Notre Dame Football: 5 Irish Stars with Best Chance to Win 2014 National Awards
Beginning on Monday with the Bednarik and Maxwell Awards, the watch lists for a variety of college football’s top honors were released.
The names and watch lists will continue to roll in between now and next Friday, when the watch list for the Walter Camp Award (nation’s most outstanding player) is named.
So far, seven different Notre Dame football players have earned nine citations on various watch lists.
- Bednarik Award (defensive player of the year): KeiVarae Russell, Jaylon Smith
- Bronko Nagurski Trophy (most outstanding defensive player): KeiVarae Russell, Jaylon Smith
- Lou Groza Award (top place-kicker): Kyle Brindza
- John Mackey Award (most outstanding tight end): Ben Koyack
- Maxwell Award (player of the year): Everett Golson
- Outland Trophy (most outstanding interior lineman): Sheldon Day
- Rimington Trophy (premier center): Nick Martin
Of Notre Dame’s selections thus far to these preliminary watch lists, which Irish players have the best chance to win those national awards in 2014?
For now, we’ll only consider the awards for which the watch lists have already been released. That means we’re not including the Biletnikoff, Butkus, Davey O’Brien, Doak Walker, Jim Thorpe, Lombardi and Walter Camp Awards for consideration.
5. Jaylon Smith: Bednarik Award, Nagurski Trophy
It may seem backward to slot Smith—one of Notre Dame’s truly elite players—as merely the fifth-likeliest to take home either of these awards.
But Smith’s ranking at No. 5 is simply a product of the complete scope of both the Bednarik Award and the Nagurski Trophy. These honors are bestowed upon the single best defensive player in all of college football.
Still, Smith has the pedigree to warrant consideration. A former 5-star recruit and the No. 2 overall player in the class of 2013, Smith started every game for the Irish last season and ranked third on the team with 67 tackles. Somehow, the Fort Wayne, Indiana, native wasn’t named a freshman All-American.
Heading into his sophomore campaign, Smith seems primed for liftoff, especially after transitioning to more of an inside linebacker position, as Irish head coach Brian Kelly explained after the Blue-Gold Game.
“It puts arguably our best off‑the‑ball player...next to all the things that you can do defensively, and so that was really in the decision more than anything else, just to get him in a position where we can activate him at any time,” Kelly said.
Fully activated, Smith could surge onto the national awards scene, though that’s still likely more of a long shot in 2014.
4. Ben Koyack: John Mackey Award
For someone as relatively unproven as Ben Koyack, the John Mackey Award could seem unrealistic. After all, Koyack has only tallied 14 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns in his career.
But with Troy Niklas in the NFL, Koyack has ascended to the top of Notre Dame’s depth chart at tight end.
Koyack, who didn’t record a reception through the first five games in 2013, emerged as the season progressed. He followed that up with a “really nice spring” and “[took] that next step,” according to Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock.
Now, the natural progression obviously isn’t from second-string tight end to John Mackey Award winner, but Koyack has always been fairly well-regarded—he was the No. 2 tight end and No. 43 overall player in the class of 2011—and Notre Dame has earned the nickname “Tight End U,” meaning Koyack could be next in line.
5th TE in last 10 years at University of ND drafted in 1st or 2nd round ND is TE U!!— Scott Booker (@CoachSBooker) May 10, 2014
Koyack also climbs into a starting role in a year where blue-chip tight ends are tough to find, at least at this point. Eric Ebron (North Carolina), Niklas, Jace Amaro (Texas Tech) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington) all entered the 2014 NFL draft following their junior seasons and were drafted within the first 38 picks. Their early departures leave a temporary void at the top of the collegiate tight end landscape.
3. Sheldon Day: Outland Trophy
Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt attracted most of the attention—on and off the field—along Notre Dame’s defensive line in each of the past two seasons.
But rising junior Sheldon Day has had a solid, if not spectacular, first two campaigns in South Bend, Indiana. The 6’2”, 290-pounder was a valuable part of the rotation on the defensive line as a freshman, playing in all 13 games and totaling 23 tackles and two sacks. After moving into a starting role for 2013, he battled ankle injuries but still started eight games.
Now, without Nix and Tuitt, Day will be the main attraction of Notre Dame’s defensive line. The former 4-star recruit and No. 111 prospect in the class of 2012 could be in line for a breakout campaign, as many around the program have mentioned.
Kelly praised Day in a May interview with Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports.
He has incredible ability to rush the passer for an interior defensive lineman. He's very unique in that sense. Most of those guys are two-down players, where you get 'em off the field on third downs. He could arguably be our best pass rusher as an inside guy. We may have to move him outside on third down.
He has a unique skill set. He can be great against the run on first and second downs, and then on third downs can offer the ability to rush the passer. He's got a very good work volume for us. I think he's gonna be a terrific defensive lineman for us.
A knockout 2014 season could vault Day into the discussion of the most outstanding interior lineman.
2. Nick Martin: Rimington Trophy
In his first season as a starter, Nick Martin played 11 games at center for the Irish before tearing his left MCL on Nov. 23 against BYU.
Upon his return for the 2014 campaign, he should be one of Notre Dame’s leaders along the offensive line. Martin and graduate student Christian Lombard (right guard) project as Notre Dame’s only two returning starters who figure to slot at the same position at which they started in 2013.
Martin seems primed to perform at a high level in 2014. It’s telling that throughout the spring—even with Martin out of commission—Kelly made it clear he would still be the No. 1 center upon his return.
Still, Martin would need a breakout senior season to seriously contend for the Rimington. Reese Dismukes (Auburn) and Hroniss Grasu (Oregon), two of the six 2013 finalists for the award, likely have the early edge.
1. Kyle Brindza: Lou Groza Award
The day the 2013 Lou Groza Award winner was announced, Irish senior kicker Kyle Brindza made his intentions clear.
The ever-confident Brindza has set his sights high, but he figures to have a legitimate shot at the award. In 2013 he drilled 20 of 26 field goals, improving upon a sophomore season in which he hit 23 of 31 attempts.
Entering 2014, Brindza has already staked out his spot in the Fighting Irish record books. His .754 career field-goal percentage is No. 1 in Irish history, as are his four field goals of at least 50 yards.
However, he likely needs to tighten up his field-goal percentage even further to claim the Groza. Last year’s winner Roberto Aguayo (Florida State) only missed one of his 22 field-goal attempts. Cairo Santos (Tulane), the 2012 winner, was a perfect 21 of 21. Even 2011 winner Randy Bullock (Texas A&M), who attempted 33 field goals (14 of which were from 40-49 yards), still connected on 88 percent.
Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com and all quotes obtained firsthand. Star ratings reflect 247Sports Composite Rankings.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco on Twitter.