Notre Dame builds team success off of individual accolades
Elizabeth Greason | Wednesday, December 5, 2018
Notre Dame has done it.
The famed, historic program will be making its first trip to the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014, as No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) officially punched its ticket to Dallas on Sunday for the 2019 Cotton Bowl against No. 2 Clemson. The last time the Irish achieved a similar accomplishment was in 2012, when they went undefeated again and landed in the national championship game against Alabama.
This is the time of year when everything comes together in NCAA football, and while that may provide plenty of distractions — see Manti Te’o’s 2012 Heisman Trophy campaign — if things line up properly, it can also provide a whole new level of motivation for a team.
This season, individual accolades are abounding for the Irish, as graduate student linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill was awarded the Wuerffel Trophy, for “exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement” and graduate student tight end Nic Weishar was named Notre Dame’s first-ever captain of the Allstate AFCA Good Works team for his work with his charity, the Andrew Weishar Foundation. Junior cornerback Julian Love is up for the Jim Thorpe Award, awarded annually to the top cornerback in the league, and senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery and senior linebacker Te’von Coney are each All-American nominees.
“It kind of was uncomfortable for me at first to really openly campaign for votes, for the fan vote aspect,” Love said of the award nomination. “It was definitely weird, and it was my mom calling me, and my girlfriend telling me like, ‘Why not go all out? You’re in it for a reason. Why not do all that you can, text everybody that you can to see if everybody can spread the word?’ So day two I kind of switched my mindset around from being like it’s cool and like that to let’s get after it. … To see that nearly 100,000 people voted, it’s amazing. It’s crazy the reach that that got, and it’s pretty cool.”
Notre Dame’s individual success this season is representative of something larger at work — it’s the result of all the team’s hard work coming to a head. Irish head coach Brian Kelly said this year’s team is completely different and better-prepared than that fated 2012 squad that got blown out by Alabama in the national championship game.
“I think the best thing about it is the 2012 Alabama team is not in this Playoff bracket because people forget how physical of a football team that was, offensively and defensively. So that’s probably the best news,” Kelly said. “The second part of that is that this is a better-prepared football team — coaching, the head coach, everybody associated with it, our staff, support staff. Everybody’s been through it.”
One of the biggest differences between the two teams, Kelly said, is that this year’s team sees steady production on both sides of the ball.
“Our football team is much more balanced. We were going into that game [in 2012] on the backs of our defense,” he said. “We can hold our own on offense in this run as well, so I just think better-prepared all around, and you know, it doesn’t change the competition level. There’s still great football teams, but let’s not forget that 2012 Alabama team was pretty special.”
Kelly is aware that, despite feeling confident in his team’s skill level and his players’ individual successes, there is still plenty of work to be done. But, at the same time, the playoff nod is a reward in and of itself, and it validates many players’ decisions to come to Notre Dame.
“Their ‘why’ is different. Why did they come to Notre Dame? They didn’t come to Notre Dame to not be a national champion. They came here to be a national champion because that’s the standard,” Kelly said of his players. “Listen, they go 12-0, they don’t even get on the ‘Play Like a Champion’ sign. … So for them to sit around and pat themselves on the back for being 12-0, that doesn’t get them anything. So they get that. That’s why they come here. They want to win a national championship.”
This is especially true for the players who stayed on for a fifth year — they wanted to use their final year of eligibility to be able to finally make an impact and take the team to where they felt it belongs and bring home a national championship. So far this season, graduate student center and captain Sam Mustipher said, they’ve taken the first 12 1/2 steps toward that goal.
“I mean, when you talk to all the fifth-year guys, I’m sure they’d all agree we came back because we realized the type of family and the type of unit we had on this football team,” he said. “For this to happen for us is pretty awesome. We’ve had our ups and downs throughout our time here, but you couldn’t write a better script than this.”
While people may doubt whether or not the Irish — the only non-conference champions in the playoffs — really belong in the top-four, the team is tuning out the outside noise and is confident in its ability to take down the Tigers (13-0, 8-0 ACC).
“I mean, nobody likes Notre Dame. That’s just the reality of it. If you’re not Notre Dame, you don’t like Notre Dame,” Tranquill said. “All the experts have to pull from in their recent experience is what’s happened over the last 10 years and how we got blown out by Alabama in ’12 and lost to Ohio State in ’15 in the Fiesta Bowl. Every time we go against a school with seemingly superior athletes on paper, we haven’t fared well.
“This team is different. This team is not the ’12 team. This team isn’t ’15. Look at our athletes on paper. I think we’ve got a pretty good spread as well, and I’d take us.”
Tranquill also dismissed the idea that going into the game as 11.5-point underdogs will discourage the Irish.
“Who cares what the spread has to say? I guess we’ll find out on Dec. 29,” he said.
Kelly emphasized the work that still needs to be done, stating that all a 12-0 record gets Notre Dame is a trip to Texas, which is not what the Notre Dame wants. The team wants to achieve its ultimate goal, which is a national championship, and that cannot be accomplished without a win over Clemson.
“[A 12-0 record] was just enough to get us in. Now we’ve got to go accomplish something,” he said. “So this is what they wanted. You know, I can put it in front of them, but this is what these guys wanted. They want to win a national championship. So all they did was punch their ticket into the opportunity in the playoffs to win a national championship, so now it’s go-time. Now we got in, let’s go achieve something. So that’s how they see it, and that’s a great mindset.”