Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Awards Season

When the season goes the way Notre Dame's did in 2007, you'll take any reason to celebrate. The Irish did last weekend, hosting a smaller, more intimate crowd for the year-end banquet in which highlights were few and far between in recapping the road to 3-9. But there were indeed some noteworthy accomplishments to salute:

Trevor Laws was the runaway, if not unanimous, winner of the Notre Dame Monogram Club Most Valuable Player Award. With most of the All-America team selections out and virtually all of them ignoring Laws' stellar effort, this is probably as good as it gets for the fifth-year from Burnsville, MN. Laws posted 112 tackles (second-best ever by an Irish defensive lineman), 8 tackles for loss (4 sacks), blocked three kicks (career blocks total: six, unheard of for a D-lineman), and recovered a pair of fumbles. He also received the Rockne Student-Athlete Award from the Notre Dame Club of St. Joe Valley, posting a cumulative 3.22 GPA during his undergraduate years and currently holding a 3.667 GPA in graduate studies. In a season full of lost ideals, Trevor was one of the lone constants, and it's a little disappointing that national recognition for his play eludes him, as if he alone deserves to be punished for the 3-9 record.

Joining Laws as a double award winner Friday night was John Carlson, who received the Westwood One/State Farm Student-Athlete of the Year Award (repeating in this category, as a matter of fact) and also won the Nick Pietrosante Award, given to "the student-athlete who best exemplified the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and pride of the late Irish All-America fullback." Carlson's level of play on the field frustrated some, since it was expected for him to have a big role in settling down whichever young quarterback took the reins on offense. The type of season Fred Davis had at USC (55 catches, 794 yards, 8 TDs) was the hope for Carlson this year. Instead, the returning Mackey Award finalist was held back in blocking situations a lot more and disappeared for long stretches of the game, but still paced the Irish in receptions (40) and yardage (372) while snagging three touchdowns.

Carlson was also equally committed to classroom excellence as Laws, recognized not just at the Notre Dame banquet but three days earlier in New York by the National Football Foundation (pictured, above right). On the same night former Irish great Chris Zorich was officially inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and Rocky Bleir received the NFF's Distinguished American Award, Carlson became the 15th Notre Dame player (and first since Tim Ruddy in 1993) recognized as a National Scholar-Athlete. Both Laws and Carlson were named second-team Academic All-Americans as well.

Other awards given out Friday to Notre Dame players:
  • Guardian of the Year Award (top offensive lineman): John Sullivan
  • Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Pat Kuntz
  • Westwood One Student-Athlete Honorees (weekly award during the season): Carlson, Barry Gallup, Leonard Gordon, Raeshon McNeil, Robby Parris, Munir Prince, John Ryan, Evan Sharpley, Chris Stewart, and Ambrose Wooden.
Of course, in the words of Coach Weis, "let's not kid ourselves". It was still a 3-9 stinker of a season, so the bold few who came out to salute the team Friday probably wanted first and foremost some straw of positivity to grasp at for next season. That came from a very heartfelt speech by All-American guard Aaron Taylor. Though he originally promised to post excerpts of his speech at his recently established website, Legends of South Bend, Taylor ultimately chose to fly blind, unscripted, and spoke from the heart. The result was a lot of sentimentality and sobering analysis of why a place like Notre Dame can still thrive in the wake of a 3-9 season:
I think especially in light of the way the season's gone and all those things, the tendency is to focus on the negative.

But at Notre Dame the reality is it's so much bigger and so much more than a 3-9 season or what a football team did for one year. ... I can't wait to have kids to send them here, to be able to experience the things I got to experience. I learned how to learn. I learned how to be tough. I learned how to be accountable. I learned how to have integrity. I learned how to make myself part of the greater whole and that together we could accomplish tremendous and wonderful things. Notre Dame is a place of opportunity.
Powerful, optimistic words, Aaron. We here at Section 29 wholeheartedly agree, and that's why we would feel remiss not to put our own finishing touch on the season with an awards panel of our own. The nominees and envelopes, if you please...

