Beautiful appointments. Delicious food. Lots of hype around the event. VIP visitors, including those who were Irish athletes and those who might be. And then all hell broke loose with severe damage to an underappreciated yet critical part of the infrastructure, and the atmosphere of the event changed in dramatic fashion. Am I describing the 2014 season, with the near-miss on the road against then-#1 FSU as the only thing keeping us from a #1 ranking until defensive mastermind Joe Schmidt went down with a broken ankle? Or am I describing the 2014 football awards banquet, which was cruising along just fine until the water main broke and forced the organizers to evacuate the building?
Could be either, but for now we'll just take a look at the banquet because we can laugh at that and still go home happy in the end. In what truly was one of the strangest seasons I've seen in 20+ years as an Irish fan, there were plenty of interesting story lines that were revisited and enhanced by the developments of last night's awards banquet. Let's take a look at who came away with hardware:
Team MVP: Joe Schmidt. If you had any doubts about how big a piece of this team's success Joe Schmidt was, consider that his teammates named him team MVP even though he missed the last 4-1/2 games of the season. Schmidt already was a lock to come back as a fifth year senior, and now it seems pretty likely that he'll be a captain as well. Shut up with the Rudy stuff already, folks. This kid is a player.
Joe Schmidt: "This is probably the greatest honor of my life."— Chris Hine (@ChristopherHine) December 13, 2014
Offensive Player of the Year: Will Fuller. It's hard to argue with the selection of Fuller here; entering this season with just 6 career catches, he has totaled 71 receptions for 1037 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2014 and easily leads the team in all three categories. Nationally, Fuller is 27th in receptions, 19th in receiving yards, and 2nd in touchdowns. As John McLain would say, welcome to the party, pal.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jaylon Smith. Jaylon led the team in tackles (103) and tackles for loss (8.5) and was fourth in QB hurries (6). And of course, the "godbacker" was all over the field in every game, often seeming to flash from nowhere to make a play. As good as he's been he still has some room to improve, and will be fun to watch next year.
With 103 tackles this year, the ECHOES award for defensive player of the year is Jaylon Smith. pic.twitter.com/1bFl6Kn9ni— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 13, 2014
I love how even when Jaylon smiles, he looks like he could kick your tail.
Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Torii Hunter. This is an interesting selection in that Hunter wasn't a huge part of the offense - he had a total of 9 touches, 78 all-purpose yards, and 1 touchdown. Still, even with that small sample we saw some flashes of his athleticism and have plenty of reason to be optimistic about his future. We also learned that he loves to hit the circle button.
Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Drue Tranquill. The staff raised some eyebrows when they put a lot of effort into flipping the former three-star recruit from Purdue. After watching VanGorder's Swiss Army knife in action, I think we can all agree that it was effort well spent. With everyone healthy he should be able to settle into the Sam role and be a disruptive force in 2015.
Guardian of the Year (OL): Ronnie Stanley. The Irish might consider renaming this the Zack Martin Award due to the dominance of Stanley's predecessor at left tackle, but this year it's all Ronnie. Coaches, fans, and player alike anxiously await the results of Stanley's draft analysis - a 2015 return would bolster the Irish line significantly.
Moose Krause Lineman of the Year (DL): Sheldon Day. The junior co-captain missed the last two games with a knee injury, but that didn't prevent his teammates from recognizing his disruptive ability in both run and pass defense. Day is also awaiting a draft evaluation but is likely to return next year.
Scout Team Player of the Year (Offense): Tyler Plantz. The former walk-on was awarded a scholarship this year and, as evidenced by receiving this recognition, continued working just as hard as before. Hopefully he'll be able to do a solid job of mimicking Leonard Fournette.
Scout Team Player of the Year (Defense): Austin Larkin. Austin was a preferred walk-on and is a Notre Dame football legacy and the nephew of MLB Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. Some might be happy to be here, but like Tyler Plantz Larkin is a lunch pail guy who comes to work.
Special Teams Player of the Year: CJ Prosise. I thought this was a little surprising because I didn't realize how much of a role Prosise played in special teams. However, he has recorded 10 tackles on the season and is a key contributor on coverage teams. He's done a good job of taking the next step in his development.
Irish Around the Bend (Community Service): Kyle Brindza. Brindza is quiet but dedicated in his service - his Twitter headline includes the famous Jackie Robinson quote, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." Well deserved recognition. Also, this has nothing to do the award, but I love it so I'm going to take any excuse to repost it:
Father Lange Iron Cross (Weight Room Leader): Christian Lombard. Lombard has had a bit of a rough road physically, with back and ankle injuries hampering his progress on the field. He never complained and never stopped working, though, and Coach Longo recognized him accordingly.
Pietrosante Award (Exemplary Leadership): Cam McDaniel. The senior workhorse was recognized by his teammates for best exemplifying the "courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication, and pride" of former Irish great Nick Pietrosante. He's a college kid who's married with a kid - that's some courage and dedication right there!
Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Corey Robinson. Rockne's football prowess is well known, but you may not know that he was also a serious chemistry student at Notre Dame who helped Father Nieuwland in research work that ultimately led to DuPont's development of neoprene. Corey Robinson certainly stands up well in any academic comparison, carrying a 3.83 in the Program of Liberal Studies (note: that's not easy) and recently being named a first-team Academic All-American as a sophomore. The development of the Rear Admiral continues apace.
The Rockne Student-Athlete Award is an easy pick, Academic All-American Corey Robinson. pic.twitter.com/HNws3KDnwP— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 13, 2014
Not entirely sure what's going on with the cravat or the stache, but he's smart so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Tire Rack Play of the Year: Ben Koyack. Koyack took home this hardware for his game-winning fourth-down touchdown catch against Stanford. If not for a highly questionable flag Corey Robinson might've had two awards, but we're not bitter. Honest. Ben deserved this for his excellent effort in an extreme pressure situation; the Irish Connection stadium audio clip of that play may well be the best 10 seconds you could extract from this season.
Next Man In Award: Justin Utupo. Many Irish fans, myself included, were surprised to hear Kelly say before signing day this year that Utupo would come back for his fifth year. I figured he was a guy we would only take back if we had spare slots. Well, there's a reason I get paid to do IT stuff and Brian Kelly gets paid to coach football. Utupo did any job he was asked to do, including starting at defensive tackle against USC; along the way he recorded 23 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, one sack, and his first career interception. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.