Notre Dame football: MVP and other awards through four games

Sep 10, 2016; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Nyles Morgan (5) warms up before the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 39-10. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2016; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Nyles Morgan (5) warms up before the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 39-10. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports /

With a third of the season gone, it’s time to take a look at Notre Dame football and see who’s played the best, who’s played the worst and much more.

In the whirlwind that has been Notre Dame’s 1-3 start, there have definitely been more lowlights than highlights, but the Irish have had some bright spots too. We are a third of the way through the season, so now is a great time to make some determinations about who’s rising, who’s falling and who to look out for for the rest of the year.

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Offensive MVP: DeShone Kizer, QB

This one isn’t even close. Kizer is the heart and soul of Notre Dame’s offense and the only reason the Irish even had a shot in their three losses. As impressive as Kizer was last season in coming in and leading the Irish to a 10-3 record, he’s been better so far in 2016. He ranks in the top 25 in the nation in yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and rating and is on pace to best all his 2015 marks. He has just three picks and a completion percentage above 62 percent and is eighth in ESPN’s total QBR rankings.

Oh, and he has the most rushing touchdowns on the team (5) and the second most rushing yards. He’s averaging more than four yards per carry and is the leading scorer on the team. It can’t be anyone else.

Year-end prediction: Kizer

Defensive MVP: Nyles Morgan, LB

Morgan, entering his first season as a full-time starter, has been a steady force in the center of Notre Dame’s defense, even as things around him have descended into chaos. After four weeks, he leads the team in tackles and has the only sack on the year for the unit. Nationally, he’s tied for seventh in solo tackles per game.

But perhaps most impressive for Morgan is the fact that he has rarely missed tackles. In a year in which Irish players have regularly whiffed, CFB Film Room has credited Morgan with just two missed tackles through four weeks. Unlike Kizer, Morgan has not been able to will his unit to something resembling competence, but he should be considered one of the most important building blocks for the defense moving forward.

Year-end prediction: Isaac Rochell, DE

Offensive LVP: Tarean Folston, RB

Now we get to the fun stuff. There are lots of candidates for this dishonorable distinction, but we’re going to go with a guy who entered the season with a lot of expectations and has been noticeably absent thus far.

In the preseason, Josh Adams and Folston were considered co-starters at running back. They were both named to the Doak Walker Award watchlist, and Adams described Folston’s power run game as the thunder to his lightning.

Four weeks in, and no storm has materialized. The Irish rank 83rd in the country with 163.8 yards per game, and more than a quarter of that has come from DeShone Kizer. Adams has disappointed some, but it’s Folston who has really fizzled. He has fewer attempts and yards than Kizer, and his average of 3.9 yards per rush rates as the worst on the team except for Malik Zaire. In the biggest game of the season thus far against Michigan State, Folston had just 14 yards on four attempts.

Year-end prediction: Colin McGovern, OL

Defensive LVP: Nick Coleman, CB

I hate to pick on Coleman, who entered the season as a nickel back expected to be used sparingly as a sophomore. But with the injury to Shaun Crawford, Coleman was thrust into a starting role, and he has not risen to the occasion. According to CFB Film Room, he has been targeted 15 times and given up 11 receptions.

Notre Dame’s secondary has been a sieve this season, ranking 87th in the nation in passing yards allowed and picking off just three passes (one of which came from Crawford). And Coleman has been the most consistent target for downfield threats. Nevada’s only touchdown against the Irish resulted from a misplay on a long ball from Coleman, and Texas absolutely abused him.

Year-end prediction: Andrew Trumbetti, DL

Best Newcomer: Kevin Stepherson, WR

Thanks to the nonexistent depth at wide receiver for Notre Dame, plenty of unknowns have had the chance to make their mark early on for the Irish, and none has impressed more than the true freshman Stepherson.

Since getting arrested at the beginning of the year as part of the Fulton County Five, Stepherson has righted the ship and then some. He ranks fifth on the team in receptions (8), fourth in receiving yards (149), third in yards per catch (18.6) and tied for second in touchdowns (2). Those aren’t outstanding numbers, but they’re solid, which is exactly what Notre Dame needs.

An honorable mention goes to freshman safety Devin Studstill, who also has not blown anyone away with his play but has done more than enough in his own right with 15 total tackles and one pick.

Year-end prediction: Studstill

Most Improved: Equanimeous St. Brown, WR

Last season, St. Brown had just one catch for eight yards while spending most of his time on special teams coverage, doing a whole lot of nothing interesting.

Now, he’s DeShone Kizer’s favorite target and arguably the team’s second-best player after Kizer himself. Through four games, he leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He’s made highlight plays. At 6-foot-4, he’s looked every inch the breakout star Notre Dame needed this year, and he could be the best Irish receiver since Michael Floyd.

Another honorable mention goes to fellow receiver C.J. Sanders, who has formed a two-headed monster with St. Brown that is one of the best combinations Notre Dame has seen in years. But seeing as Sanders was already an electric return man last year, his room for improvement was inherently smaller.

Year-end prediction: St. Brown

Biggest Bust: Cole Luke, CB

Luke entered this season as the old man of Notre Dame’s secondary, a third-year starter with 39 games of experience under his belt and primed to be the No. 1 corner.

He’s stayed as the No. 1 corner so far, but that seems to be from lack of better options, not superior play on his part. As outlined above, the Irish defensive backs have had a rough first third of the season.

Luke has had just one pass deflection so far this year, and he has allowed a number of big plays in man-to-man coverage, like this touchdown against Michigan State. According to CFB Film Room, he’s allowed 11 receptions on 22 targets. He may be the best Irish defensive back, but he’s fallen far short of what people thought he could this summer.

Year-end prediction: James Onwualu, LB

Bold prediction for the remainder of the season: Notre Dame will lose to Army

The Irish have not dropped a contest to West Point since 1958, a streak of 14 wins that encompasses almost all of modern football. But that will change this year.

Army is 3-1, with its only loss coming in overtime to Buffalo. The Black Knights have the best rushing attack in college football, averaging almost 375 yards on the ground per game. Notre Dame’s rush defense is ranked 96th in the country and give up more than 200 yards per game.

Next: Can DeShone Kizer really be the No. 1 draft pick?

The two teams will face off in San Antonio for the last scheduled edition of the Shamrock Series, and the Black Knights will ensure the hardest things for Irish fans to watch is not those god-awful Shamrock Series uniforms.