Counting the biggest stars from Notre Dame football in the 2000s

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Too often, it seems, the biggest reaction to assembling an all-star team turns out to be the missing pieces.

In this case, it may actually be warranted.

Michael Floyd — Notre Dame’s career leader in receptions, receiving yards and TD catches — was left off the ND All-2000s team, chosen by the Tribune staff.

We probably could have contrived a way to make it happen. Name a second team. Give a lifetime achievement award. Concoct an “all-purpose” slot.

We passed.

It could also be argued that we passed on a catchy name for the team, comprising players who suited up for Notre Dame between 2000 and 2019. All-Millennium Team is admittedly more bodacious, but the problem is that the millennium started on Jan. 1, 2001, not 2000.

The methodology for selecting the players and coaches is more science than art, but definitely a blending of the two.

Beyond squeezing four deserving wide receivers into three slots, the most difficult challenge was dealing with a glut of standout offensive tackles. The remedy there was moving Zack Martin inside to guard, the position at which he was drafted and has earned six straight Pro Bowl honors since.

Here’s a breakdown of the selections:

QUARTERBACK

Brady Quinn (2003-06), a rare four-year starter, was one of the easiest selections.

He is the only Irish quarterback who has earned All-America honors of any kind since Rick Mirer was a Football News second-teamer in 1992 and the only one to earn All-America distinction from the Associated Press since Joe Theismann in 1970.

Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn (10) scrambles as he chased by a USC defender during the 2006 ND-USC matchup in Los Angeles.

Twice he finished in the top five for the Heisman Trophy. In 2005 and 2006, Quinn’s play elevated teams that had significant flaws. His name is all over the ND record books, including most passing yards and most TD passes in a season and a career.

RUNNING BACK

At the only position that has gone the first 20 years of the 2000s without an All-American, this pick really came down to Julius Jones vs. Josh Adams vs. Darius Walker, with Jones (1999-2001, 2003) getting the nod.

In the record books, they’re fourth (Walker 3,219), fifth (Adams 3,198) and sixth (Jones 3,018) all-time in career rushing yards at ND. Walker was the best receiver of the three, Adams with the highest per carry average, Jones with the most touchdowns.

Jones also was very strong in the return game, both on kickoffs (23.3 career average) and punts (11.2). He holds the single-game record for most rushing yards (262) and has two other games in the top 10 all-time. Only Vagas Ferguson, with two, joins Jones with having more than one in the top 10.

Both Adams and Walker came out early for the NFL Draft and both went unselected. Jones, a second-rounder and No. 43 pick overall in 2004 is the highest ND running back taken since Jerome Bettis (first round, 10th overall) in 1993.

WIDE RECEIVER

The selections here went to Golden Tate (2007-09), Jeff Samardzija (2003-06) and Will Fuller (2013-15) — Nos. 2, 3 and 4 respectively on the Irish career receiving yards behind Floyd.

Floyd never made an All-America team, as the others did, with Samardzija doing so twice. Tate was a unanimous selection in 2009, when he and Floyd were teammates, and he also won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver that year.

It’s quite possible that Fuller and/or Tate would have eclipsed several of Floyd’s career records had they stayed at ND for their senior season. The same perhaps is true for Samardzija had he not been so underutilized during his two seasons under coach Tyrone Willingham.

TIGHT END

In the Tribune’s rankings of Notre Dame’s all-time greats at the position, published in April, only three-time All-American and 1977 Heisman Trophy finalist Ken MacAfee finished ahead of Tyler Eifert (2009-12).

Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert makes a touchdown catch in the end zone during the 2012 BYU game at Notre Dame Stadium.

The statistical king in career numbers at ND (140 catches for 1,840 yards), Eifert accumulated them in 2½ seasons as a starter and three years total.

As a redshirting freshman in 2009, Eifert considered a spinal surgical procedure that would have ended his football career. Instead he got a second opinion and kept playing.