Team MVP

Brian Fallon - It's Trev Laws, son.
Kevin Braun - Corwin Brown.
Mike Devitt - Trevor Laws.
Pat Girouard - Trevor Laws.
George Heidkamp - When all is said & done...Trevor Laws.
Broadway Joe Long - TLAWS.
Paul Jacobs - Yeah, yeah, of course it's Laws.
Thomas McCall - Have to throw the broken record on here...it's Laws for sure.

Winner: For his tireless pursuit of tacklers while his linebackers were being blocked, for never backing down in the face of the other 10 men on the defense being rolled over, for being the only lineman in the entire country to finish in the Top 100 total tacklers, and for embodying the true spirit of Notre Dame, there was only one logical choice: Trevor Laws.

Team MVP Not Named Trevor Laws

BF - Jimmy Clausen, circa November 10, 2007. After being benched for a few games, he came back and took control of the offense, showing us that he, not Evan Sharpley, is going to be the leader of the Notre Dame offense. Good things to come. Also receiving votes: David Bruton (for the whole season).
KB - David Bruton.
MD - uh...Trevor Laws?
PG - Darrin Walls.
GH - Darrin Walls.
BJL - T. Laws.
PJ - Walls, for the mere fact that he's the first corner I've seen in recent Notre Dame history that actually looks like he knows what he's doing in the secondary. In his young career, he's already changing offenses so they throw away from his side.
TMac - Student trainer Tony Schiazza, who tied with Charlie Jr. for total TV appearances on NBC.

Winner: I'm not sure which I should be - impressed that Mike & Joe found Laws so valuable this season they voted him the winner of an award he was expressly ineligible to win, or depressed that they saw no other worthy candidates. By popular vote, the most MVP-ish of the other 84 scholarship players is cornerback Darrin Walls, who did in fact have a strong season in leading Notre Dame to an overall ranking of #3 in national pass defense (excuse me if my enthusiasm gets tempered by the fact that the Irish were 95th against the run).

The Julius Jones Award - Breakout Irish Offensive Player

BF - Robert Hughes; should've seen even more carries based on his ownership of opposing defenses every time he carried the ball. Also receiving votes: Duval Kamara
KB - Duval Kamara
MD - Hughes
PG - Kamara
GH - Hughes; while most of the attention has been placed on how indecision at quarterback hurt the team, equally damaging was the non-commital stance at running back. If Hughes or Aldridge had been pegged as "the guy" like Darius Walker was the past two seasons, the Irish running attack may not have suffered so badly in the first 8 games.
BJL - Jimmy Clausen/Kamara
PJ - Hughes, the kid just has a motor that won't stop.
TMac - Kamara

Winner: In a close vote, the honors go to the 6'5" wideout from Jersey, Duval Kamara. While I voted for Hughes I can't dispute this choice. Many fans have openly wondered what type of career Maurice Stovall would've had playing exclusively for Charlie Weis - I think Kamara's development will provide the answer there.

The Wes O'Neill Award - Breakout Irish Defensive Player

BF - Wes O'Neill, but in the event that he is not eligible for this prestigious award, my vote goes to Darrin Walls. It's not so much me as it's Walls. He's good. He started to stand out last year in a weak secondary but this year quarterbacks all but avoided his side of the field all together. Also receiving votes: David Bruton.
KB - T. Laws/Kerry Neal
MD - Walls
PG - Laws
GH - Bruton; runner-up: Brian Smith.
BJL - Laws
PJ - Walls once again.
TMac - Tie between Kevin Braun, Leprechaun Emeritus and...T Laws.

Winner: Again, proving his worth in all areas of the team, Trevor Laws walks away with another piece of hardware, this one just as deserved as all the other ones. With 112 stops, Laws had as many tackles in his senior season as he had in the first three years combined. For a guy playing a new position in a new scheme, this certainly fits the definition of a breakout year.

The Chris Thomas Award

This award invokes the memory of Irish PG Chris Thomas, who came to Notre Dame as the most hyped basketball recruit in a decade, the winner of Indiana's coveted Mr. Basketball Award in high school. Despite a solid start to his career than included back-to-back NCAA berths and a Sweet 16 trip his sophomore year, the heavy burden of expectations that went unmet the longer he played soured some overall memories of his 4 years in blue & gold.

