I’ll be honest: I’m an absolute sucker for Top 10 lists, all-time teams, greatest this and greatest that, all things of that nature. I love the process of ranking, love the debates that follow, love everything about them. That’s why in this lull between the end of the football season and the beginning of Big East play in basketball I’ve decided to put together a little series recapping a decade of Notre Dame Football.
Let’s kick off the series with the Irish Defensive All-Decade Team.
DE: #44 Justin Tuck (’02-’04)
Best Season – 2003: 73 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 19 TFL, 3 forced fumbles
When he burst on to the scene in 2002 as a redshirt freshman he was used strictly in passing situations. It seemed like every time he got inserted into the game he either got to the quarterback or drew a holding call. If you remember his speed rush against Michigan in 2002 was responsible for the Skunkbears being flagged for a safety in the Irish’s two point victory.
By the time he was a senior he had re-written the Notre Dame defensive record books. He ended his career with 24.5 sacks, including 13.5 his junior year. Both still stand as Notre Dame records. I’m thoroughly convinced that if he would have returned for his senior season that the Irish would have gone undefeated in the regular season. With the way Abiamiri was abusing Winston Justice on one side, can you imagine if Tuck was the one hunting down Leinart instead of Frome/Talley from the opposite end of the line? Let’s move on, I’m getting upset.
DT: #98 Trevor Laws (’04-’07)
Best Season – 2007: 112 tackles, 4 sacks, 8 TFL, 3 blocked kicks
Trevor had one of the greatest seasons for a defensive player in school history during the 2007 campaign. In a year where seemingly nothing went right he was the sole bright spot. In spite of constant double and triple teams he registered 112 tackles while managing to block three field goals. He had a never-ending motor and was a leader during Notre Dame’s darkest hours.
When some players were interviewed after games in ’07 you could tell that they had come to grips with what was happening and were resigned to the fact that losses would continue to pile up. Whenever Laws had a microphone in front of him you could just tell how mentally and physically drained he was not only from leaving everything on the field, but also from carrying the weight of the season on his shoulders. I’ll always remember and appreciate the fact that never once did he throw up the white flag even though he had every reason to do so.
DT: #98 Anthony Weaver (’00-‘01)
Best Season – 2001: 53 tackles, 7 Sacks, 21 TFL, 3 forced fumbles
Weaver split time between end and tackle but for our cause of putting the four best defensive lineman on the team we’re going to stick him at tackle. Weaver was a huge contributor who earned a starting spot his freshman year and never let go. He wasn’t as explosive as Tuck or as visible as Laws, but he was consistently a disruptive force registering 42 tackles for a loss in his four seasons.
Perhaps his finest moment came in 2000 against Michigan State when he made an unbelievably athletic play and picked off a Jeff Smoker pass. He returned it down to the two-yard line and set up what should have been a game-winning touchdown run (burn in hell Herb Haygood, burn in hell). He often gets forgotten just because his game didn’t have any sort of flashiness, but he without a doubt deserves a spot on this team.
DE: #95 Victor Abiamiri ('03-’06)
Best Season – 2006: 43 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 15 TFL
Abiamiri came in as the highest rated recruit Ty Willingham ever lured to South Bend. He started every game of his last two years and specifically terrorized the Stanford Cardinal. In the 2005 and 2006 contests he accumulated a total of seven sacks, including a pair that came in back-to-back plays that ended Stanford’s last ditch comeback attempt in ‘05.
While the statbook may say those were his two best games in a Notre Dame uniform, any one who watched his performance against Southern Cal in 2005 would disagree. Vic introduced himself to Matt Leinart early and often that day, tossing around future NFL teammate and noted Philadelphia Eagle turnstile Winston Justice like a rag doll. He stepped his game up to another level that day; it was far and away his most dominating performance.
LB: #39 Anthony Denman (’00)
Best Season – 2000: 84 tackles, 5 sacks, 14 TFL, 2 forced fumbles
Denman was an absolute rock for the Irish front seven during the 2000 season. If you were to describe him in a word it was reliable—you could never recall him blowing an assignment, missing a tackle, or screwing up when he had an opportunity to make a play. He was voted the team’s Most Valuable Player in the Fiesta Bowl season by his peers and was named 2nd team All-American that same year by the AP.
His greatest performance was hands down his game against #1 Nebraska in 2000. He came up with 13 tackles, 2 tackles for a loss, and a sack in containing the vaunted Nebraska option attack led by eventual Heisman winner Eric Crouch. That day it seemed like he didn’t just tackle Cornhuskers—every time he made contact he LIT UP ballcarriers. Bob Davie went as far as to say it was the “greatest performance by a linebacker in his time at Notre Dame.” Unfortunately though, like many other phenomenal performances of this past decade it is largely forgotten because it came in a losing effort.
LB: #33 Courtney Watson (’00-’03)
Best Season – 2003: 117 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 15 TFL, 2 interceptions
Watson really burst on to the scene as a leader at linebacker on the vaunted 2002 defense. His performance in that “Return to Glory” year under Willingham earned him a spot as a first team All-American on ESPN. Against Florida State that season he turned the tide with his interception of Chris Rix in the third quarter, which started a stretch of five Seminole plays that resulted in three turnovers.
