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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, October 18, 2017 11:10 pm

Handing out Notre Dame's midseason awards

CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Before the season, I thought Notre Dame would win eight or nine games. The question to ask now might be, "Are the Irish going to be a contender for the College Football Playoff?"

A 5-1 record at the midpoint makes for a rosy outlook. They probably have to win all six of their remaining games to have a shot at the CFP, which is a tall order, but they at least are in position to make a run, and Brian Kelly's team is suddenly supremely confident.

"Coach Kelly really did a great job this offseason," left guard Quenton Nelson said. "We knew it was going to work out for us, and it really has this season, and it's going to continue to."

The 13th-ranked Irish are in great shape as far as health goes ahead of Saturday night's meeting with No. 11 Southern California (6-1). On Wednesday night, Brandon Wimbush confirmed what Kelly said Tuesday. The starting quarterback is 100 percent after missing Notre Dame's last game, an Oct. 7 win at North Carolina, with a right foot strain.

"It's good," Wimbush said. "I'm able to run 100 percent. Foot is back to normal. I went into pregame (Oct. 7) and got out there for warmups and knew it wasn't going to happen. I'm excited to get back out there with my guys. We're excited for USC to come into town."

Before Notre Dame's season resumes, here are our midseason awards:

Offensive MVP: Nelson. Stiff competition here with Josh Adams, but Adams will be the first to credit his success running the ball to the offensive line's blocking. Nelson's superior run blocking made it easy for Adams to gain 776 yards in the first half of the season. Nelson is also athletic enough to excel as a pass-blocker.

"Any combination block I get with Q is normally a pretty good one," left tackle Mike McGlinchey said, "and he makes my job a lot easier."

Defensive MVP: Drue Tranquill. Even after two major knee surgeries, the Carroll graduate hasn't lost anything. He keeps getting better and is the perfect fit at the "rover" position in coordinator Mike Elko's defense.

"He likes to keep things simple," Tranquill said. "In my play, I'll be out there trying to make checks that are supposed to be the safeties' calls, and he'll stop practice and say, 'Just worry about your job,' so he likes to keep things simple and to the point."

Special-teams MVP: Tyler Newsome. He has a 45.7-yard punting average that ranks 10th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

"Our single biggest goal with Tyler is consistency," special-teams coordinator Brian Polian said.

Most improved: Alize Mack. With a team-high 17 catches, the 6-foot-5 tight end already has exceeded his freshman total (13) and qualifies as a comeback player, considering he was suspended for all of the 2016 season.

"He is motivated," offensive coordinator Chip Long said. "Great ball skills."

Biggest surprise: Jonathan Bonner. In his junior season, Bonner is handling interior offensive linemen like never before and repaying the coaching staff's faith with impressive play at defensive tackle.

"He's made great, great strides," Kelly said. "He's playing pretty good football."

Best freshman: Tommy Kraemer. His run-blocking skills and Robert Hainsey's pass-blocking ability have established right tackle as a strong position instead of a weakness.

"He's only a freshman and starting at Notre Dame," Kelly said of Kraemer. "He's physical. He's got some really fine traits."

Best coaching move: Long helped Kelly change the offensive identity toward a physical running game. The Irish failed to surpass 300 yards rushing in any game last year. They've already done it four times this season.

"The size and power we have up front ... allows me to be able to run the ball whenever I want to," Long said.

Player ready to emerge: Chase Claypool. He has 12 receptions. He really needs to be an every-down player from this point forward because the Irish believe in his talent and have such an unsettled wide-receiver situation.

"Yeah, I think we feel a little bit more comfortable on the perimeter with Claypool and (No. 1 wideout Equanimeous St. Brown)," Kelly said. "We're still a work in progress with some of the other receivers."

Key to the second half: Re-establishing the passing attack. The Irish hope Wimbush can start hitting his targets more consistently to make life easier for the running game and the defense as the schedule gets a lot tougher.

"Brandon is our starter," Kelly said. "Ian (Book) did a great job coming in while Brandon wasn't healthy, but, no, we're not considering (a timeshare)."