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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s postseason awards underscore Clark Lea’s impact

Take a look back at the top 20 moments from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish's 2020 season in South Bend.

Notre Dame’s one season in the ACC did not end with a conference title, which would have been the richest piece of comic irony of 2020, but five Irish players did earn first-team All-ACC honors, led by three offensive linemen.

Left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left guard Aaron Banks and right guard Tommy Kraemer were joined by linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton.

Running back Kyren Williams, right tackle Robert Hainsey and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa all made the second-team, while Brian Kelly was named Coach of the Year in the ACC. Quarterback Ian Book, tight end Michael Mayer, center Jarrett Patterson and cornerback Nick McCloud were on the third-team.

The once-unfathomable but now-inevitable all-ACC inclusion for Owusu-Koramoah, in particular, is just the tip of the iceberg for postseason awards for the presumptive first-round NFL draft pick. The ACC also named him the Defensive Player of the Year, but even that is not Owusu-Koramoah’s peak this week.

The senior linebacker won the Butkus Award, recognizing the country’s best linebacker. Manti Te’o won the award in 2012 and Jaylon Smith in 2015.

Owusu-Koramoah is also still in the running for both the Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award, separate honors recognizing the best defensive player in the country.

Irish signee Prince Kollie won the preps version of the Butkus Award, something Smith did back in 2012, as well. Kollie finished with 109 tackles, including 11 for loss, four pass breakups and two sacks this season, along with an interception.

Much credit goes to Notre Dame outgoing defensive coordinator Clark Lea for Owusu-Koramoah’s development and Kollie’s signing.

Owusu-Koramoah was Lea’s first specific recruit when he arrived in South Bend, targeting the then-Virginia commit to become a rover in Lea’s (and then-coordinator Mike Elko’s) defense. Owusu-Koramoah was a mere three-star recruit pondering Michigan State as much as the Irish.

He idled in 2017 and broke his foot in 2018, so any expectations of becoming Notre Dame’s leading tackler in 2019 were muted, at best, though Kelly never doubted Owusu-Koramoah’s motivation.

“We want guys that love to play the game,” Kelly said a week ago of recruiting the underrated prospect. “I got to see a passion. We loved his, and when we spent some time with him, we loved the fact that there was a real love for the game and a passion for it.

“It’s their job to motivate themselves. … We recruit guys that have that love and that passion and that intrinsic motivation. That’s another thing that he had. Those are some of the intangibles that don’t show up on the recruiting sheet that we look for.”

By now, of course, Owusu-Koramoah may be the best defensive player in the country. That development was gradual before it was sudden but it was always constant.

In losing Lea to the Vanderbilt head coaching gig, Notre Dame loses an insightful defensive coordinator that held 25 of 37 opponents below their expected point totals, but the Irish also lose a master at developing linebackers, from Owusu-Koramoah to Asmar Bilal to Te’von Coney to Drue Tranquill, not to mention Drew White and Bo Bauer to lesser degrees the last two seasons.

Kollie looked to be the next in that line, a recruit Lea held onto despite a late surge in Kollie’s national profile. If Notre Dame worried about any recruit amid Lea’s departure, it was Kollie, but a concentrated effort last week held onto the consensus four-star.

Kelly is in the mix for a few more Coach of the Year awards, though Indiana’s Tom Allen has a stronger claim to the national honors than Kelly, among others. Notre Dame’s offensive line is a Joe Moore Award finalist, along with Alabama and Texas A&M. In 2017, the Irish won the Moore, given to the country’s best offensive line.

Eichenberg is also a finalist for the Outland Trophy, given to the best lineman, but since Quenton Nelson did not win the honor in 2017, it is understandable to be skeptical about Eichenberg’s chances.

This was mentioned in passing in Monday’s column, but to formalize it: As it remains somewhat unclear if the College Football Playoff can actually call the game in AT&T Stadium on New Year’s Day the “Rose Bowl,” due to the city of Pasadena, Calif., technically owning the name, this space will not be calling Notre Dame’s Playoff semifinal against Alabama the “Rose Bowl.”

Rather, given the absurdity of the situation, the absurdity of this being the Rose Bowl the Irish make for the first time since 1924 and the unlikely odds of Notre Dame upsetting the Tide, this space will be referring to the game as the “Thorn Bowl.”

It’s a small thing, but it brings a flicker of a smirk, and those should be gathered when available in 2020.

The other word you should expect to read plenty of the next 10 days is “buzzsaw,” as in, “They have been a buzzsaw against everybody,” as Brian Kelly referred to Alabama’s offense on Sunday.

It was too accurate a description to use only once when discussing an offense that may end up with three Heisman finalists. (It won’t, it will end up with only two, thanks to how the voting works, but three are deserving.)

The best chance the Irish have of slowing that buzzsaw begins with Owusu-Koramoah and ends with Hamilton. If worried about Hamilton’s injury suffered Saturday in Notre Dame’s 34-10 loss to Clemson, don’t. Kelly referred to it as a “nagging” ankle injury.

“With good treatment, he’ll probably be back out (practicing) middle of the week, but we’ve got to monitor him and make sure we get him back,” Kelly said. “He’s an important piece, but nobody really that we feel like wouldn’t be able to play.”

Clemson gets its revenge on Notre Dame, throws Playoff picture into chaosNotre Dame holds onto Playoff despite Saturday meltdown, will face No. 1 AlabamaPlayoff bid confirms ND among the near-elite, even if scoreboard remains lopsided

OUTSIDE READING:‘Only thing in Alabama’s way is Alabama’: Can anyone beat the Tide? Anonymous coaches weigh inNotre Dame will need flawless game to upset Alabama in Rose BowlSame old, same old: Playoff field delivers star power, but little originalityThe College Football Playoff just made its worst selection ever
Louis Nix III home from hospital, eager to watch Notre Dame face AlabamaThe Top Whatever: Well, that was somethingNotre Dame’s Lea says Vandy is job he’s wanted for yearsNo. 2 Clemson, No. 4 Notre Dame headline AP all-ACC honorsPFF’s All-American Team

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