Prior to his senior year he was a preseason candidate for the Butkus and Nagurski Awards. While he posted statistics worthy of consideration for those awards, Notre Dame’s sub-par season doomed any chance he had of bringing home hardware. I always loved the story about his name. Apparently his father hated the fact that his mother named him Courtney, so his father never once called him by that name—he called him “Spunk.” The story made me like his Dad even more than I liked him.
LB: #30 Rocky Boiman (’00-‘01)
Best Season – 2001: 42 tackles, 4 sacks, 11 TFL, 2 fumble recoveries
To fill out our linebacking unit we’re going to tab Rocky. His stats aren’t all that impressive compared to players like Brandon Hoyte and Maurice Crum, but his numbers are a bit deceiving since there were times where he was asked to play with a hand on the ground at defensive end. I feel comfortable that if Irish fans were asked who they’d like to see at the third linebacker position Rocky would be at the top of the list. His impact on the field went beyond the numbers—he had the perfect demeanor for a linebacker and was a relentless competitor.
My favorite memory of Boiman came from the 2000 season. My buddy Brian and I were freshmen in high school and had snuck up into the student section during the Boston College. We were sitting with some random guys from Knott Hall who happened to be friends with Rocky and they said that he was an absolute maniac. The kid said that Rocky’s goal for the Purdue game that year was “to tear Drew Brees’s arm off of his body.” When’s the last time we had a player as tough as he was on our defense?
CB: #42 Shane Walton (’00-’02)
Best Season – 2002: 68 tackles, 5 TFL, 7 interceptions, 7 PBU, 2 TD’s
S: #20 Gerome Sapp (’00-’02)
Best Season – 2002: 71 tackles, 3 TFL, 4 interceptions, 7 PBU, 1 TD
S: #19 Glenn Earl (’00-’03)
Best Season – 2002: 81 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 interceptions, 4 PBU
CB: #34 Vontez Duff (’00-’03)
Best Season – 2002: 36 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 interception, 6 PBU, 1 TD
The All-Decade secondary quite simply consists of the 2002 quartet that was largely responsible for the magical run that took the Irish as high as #4 in the AP poll. There are a few other potential players worth noting, most notably Tony Driver and Chinedum Ndukwe, but the 2002 secondary was one of the most clutch and productive units we’ve seen in a long time. It’s impossible to separate them.
Shane Walton was the heart and soul of the best defense of the decade. He came up with huge play after huge play after huge play the entire 2002 season. His seven interceptions were the most in a single season since Tom Carter in the early 90’s, his seven passes broken up paced the squad, and he even stuck his nose in there 68 tackles (five for a loss).
I was out in South Bend for the infamous Neon Green Jersey Game against BC. In the second half the entire stadium was deflated after one of Notre Dame’s sixteen fumbles that game (is it possible that Marcus Wilson had more fumbles than runs for 4+ yards over the course of his career?). The defensive team came on to the field during the ensuing TV timeout and suddenly Walton just started flipping out, getting up in each defenders face and shoving them. He then went over in front of the student section and went nuts. By the time the TV timeout was over the team and entire student section were in a frenzy. First play of BC’s drive: interception. We don’t need to rehash what happened the rest of the game, but that moment was awesome.
George Sapp was a huge recruit that Davie plucked from Texas but until his senior season he had a pretty non-descript career. His final year was of course the 2002 campaign. Like Walton he came up with huge plays throughout the year, like his 54 yard fumble return for a touchdown in the Purdue game—a contest where Notre Dame scored three defensive touchdowns and zero offensive touchdowns…ahhhh the Ty Willingham years.
Glenn Earl vs Tony Driver was the toughest debate for me on the defensive side of the ball. What pushes Earl over the edge though isn’t just his stellar 2002 campaign, but his special teams contributions earlier in his career. In 2000 alone he blocked three kicks, including a chip shot field goal against Air Force as time expired that kept Notre Dame’s BCS hopes alive.
Lastly, we have Vontez Duff. He only had one interception in 2002 but he made it count—he returned it 33 yards for the clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter against Purdue. He was a solid contributor that entire year in a secondary that gave up just 12 touchdowns, picked off 21 passes, and allowed only 204.8 passing yards per game and a 49.2% opponent completion percentage. In other words, cut what our team allowed this year in half.
Truth be told, it was pretty slim pickings for the second best cornerback of the decade. Who else could it have been though? Mike Richardson? Terrail Lambert? Preston Jackson?
Stop, no more. Yes, Duff was second best.
P: #17 Joey Hildbold ('00-'02)
Best Season – 2001: 42.2 avg, 19 punts inside the 20, long of 59 yards
Hildbold was exactly what you need in a punter: a consistent and reliable performer. He wasn’t spectacular but you always knew he'd go out there and get off a solid punt. Hildbold was also a master of looking like he was taken out by a sniper whenever a defender so much as breathed on him. I would guess that he drew more roughing the kicker penalties than Eric Maust had punts that traveled 40 yards in the air this year.
Let the debates begin!
COMING UP NEXT: Offensive All-Decade Team