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.
It's something I've been working on for a while," Nix said. "Since spring football, we talked about me staying on the field more. Going from like 40 to 50 snaps, I think I played like 73 the last game (Oklahoma). It's just a lot of improvement with my loss of weight and my conditioning."
Nix is a true game-changer in every sense of the term, and NFL teams have certainly taken notice.
In Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller's most recent 2014 mock draft, he projected Nix to be selected 13th overall to the St. Louis Rams.
Best Play: WR DaVaris Daniels' 82-Yard Touchdown Reception at Purdue
Tied with Purdue at 17 early in the third quarter of the teams' meeting in West Lafayette, Ind., earlier this season, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels delivered what may end up as the Irish offense's most explosive reception of the season.
Lined up wide right, Daniels found himself in single coverage, which quarterback Tommy Rees immediately recognized.
Rees delivered a flawless pass to the 6-foot-2, 190-pound receiver, who outmaneuvered the Boilermaker defensive back, and the sideline, en route to a key 82-yard touchdown reception.
Best Coach: Offensive Line Coach Harry Hiestand
If you're looking for Notre Dame's most outstanding positional unit at this point in the season, look no further than the Irish offensive line.
Second-year coach Harry Hiestand was tasked with rebuilding the right side of the offensive line after losing both center Braxston Cave and right guard Mike Golic, Jr. after Notre Dame's run to the BCS National Championship Game last season.
The former Chicago Bears offensive line coach has smoothly transitioned Nick Martin to Cave's former center spot, while he has also handled the moves of Christian Lombard to right guard and Ronnie Stanley to right tackle to near perfection.
Add in that the unit is tied for 12th nationally in sacks allowed (six), and the job of Hiestand is even more impressive.
After losing former offensive line coach Ed Warriner to Ohio State two years ago, Brian Kelly got himself what now seems like the best possible replacement.
Most Improved Player: Troy Niklas, TE
Niklas was often overshadowed last season by former tight end and current Cincinnati Bengal Tyler Eifert, and rightfully so; Eifert won the Mackey Award and was selected 21st overall by the Bengals in last spring's NFL Draft.
Because of Eifert's presence as a receiving threat and Niklas' tremendous size, the Fullerton, Calif., native was often utilized as a run-blocking tight end.
But as the Irish's No. 1 tight end this season, Niklas has expanded his game tremendously. The junior is Notre Dame's third leading receiver, having hauled in 18 receptions for 308 yards and five touchdowns during the Irish's first seven games.
As a result of his production in the first half, Niklas was selected for the Mackey Award watch list.
Rookie of the Year: Jaylon Smith, LB
Not in surprising fashion, freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith is your midseason Rookie of the Year.
The former 5-star prospect, per 247Sports, wasn't expected to start prior to the season, but was forced into the starting role at the Irish's dog linebacker spot due to former linebacker Danny Spond's unexpected and sudden retirement due to hemiplegic migraines.
Given that dog linebacker is considered the most mentally taxing position within the Irish defense, Smith's performance thus far can and should be even more appreciated and respected.
The Fort Wayne, Ind. native had his most impressive performance of the season to date during a 14-10 victory against USC, recording four total tackles and his first career interception.
Surprise Star: Cam McDaniel, RB
During preseason discussion surrounding the running back position, George Atkinson III and the Irish's vaunted freshmen—Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston—received the overwhelming majority of the attention.
Cam McDaniel received his fair share of recognition, but wasn't assumed to be a major contributor to Notre Dame's rushing attack. Well, that notion proved false.
Through seven games, McDaniel is 12 yards shy of tying for the team rushing lead (363), but has carried the ball 17 more times than any other back on the depth chart. Given the current state of the running back position at Notre Dame, the Coppell, Texas native could very well finish the season as the Irish's leading rusher.
George Atkinson III continues to run with a high pad level and has a maddening habit of attempting to hit the proverbial home run on every carry, while Amir Carlisle and Tarean Folston have failed to make headway in light of Atkinson's struggles.
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