The two-time All-American was projected as an NFL Draft third-rounder had he come out after a 2011 season in which he registered a school-record for a tight end with 63 catches. Instead he stuck around for the 2012 national title game run, and in 2013 became ND’s first first-rounder at the position (21st overall to Cincinnati) since Irv Smith 20 years earlier.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE

Leaving out standout players like 2007 NFL third-round draft choice Ryan Harris was tough, but the selections came down to three first-rounders, all of whom played for iconic line coach Harry Hiestand.

Consensus All-Americans Ronnie Stanley (2012-15) and Mike McGlinchey (2014-18) got the nods at their college position over four-year starter Zack Martin, who had the best career from start to finish but curiously was largely overlooked for All-America status.

OFFENSIVE GUARD

Another Hiestand protégé and possibly the most outstanding offensive player overall in the 2000s, unanimous All-American Quenton Nelson (2015-18), joins Martin (2009-13) at the guard position.

Notre Dame's Zack Martin celebrates a 14-10 win over USC, October 19, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Had we not slotted Martin at guard, the decision would have come down to Chris Watt vs. Mike Gandy, each of whom was an NFL third-round draft selection.

CENTER

Jeff Faine (1999-2002) was a clear choice, an All-American and first-round draft choice who turned down a fifth-year option to return to ND. Nick Martin, a second-rounder, is the runner-up pick here.

DEFENSIVE END

Victor Abiamiri was the odd man out and had comparable numbers to selections Justin Tuck (2001-04), the school’s single-season and career leader in sacks, and 2012 All-American Stephon Tuitt (2011-13), No. 2 in single-season sacks.

Tuitt being a key figure in a historically strong defense (2012) that propelled the Irish to a berth in the BCS National Championship game was a deciding factor in differentiating between him and Abiamiri, both NFL second-round draft choices.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

There’s some blur in the interior line selections in part because of scheme changes from 4-3 to 3-4 fronts and back again. Ultimately, Jerry Tillery’s (2015-18) senior-year crescendo on a team that made the College Football Playoff won out over perhaps more consistent careers of Sheldon Day, Trevor Laws and Derek Landri.

Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery (99) works against Michigan’s Michael Onwenu (50) during ND's victory on Sept. 1, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Tillery’s development was more incremental, but he finished 2018 as an All-American, and the following spring he became the first Irish interior defensive lineman to be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft since Bryant Young in 1994.

NOSE GUARD

This came down to Florida high school products Ian Williams vs. Louis Nix III, the latter mentored by the former. Williams would be the first to admit Nix (2010-13) had more talent, but Williams had more drive and maturity, and his leadership was tangible in the development of other players, including Nix.

Notre Dame didn’t push Nix for All-America status in 2012, even though he deserved it. Chronic injuries in 2013 diminished his impact in his final college season, and he elected not to return for a fifth year. Williams also missed games his final year because of injury.

Nix was drafted (third round, 2014) and Williams was not drafted at all, but Williams was by far the better pro (not a factor in this team’s selection, but interesting nonetheless).

In the end, Nix was more disruptive to opposing offenses, with more tackles for loss and sacks, more deflected passes and the ability to command more double teams. And Notre Dame doesn’t get to the 2012 title game without him, so Nix gets the spot.

Photographers swarm Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, center, as he does an interview with NBC after a win over Wake Forest on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012.

LINEBACKER

It’s difficult to argue that the two best defensive players on this entire team are All-Americans Manti Te’o (2009-2012) and Jaylon Smith (2013-15). Te’o finished second in the 2012 Heisman race.

Smith, whose talent was mitigated by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s severe coaching limitations, could have been a top 5 draft pick in 2014 had he not suffered a career-threatening knee injury in his final college game.

So the only challenging choice here was the third linebacker. The two who received strong consideration but didn’t make the team were a pair of fourth-round draft picks, Drue Tranquill and Rocky Boiman.

Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (9) takes off his gloves to give to a group of Irish fans after a 28-7 win over Wake Forest on Nov. 14, 2015.

