Analysis: Quiet awards season for Notre Dame a matter of perception, not talent
SOUTH BEND — When it was suggested to Notre Dame offensive guard Trevor Ruhland that he looked like a million bucks during his moment in the spotlight Friday night, the grad senior, clad in light-colored jeans and a leopard-print jacket, showed off his math skills.
“Actually,” he said, “I got the jeans last week at Old Navy for $11 and the jacket is (teammate) Colin Grunhard’s, so 11 bucks. It worked out well, right?”
As thrilled as the affable Ruhland was about his wardrobe choice, you would have thought he’d have won the Heisman Trophy when he was named the recipient of the Humble & Hungry Award at the Echoes 19 Awards Show at the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts.
It meant that much to him.
And Ruhland’s ability to get past a medical history that includes three surgeries on his left knee, two torn pectoral muscles, a broken nose, a broken ankle, a broken elbow and a torn labrum in his shoulder to make five November starts in place of Associated Press Midseason All-America right guard Tommy Kraemer meant that much to Notre Dame.
He’ll make start No. 6 on Dec. 28 in the Camping World Bowl (Noon EST; ABC-TV) for the AP 14th-ranked Irish (10-2) against Iowa State (7-5). That will be Ruhland’s last game of competitive football. His body has rejected his NFL dreams.
These are the story lines that characterized Notre Dame’s 2019 season — stories of heart, of courage, of overachieving and ascending surprise players like linebackers Asmar Bilal and Drew White, rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, defensive ends Jamir Jones and Ade Ogundeji and kicker Jonathan Doerer.
But no All-Americans.
The 2019 AP teams — three deep at each position — were unveiled Monday. No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Ohio State each had three players on the first team alone, with the Buckeyes amassing a nation’s leading seven selections over the first through third teams.
Alabama, out of the College Football Playoff and the rest of the New Year’s 6 bowl lineup for the first time since their inception in 2014, didn’t have a first-teamer for the first time since 2010.
The Crimson tide did have five players overall on the second and third teams. That tied Utah and No. 4 Oklahoma for the second-most overall selections. LSU and No. 3 Clemson each had four overall.
Full disclosure, I’m one of the 15 voters on the AP panel, and I voted for Notre Dame junior tight end Cole Kmet on the second team. All voters selected only two teams, even though three teams were named.
Similarly to the All-America team whiff, Notre Dame only had one finalist for any of the individual position-specific awards, and senior long snapper John Shannon won that one Saturday night — the inaugural Patrick Mannelly Award.
The AP hardly stands alone where Notre Dame is concerned as the awards season enters its final days.
For comparison’s sake with regard to the All-America teams, Notre Dame had at least one All-American — as designated by at least one of the universally NCAA-recognized organizations that put out one each year — in every season of the Lou Holtz coaching era (1986-96).
The Irish had three or more selections in all but two of those seasons (1994, 1996).
In the 2000s, it’s been a lot more hit and miss. If ND doesn’t land an 11th-hour spot on one of the last teams to be released, 2019 will mark the eighth season in the 2000s with no Irish All-Americans and the first since 2013, when left offensive tackle Zack Martin was inexplicably omitted.
In the other seasons, it was sort of easy to see why the Irish didn’t garner any. The head coach was fired in 2001 (Bob Davie) and 2004 (Tyrone Willingham), for instance. The 2007 season was the losingest (3-9) in Irish history.
In 2019, the lack of All-Americans wasn’t a talent problem. It was a perception problem. That and the lack of any players with freaky statistical bottom lines. There was a parity of talent on the Irish roster, for lack of a better term, particularly on defense.
Notre Dame did land three players on the preseason AP second team — safety Alohi Gilman, defensive end Julian Okwara and Kraemer. But Okwara’s season ended with a fractured fibula against Duke on Nov. 9, and Kraemer never made it into November after suffering a knee injury.
Gilman was part of a unit that ranked fifth nationally in pass-efficiency defense, but he didn’t have wow numbers this season. Interestingly, the guy that did was a one-time starter — freshman safety Kyle Hamilton — and he has been a staple on the various freshman All-America teams.
The perception piece to all of this is the 45-14 loss at Michigan on Oct. 26.
It’s why the Irish never rose above No. 15 in the College Football Playoff rankings, why they’re in a bowl that begins with the word “Camping” (and why the fan base is insulted by that), and why so many people mistakenly assumed the purging of third-year offensive coordinator Chip Long had a statistical basis to it.
Conversely, the computer-based Fremeau Efficiency Index, with no eye test, and analytics-based Pro Football Focus rankings, had the Irish rated No. 10 and No. 7, respectively heading into the bowl season.
Perception is also why there will be plenty of skepticism before Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series matchup with Wisconsin Oct. 3 of next season at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., and its Nov. 7 home game against Clemson.
