12 key figures in Notre Dame's 12-0 season

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune
The Notre Dame offensive line will need to take care of quarterback Ian Book (12) as Syracuse ranks No. 10 in the country in sacks.

IAN BOOK

6-0, 203 | Quarterback

Book’s promotion to starting quarterback unlocked another level of production in ND’s offense. He erased any doubts immediately with 325 passing yards and accounting for five touchdowns (two passing, three rushing) in his first start of the season at Wake Forest. The Irish scored at least 31 points in six of his eight starts after taking over in week four.

With a strong finish, Book can break Jimmy Clausen’s school record for completion percentage in a season (68 percent in 2009). Book’s completed 197 of his 280 passes (70.4 percent) for 2,468 yards and 19 touchdowns with only six interceptions.

Notre Dame’s Julian Love (27) breaks up a pass intended for Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside (19) during the Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

JULIAN LOVE

5-11, 193 | Cornerback

A season after setting the school record for pass breakups in a season (20), Love has proven his sophomore success wasn’t a fluke. His junior season has been just as impactful with 61 tackles, 15 pass breakups, three fumble recoveries, three tackles for a loss and one interception.

Love has a knack for finding the ball and knowing what to do with it. He returned a fumble against Virginia Tech for a touchdown, returned a blocked extra point against Florida State for a two-point conversion and recovered one fumble against Vanderbilt in the end zone for a crucial touchback. He’s a versatile defender that can limit an opposing offense’s options.

Notre Dame had coach Brian Kelly yells out to an official during the Irish victory over Navy on Oct. 27 in San Diego.

BRIAN KELLY

Head coach

All the changes brought on by the 2016 debacle of a season have paid off for Kelly. His decision to hand over the play-calling duties to Chip Long when he was hired as offensive coordinator in 2017 led to a balanced and creative offense. Even his hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who departed for Texas A&M after just one season, brought along Clark Lea, who was promoted from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in January.

While it could have come across as cheesy, Kelly’s dedication to spending more time with his players seems to have made a genuine impact as well.

Dexter Williams runs in for a touchdown against Syracuse.

DEXTER WILLIAMS

5-11, 215 | Running back

Williams sparked Notre Dame’s offense on his first carry of the season: a 45-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of the Stanford game. After serving a four-game, undisclosed suspension, Williams has powered the ND rushing attack. He has turned 142 carries into 941 yards for an average of 117.6 yards per game.

Williams also leads the Irish in touchdowns with 13 (12 rushing and one receiving), scoring in all but one of his eight games played. The former four-star recruit has finally neared his potential after three seasons full of injuries and inconsistencies.

Drue Tranquill wears a cast on his left arm during the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech game.

DRUE TRANQUILL

6-2, 235 | Linebacker

The heart and soul of the Irish defense has willed himself through injuries to play in all 12 games. A broken bone in his left hand couldn’t knock Tranquill out of the starting lineup. Even a nasty high ankle sprain against Navy couldn’t completely sideline him. He played through pain in a limited role one week later at Northwestern.

Tranquill, a two-time captain, returned for a fifth year at Notre Dame with the hope of playing for a national championship. Without his leadership and production (75 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks), the Irish wouldn’t have the chance.

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea, right, talks with head coach Brian Kelly during Notre Dame’s media day practice.

CLARK LEA

Defensive coordinator

Lea’s first season as a defensive coordinator has allowed Irish fans to forget about former defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Lea, who came to Notre Dame from Wake Forest with Elko, has improved ND’s national rank in scoring defense and total defense at least 20 spots each. The Irish are 11th in scoring defense, allowing 17.3 points per game, and 22nd in total defense, allowing 331.5 yards per game.

Lea kept the same defensive scheme and his play-calling has produced turnovers and a pass rush.

Miles Boykin celebrates against Michigan.

MILES BOYKIN

6-4, 228 | Wide receiver

Boykin transcended his big-play moment in the Citrus Bowl by becoming Notre Dame’s top receiver this season. Now big catches have become part of his routine. Boykin leads the Irish in receptions (54), receiving yards (803) and receiving touchdowns (8). Boykin scored in six consecutive games as the Irish worked through the heart of their schedule.

Book, who delivered his game-winning touchdown catch against LSU to end last season, has carried that chemistry with Boykin into the 2018 season. The two connected for a game-winning touchdown pass to beat Pittsburgh 19-14 on Oct. 13.

Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara (42) celebrates stopping Navy QB Garret Lewis (7) during the ND's 44-22 victory, Saturday at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego.

JULIAN OKWARA

6-5, 241 | Defensive end

Notre Dame’s improved pass rush may be the single biggest key to the defensive success the season. Though one can make strong arguments for defensive end Khalid Kareem and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, no Irish defensive lineman has had more of an impact than Okwara. He’s developed into an edge disruption in his junior season.

In addition to his seven sacks, Okwara has registered 21 quarterback hurries. That’s more than the next three Irish defenders in that category combined. The Irish don’t even rush Okwara at every chance. He intercepted a pass against Michigan as part of a called coverage.

Notre Dame Director of Football Performance Matt Balis runs drills during a practice.

MATT BALIS

Director of football performance

A November wilting never happened for Notre Dame. The Irish have credited the work of Balis for better preparing the team for its final month and a taxing travel schedule with his strength and conditioning program. Notre Dame has handled teams trying to win both with tempo and/or physicality.

Praise was heaped on Balis soon after his hiring in January 2017, and it’s hard to argue with the results. Kelly had a 19-13 record in November entering this year. He may need to give Balis a raise for the 4-0 record this November.

Alohi Gilman celebrates a big stop in a win over Pitt.

ALOHI GILMAN

5-11, 202 | Safety

The Navy transfer had to wait a year to make his Notre Dame debut, but he made his impact felt in the season opener with seven tackles, two pass breakups and one tackle for a loss against Michigan. Gilman hasn’t stopped flying around the secondary since then.

Gilman and Jalen Elliott have given Notre Dame’s defense a significant upgrade in safety play. A year after the position group went without an interception, Gilman and Elliott have combined for six with both of Gilman’s coming against Syracuse. Gilman, second on the team with 76 tackles, also forced fumbles against Vanderbilt and USC in key moments.

Offensive coordinator Chip Long has developed a better relationship with quarterback Brandon Wimbush heading into their second year together.

CHIP LONG

Offensive coordinator

The credit for Book’s success can be shared among Kelly, Long and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees. But Long’s ability to tailor the offense to a new quarterback four games into the season must be commended. Long has played to Book’s strengths and allowed for the offense to develop with its quarterback. He also had to come up with a game plan that allowed Brandon Wimbush to beat Michigan in the opener.

The dedication to the running game shouldn’t be ignored. Notre Dame has only finished two seasons in Kelly’s tenure with better rushing production than this season’s 190.5 yards per game, and one was last year under Long.

TE’VON CONEY

6-1, 240 | Linebacker

Coney finds his way to the football better than anyone on Notre Dame’s defense. He leads the Irish in total tackles by 31 (107 tackles to Gilman’s 76), and he has more solo tackles (59) than all but four other Irish defenders have total tackles. He’s made plays in the backfield — nine tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks — and in coverage — one interception and four pass breakups.

No one has been steadier on the Irish defense than Coney. He finished with at least a tie for the team high in tackles in eight games.

Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney claims to be the team’s best player in a locker room game called “Knockout.”