BF - Tom Zbikowski. Great with the ball in his hands, horrible at keeping it out of those of opposing receivers. Also receiving votes: Ambrose Wooden & Travis Thomas (not sure about their hype), Johns Sullivan and Carlson (only based on their senior season flop).
KB - Zibby!!!! I cannot stand watching road games because every new crew feels the need to uber-praise him disgustingly.
MD - Am"bros before hoes" Wooden (I really just wanted to use his nickname).
PG - Dwight Stephenson, Jr (or Tom Zbikwoski...wait, was Ambrose Wooden hyped???)
GH - Fair or unfair, the award goes to Tom Zbikowski.
BJL - Zibby (or Matt Carufel).
PJ - Zibby just wasn't the same this year. This is even sadder considering the memorable punt return against USC our junior year that will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life.
TMac - Zibby (or Mike Brey himself).

Winner: As expected, Tom Zbikowski gets saddled with the sin of falling short of lofty hype and expectations when assessing the total sum of his four-year career. While this might be construed as damning Zibby with faint praise, I rather think of him as the Aaron Rowand of Notre Dame football - a gamer to the very end with a run-through-the-wall mentality that appeals to the blue-collar core of Notre Dame football fans, but in the end he's garnered a reputation that outstrips the reality of his performance. Even so, he tallied 7 touchdown returns in his career (2 fumbles, 3 punts, 2 interceptions), and also had three others wiped out by penalties. But his tendency to bite on run-fakes and overall ineffective pass coverage belies his reputation as a game-breaking safety. Also, a check of the archives seems to confirm that Ambrose Wooden was hyped, being ranked as a SuperPrep All-American, one of the Top 100 players according to ESPN, and a four-star prospect by both Rivals and Scout.com.

The Sean Calloway Award

Given to that individual who produces maximum results despite limited vertical and physical attributes, proving most definitely that great things can come in small packages.

BF - I wish I could vote for Armando Allen, but that might yet be a year in the future. I also wish I could vote for 'Golden is thy Tate' but I think he saw the field and made as many catches in his one breakout game against Purdue than he did the entire rest of the season. In lieu of those two let-downs, Mike Anello.
KB - Anello, although I'm not sure about wearing #45.
MD - Anello.
PG - Trevor Laws (he's undersized by most defensive lineman standards).
GH - Anello.
BJL - Golden Tate.
TMac - Paul R. Jacobs.
PJ - Although I appreciate TMac's vote of confidence, I have to agree with those that stated before that Anello is the winner here. The simple fact that I would feel tall around this kid makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Winner: Tough luck if you were already sick of hearing about him on NBC telecasts (hey, at least they were devoting time to Irish players who were doing something right!), but he deserves one more hearty round of applause: Mike Anello. Notre Dame's kamikaze punt gunner managed to stuff some of the nation's best return men in their tracks once he cracked the punt coverage team before the Michigan game. While his walk-on status and wearing of the number 45 insures that the Rudy comparisons will be beaten to death in his senior year (particularly if the scholarship lineup lays another dud), Anello went all-out on every play, creating most of the rare special teams highlights for 2007.

The Memorial Trophy

Given to the play or moment at which, officially, hope died in 2007.

BF - The first drive against Michigan which contained, out of three plays, two botched shotgun snaps. Oh, and Clausen getting sacked by the entire Michigan defensive line in unison was also heart-wrenchingly impressive. Also receiving votes: the quarterback carousel of the Georgia Tech game.
KB - Evan Sharpley entering the game against MSU down 31-14, making that the FIFTH starting quarterback change in four games, as well as making more QB controversy down the road.
MD - This.
PG - When Jimmy Clausen got sacked by 4/11th of the Michigan defense on one play.
GH - First snap of the Michigan game, as fifth-year senior leader John Sullivan's snap sails roughly 12 feet over the head of Armando Allen.
BJL - Tashard Choice's first carry of the Georgia Tech game.
PJ - I have to say when we lost to Michigan. Whoever won the game had the potential to recover from a slow start and could make something of the year. The team that lost, well we know how that turned out.
TMac - Taking this sentence literally, I'd have to say after the second lock-in at Welworth.