The one who did was 2002 All-American Courtney Watson (1999-2003), a standout high school running back in Sarasota, Fla., who converted to defense during his redshirt year (1999). In the spring of 2004, he became a second-round NFL Draft pick.

SAFETY

The selections here were clear cut — first-round draft pick Harrison Smith and two-time All-American Tom Zbikowski (2003-07), the latter of whom was one of the best punt returners of the 2000s as well.

Notre Dame’s Tom Zbikowski (9) drags defenders Troy Goss (14) and Greg Veteto (31) after a long return against Navy, Nov. 3, 2007, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Smith, who dabbled at linebacker early in his career during the Charlie Weis regime, finished his ND career as the only player in Irish football history to register more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups in a career.

CORNERBACK

Another position group without much debate. Unanimous All-American Shane Walton (1999-2002), who came to Notre Dame on a soccer scholarship, is joined by consensus All-American Julian Love (2016-18).

Walton was the Big East Freshman of the Year in soccer in 1998 before walking on to the football team, with then-coach Bob Davie assuming he was trying out to be the kicker. Love holds school records for pass breakups in a season (20) and a career (39).

Walton was a fifth-round draft choice, and Love a fourth-rounder.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker Justin Yoon (2015-18) is Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer and holds the Irish record for field goal accuracy. … Geoff Price (2003-07) was sort of a late bloomer, with 2006 netting him All-America honorable mention honors. That season he finished fifth nationally in punting (a school-record 45.4 average) and the Irish were 11th in net punting.

Vontez Duff was a force on special teams for the Irish during Tyrone Willingham Era.

Vontez Duff (2000-03), also an outstanding punt returner and third-team All-American cornerback, had a career average on kickoffs (26.2) that was roughly a yard and a half shy of All-American Rocket Ismail’s career average. His 29.8 average in 2001, is eighth-best in school history.

Joey Getherall’s 12.2 career punt return average is seventh-best in school history and his 16.3 average in 2000 is third on the Irish single-season list. … Coverage ace Mike Anello (2005-09) helped lead Notre Dame to the No. 1 spot nationally in kickoff coverage in 2008, his final year as a walk-on.

During that season Anello recorded 23 special teams tackles in 72 opportunities (22 punt returns, 50 kickoff returns).

Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson (56) bulldozes Stanford’s Joey Alfieri (32) on Nov. 25, 2017, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.
Former Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana talks with Brady Quinn (10) after an Irish loss to USC in the “Bush Push” game at Notre Dame Stadium in 2005.
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) celebrates a big stop during the ND-Michigan game on Sept. 6, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o surveys the Stanford offense during the ND-Cardinal game on Oct. 13, 2012 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o celebrates as the Irish run out the clock on a 13-6 win over Michigan on Sept. 22, 2012.
Notre Dame’s Tom Zbikowski broke three tackles during his 60-yard punt return for a TD against USC in 2005.

OFFENSE

QB: Brady Quinn

RB: Julius Jones

WR: Will Fuller

WR: Jeff Samardzija

WR: Golden Tate

TE: Tyler Eifert

OT: Mike McGlinchey

OG: Quenton Nelson

C: Jeff Faine

OG: Zack Martin

OT: Ronnie Stanley

DEFENSE

DE: Stephon Tuitt

DT: Jerry Tillery

NG: Louis Nix III

DE: Justin Tuck

LB: Jaylon Smith

LB: Manti Te’o

LB: Courtney Watson

CB: Shane Walton

S: Harrison Smith

S: Tom Zbikowski

CB: Julian Love

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Justin Yoon

P: Geoff Price

PR: Joey Getherall

KR: Vontez Duff

Coverage: Mike Anello

COACHES

Head coach: Brian Kelly

Defensive Coordinator: Clark Lea

Offensive Coordinator: Mike Denbrock

Top Offensive Position Coach: Harry Hiestand

Top Defensive Position Coach: Mike Elston

Top Recruiters: Tony Alford, Mike Denbrock