Can Notre Dame change the perception? The Irish figure to have the talent to do so in 2020, but they’ll have to change their history in big games to convince those on the outside looking in and even a good portion of their own fan base.
A year from now, Ruhland, for one, will be watching, confident that it will happen and perhaps even wearing the leopard-print jacket.
“It’s not just the guys everybody knows who are coming back,” he said. “It’s guys people don’t know, like (offensive guard) John Dirksen, who’s really coming on.
“Oh, and by the way, if you know of a good job out there, I work real hard and I’m good with people.”
AP ALL-AMERICA TEAM
Quarterback — Joe Burrow, senior, LSU.
Running backs — Chuba Hubbard, sophomore, Oklahoma State; Jonathan Taylor, junior, Wisconsin.
Tackles — Penei Sewell, sophomore, Oregon; Andrew Thomas, junior, Georgia.
Guards — Wyatt Davis, sophomore, Ohio State; Kevin Dotson, senior, Louisiana-Lafayette.
Center — Tyler Biadasz, junior, Wisconsin.
Tight end — Harrison Bryant, senior, Florida Atlantic.
Wide receivers — Ja’Marr Chase, sophomore, LSU; CeeDee Lamb, junior, Oklahoma.
All-purpose player — Lynn Bowden Jr., junior, Kentucky.
Kicker — Keith Duncan, junior, Iowa.
Ends — Chase Young, junior, Ohio State; James Lynch, junior, Baylor.
Tackles — Derrick Brown, senior, Auburn; Javon Kinlaw, senior, South Carolina.
Linebackers — Isaiah Simmons, junior, Clemson; Evan Weaver, senior, California; Micah Parsons, sophomore, Penn State.
Cornerbacks — Derek Stingley, freshman, LSU; Jeff Okudah, junior, Ohio State.
Safeties — Antoine Winfield Jr., sophomore, Minnesota; J.R. Reed, senior, Georgia.
Punter — Max Duffy, junior, Kentucky.
Quarterback — Justin Fields, sophomore, Ohio State.
Running backs — J.K. Dobbins, junior, Ohio State; Travis Etienne, junior, Clemson.
Tackles — Jedrick Wills Jr., junior, Alabama; Tristan Wirfs, junior, Iowa.
Guards — Shane Lemieux, senior, Oregon; John Simpson, senior, Clemson.
Center — Creed Humphrey, sophomore, Oklahoma.
Tight end — Hunter Bryant, junior, Washington.
Wide receivers — Devonta Smith, junior, Alabama; Michael Pittman, senior, Southern California.
All-purpose player — Jaylen Waddle, sophomore, Alabama.
Kicker — Rodrigo Blankenship, senior, Georgia.
Ends — A.J. Epenesa, junior, Iowa; Curtis Weaver, junior, Boise State.
Tackles — Jaylen Twyman, sophomore, Pittsburgh; Jordan Elliott, junior, Missouri.
Linebackers — Hamilcar Rashed Jr., junior, Oregon State; Zack Baun, senior, Wisconsin; Jordyn Brooks, senior, Texas Tech..
Cornerbacks — Amik Robertson, junior, Louisiana Tech; Jaylon Johnson, junior, Utah.
Safeties — Julian Blackmon, senior, Utah; Grant Delpit, junior, LSU.
Punter — Braden Mann, senior, Texas A&M.
Quarterback — Jalen Hurts, senior, Oklahoma.
Running backs — Zack Moss, senior, Utah; AJ Dillon, junior, Boston College.
Tackles — Calvin Throckmorton, senior, Oregon; Colton McKivitz, senior, West Virginia.
Guards — Jonah Jackson, senior, Ohio State; Ben Bredeson, senior, Michigan.
Center — Matt Hennessy, junior, Temple.
Tight end — Charlie Kolar, sophomore, Iowa State.
Wide receivers — Omar Bayless, senior, Arkansas State; Rashod Bateman, sophomore, Minnesota.
All-purpose player — Brandon Aiyuk, senior, Arizona State.
Kicker — Nick Sciba, sophomore, Wake Forest.
Ends — Bradlee Anae, senior, Utah; Alex Highsmith, senior, Charlotte.
Tackles — Leki Fotu, senior, Utah; Neville Gallimore, senior, Oklahoma.
Linebackers — Logan Wilson, senior, Wyoming; Kenneth Murray, junior, Oklahoma; Malik Harrison, senior, Ohio State.
Cornerbacks — Trevon Diggs, senior, Alabama; Luc Barcoo, senior, San Diego State.
Safeties — Tanner Muse, senior, Clemson; Xavier McKinney, junior, Alabama.
Punter — Sterling Hofrichter, senior, Syracuse.
WHO: AP No. 14 Notre Dame (10-2) vs. Iowa State (7-5)
WHEN: Dec. 28 at noon EST
WHERE: Camping World Stadium; Orlando, Fla.
RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)
LINE: Notre Dame by 3.5