Might as well have cued up Don McLean with, "Bye, Bye Mr. All-American Guy..."

The MoStovall Senior Year of Vengeance Award

Given to the returning junior/senior with the most to prove in 2008 following a lackluster career thus far.

BF - Asaph Schwapp. However, that means that he would need to see the field in order to act out said vengeance and that's a deal I'm not quite ready to commit to. Also receiving votes: O-line, particularly Duncan and Turkovich.
KB - Sam Young.
MD - DJ Hord. I know he's been hurt, but I expected him to be a major contributor at wideout.
PG - Anthony Vernaglia (if he doesn't come back you can award him the Chris Thomas Award).
GH - Terrail Lambert. I thought he'd turned the corner after getting burned so badly last season against Michigan, but save for the Stanton interception that fell straight into his lap the following week, he's not been a good coverage back or a good open-field tackler.
BJL - The 5th-years - they are all disappointing, but also Schwapp. I mean, he did coin the term "Schwap'd away the game" with his late fumble during Charlie's first season.
PJ - Any of the returning O-line.
TMac - Schwapp. He's got something to prove.

Winner: Obviously when assessing a team so lacking in both talent & numbers along the final two classes, you can't go wrong with anybody here. But fullback Asaph Schwapp remains an enigma, talented enough to step in for Rashon Powers-Neal as a freshman yet never rising close to being the goal-line or short-yardage option that RPN was. Furthermore, here he is in his third year still battling fumble-itis. Next year's depth chart (for the moment) features just two true fullbacks, Schwapp and Luke Schmidt. The senior from Hartford, CT needs to realize that it's now or never.

Play of the Year

BF - The one that will stick with me personally will be David Grimes' diving no-catch against Stanford. Turned out to be meaningless but that could've been the most egregious display of replay viewing ineptitude I have ever seen that negated an unbelievable play. Please advise if you disagree.
KB - 15-yd penalty for excessive celebration after a pick-6 makes the BC game 20-14. (Editor's note: We're not entirely sure Kev understood the nature of the question).
MD - David Grimes' catch at Stanford. It was a catch.
PG - Play that counted: Golden Tate's amazing touchdown catch against Purdue. Play that didn't count: lateral-filled interception return at Stanford.
GH - Darrin Walls' pick-six at Penn State. Sentimental runner-up: Robert Hughes' touchdown versus Navy.
BJL - Golden Tate, from Sharpley.
PJ - All good plays have been erased from my mind due to the overwhelming negatives. I plead the fifth.
TMac - It's definitely Grimes' "catch" from the Stanford game.

Winner: Again, a 3-9 season can leave the pickings in this category mighty slim. So much so that the overall winner is a play that didn't even count...


In honor of ESPN The Magazine, which Irish player is a household name next year? (For the right reasons, let's assume.)

BF - The trendy choice here would be Clausen. But I'm going to say our linebackers. Brockington is finally gone, Neal and Smith have a year under their belts and Crum is back in the middle. I think they'll hold down the fort pretty well. Also receiving votes: Clausen, Kamara, Walls, Hughes.
KB - Armando Allen.
MD - Hughes.
PG - Luke Harangody (oh, wait...Hughes).
GH - Ian Williams. Runner-up: Harrison Smith, who will be hailed as The Second Coming of Zibby, given his status as a semi-fast white safety.
BJL - Mike Floyd.
PJ - I think Golden Tate is not only going to finally become comfortable with the offense and running routes, I think Charlie is going to feel comfortable letting Jimmy lob the ball down field to him. I expect to finally see some real breakaway speed.
TMac - If he actually shows up to training camp, I agree with Dick and will say Floyd. If he gets within a couple of feet of the ball, we could be seeing some magic next year (assuming the ball gets to him).

Winner: By majority of mentions...Robert Hughes, you got next.


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