Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 18 of 47 JANUARY 2021 19 Irish campaign had an all-too-familiar conclusion that resembled three others in this century: 2002, 2006 and 2015. Those too were a mostly fun, uplift- ing two or three months just like this year — until a collapse in the final two games pretty much overshadowed it. • In 2002, first-year head coach Ty- rone Willingham was the toast of the nation with an 8-0 (and 10-1) start following a 5-6 season … but 44-13 and 28-6 defeats in the final two con- tests became highly sobering. • Second-year head coach Charlie Weis was inspiring confidence with a 10-1 start in 2006 … but finished with 44-24 and 41-14 blowout defeats. • Loaded with NFL talent in 2015, the 10-1 Irish were vying for a CFP spot all year … but a crushing 38-36, 11th-hour loss at Stanford and a 44-28 defeat to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl mitigated a once-promising campaign. William Shakespeare was so cor- rect when he wrote "all's well that ends well." Last year Notre Dame finished 11-2, but there was at least an uplifted feel- ing of ending with six straight victo- ries, the longest to end a season since the seven in 1992. This year's team was at least as good and probably better and deeper in most areas, but finishing with 34-10 and 31-14 defeats against two of the three superpowers in the sport might not make it feel that way. Still, better to be criticized for woes on the big stage than never having the chance to reach it at all. Or some- thing to the effect of, "better to have loved and lost …" Here were some of the most mem- orable figures during the 10-0 regular season prior to the 0-2 finish: MOST VALUABLE 1. Ian Book — Without the fifth- year senior signal-caller 's experi- ence against game pressure, highly respected leadership and superb "es- capability," Notre Dame could have lost several regular-season games, especially while trying to find a re- ceiving corps for most of the first half of this season. Backup quarterback was as fragile as it comes this year, so his durability was crucial, particularly when he was asked to run by design or so often by ad-lib (485 rushing yards). He evaded hundreds of yards in potential sacks. Although Book was not the first- round passer like Brady Quinn (2003- 06) or championship runner like Tony Rice (1987-89), only Quinn ever passed for more yardage at Notre Dame and only Rice ran for more yards by a quarterback. Book's 30-5 career mark as a starter made him the first quarterback here to reach that number of victories. 2. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah — If on Jan. 7 the Walter Camp Football Foundation names the senior rover to its first-team All-America unit, Owusu-Koramoah would become only the 35th unanimous All-Amer- ican in school history. In an era of first- or third-down specialists, this Butkus Award winner was equally effective or lethal cover- ing wideouts, pursuing quarterbacks or shedding offensive linemen. He is the archetype of the hybrid safety/linebacker position and was too valuable to be taken off the field, with his 647 snaps the second most on the defense. 3. Kyle Hamilton/Liam Eichenberg — The mere presence of the rangy 6-4 safety Hamilton helped defensive coordinator Clark Lea expand the call sheet significantly because of his abil- ity to cover so much field and rub out potential snafus — especially in a secondary that lost three starters from 2019. His 63 tackles, one more than Owusu-Koramoah, paced the unit. The All-American Eichenberg continued an astounding tradition at left tackle, and he could become the fourth straight player at his po- sition in the Brian Kelly era to be a first-round pick, joining Zack Martin (2010-13), Ronnie Stanley (2014-15) and Mike McGlinchey (2016-17). MOST IMPROVED 1. Kyren Williams — From four car- ries as a freshman in 2019 — before getting relegated to the bench for the final nine games — he became a 1,125- yard rusher (so many of them after first contact by a defender) as a sophomore with 13 touchdowns. He also was the third-leading receiver with 35 grabs and a superb blitz pick-up blocker. Above all, he played with a fear- lessness and swagger that helped uplift and inspire the rest of a highly physical offense. 2. Javon McKinley — There was some uncertainty whether the former top-60 recruit would even return for a fifth season after a disappointing on-field career with 11 career catches, virtually all in meaningless time, through his first four years. This year he not only tied for the team lead in receptions (42) and led in receiving yards (717), but his downfield blocking made him some- one the coaches could not take out of the lineup. His 671 snaps were easily the most at receiver, tight end or run- ning back. 3. Kurt Hinish — A space-eater/ role player in the past, the senior nose tackle added playmaking skills while finishing second on the team in tackles for loss (7.5) — seldom seen at his position — and regularly redefin- ing the line of scrimmage. He will be a welcomed anchor in the middle of the 2021 defense. TOP SURPRISES 1. Shaun Crawford — The first surprise was that he returned for a sixth year despite sitting out three different seasons with devastating knee or Achilles injuries, and missed several weeks in 2019 with a grue- some elbow injury. The second was that after playing nickel or corner his entire career, he was shifted to safety, which he had to learn on the fly. The third was that not only did he make it through a full season, he played the most snaps among any- one on defense (654, 54.5 per game). Sheer lion heart. Sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford played nickel or corner his entire career prior to this season, but shifted this fall to safety, where he logged more snaps than any other defender. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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