Staff Picks Te’o as Kelly-Era Best

Irish Illustrated’s seven-member staff gathers to select the Top 10 players of the five-season Brian Kelly era in South Bend.

There are record-setters, award winners, and All-Americans – and perhaps a few All-Americans in waiting.

There are three current Irish and seven former; four of the latter rank as program legends.

There’s a pair of fifth-year senior captains by which all other captains should be measured – and perhaps a third in waiting. Conversely, there are three competitors (and counting?) that left collegiate eligibility on the table.

There are the requisite five-star prospects plus a trio of former four-star pledges and even a pair of three-star sleepers – both of whom finished among the list’s Top 5.

And there’s one all-time underdog.

It’s a comprehensive list regarding the best of the best of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame as voted upon by the Irish Illustrated staff.
 
The criteria: Writer’s choice. Whether an individual’s ballot was based on a player’s career consistency, or a single-season of excellence, or perhaps a late-career surge, each of the seven voters established his or her own criteria as a result of their first-hand coverage of the program.

The voters: Tim Prister, Pete Sampson, Jack Freeman, Jake Brown, Steve Hare, Anna Hickey, and Tim O’Malley.

Of note: Anna Hickey joined the Notre Dame beat shortly after the BCS Championship Game and was thus asked to project a bit through the 2015 campaign. She used 2013, 2014, and the upcoming season for her ballot. The remaining six voters covered all 65 games of the Kelly-era.

1. Manti Te’o -- It's a no-brainer based on his final season in South Bend alone. A Heisman finalist at linebacker? That's rarified air. Te'o went from a freshman playing out of necessity to an absolute anchor on a team that played for the national championship. – Jake Brown

-- Highest Voter Rank: #1 (twice)
-- Lowest: #2 (four times)
-- Most Often Ranked: #2 (Eligible for six of the seven ballots)

2. Zack Martin – Ranks as one of the most underrated players of the Kelly era as well. His dominance on the offensive line at Notre Dame was not fully appreciated until mountains of praise came from his first year with the Dallas Cowboys. – Anna Hickey

-- Highest Voter Rank: #1 (three times)
-- Lowest: #3 (three times)
-- Most Often Ranked: #1 or #3 (Eligible for all seven ballots)

3. Michael Floyd -- Owns virtually every receiving record of consequence at Notre Dame. One of Brian Kelly’s first recruiting coups occurred following his initial season when he convinced Floyd to return for a fourth year. If not for some nagging injuries, his records would be untouchable despite dodgy quarterback play as an upperclassman. – Pete Sampson

-- Highest Voter Rank: #1
-- Lowest: #6
-- Most Often Ranked: #4 twice (Eligible for six of seven ballots)

4. Harrison Smith -- Ticks all the boxes: handled the academic load, football performance, ND man, NFL career and a great interview. – Jack Freeman

-- Highest Voter Rank: #1
-- Lowest: #6
-- Most Often Ranked: #5 twice (Eligible for six of seven ballots)

5. Tyler Eifert – Notre Dame’s go-to target in its run to the 2012 BCS Championship game, Eifert’s toughness – both catching passes in traffic and as a blocker – plus his performance under pressure were his most valuable traits. Ranks among the three greatest at the position in the history of Tight End U, and the other two are in the Hall of Fame. – Tim O’Malley

-- Highest Voter Rank: #2
-- Lowest: #7
-- Most Often Ranked: #4 twice (Eligible for six of seven ballots)

6. Stephon Tuitt
– His collegiate career didn’t exactly close on a high note with weight issues and an early departure, but while Manti Te’o was manning the second level on one of the great Notre Dame defenses of all-time, Tuitt was recording 12 sacks and setting the point of attack up front. – Tim Prister

-- Highest Voter Rank: #2 (once)
-- Lowest: Unranked (once)
-- Most Often Ranked: #7 twice (Eligible for all seven ballots)

7. Jaylon Smith – By putting together dynamic junior and/or senior seasons, the versatile outside-inside linebacker could propel himself to the front part of this list in short order. – Tim Prister

-- Highest Voter Rank: #3 (one ballot)
-- Lowest: Unranked (one ballot)
-- Most Often Ranked: #8 twice (Eligible for all seven ballots)

8. Joe Schmidt -- A former walk-on, Schmidt earned a starting role in 2014 and went on to become the squad’s Most Valuable Player despite suffering a season-ending injury in Week 9. With Schmidt out of the lineup, the Irish defense collapsed and BCS aspirations quickly faded. – Steve Hare

-- Highest Voter Rank: #5
-- Lowest: Unranked on three of seven ballots
-- Most Often Ranked: Received nominations at #5, #7, #8, and #10 and was eligible for all seven ballots.

9. Louis Nix
-- Huge personality and the prototype anchor for Bob Diaco’s defense. Nix was dominant during 2012 and still very good a year later despite playing hurt. Notre Dame may never have another character like him. – Pete Sampson
 
-- Highest Voter Rank: #7 twice
-- Lowest: Unranked
-- Most Often Ranked: Unranked on three of six ballots

10. Will Fuller – Unexpectedly etched his name in program lore with one of the top single-season offensive explosions in Notre Dame history. Only two Irish sophomores scored more touchdowns than Fuller’s 15 last fall and both are running backs – NFL Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis (23) and all-time program great Allen Pinkett (20). – Tim O’Malley

-- Highest Voter Rank: #4
-- Lowest: Unranked on three ballots
-- Most Often Ranked: #9 twice (Eligible for all seven ballots)

Next in Line: T.J. Jones – Placed on three of seven ballots, ranking as high as No. 6.

As Prister noted of Jones: “Personified grace on and off the field. Worked to become a better receiver and athlete between his junior and senior seasons to finish second all-time in receptions with 181 for 2,249 yards and 19 touchdowns, including a 1,000-plus yard campaign and 11 total scores as a senior.”

Honorable Mention: In addition to the 11 detailed above, a whopping 21 players received votes -- three placed on two ballots: Kyle Rudolph (#4 and #5, respectively), Tommy Rees (#10 twice), and Ronnie Stanley (#5 and #10).

Said Sampson of Rees: “Saved Notre Dame football under Kelly without being a savior. While limited, Rees also delivered and played his part without drama. The only Irish quarterback take four seasons of Kelly’s coaching and live to tell the tale.”

Rudolph was left off of four of six ballots due likely to a mere six games played under Kelly before injury truncated his junior season. He left thereafter for the NFL.

Stanley joins Smith, Schmidt, and Fuller as current players to receive votes on more than one ballot.

Others receiving one vote include: Jonas Gray, Kapron Lewis-Moore Aaron Lynch, Tarean Folston, Malik Zaire, and Sheldon Day.

Kicker David Ruffer was noted on one ballot as an honorable mention selection (#11) – as was 2013-15 walk-on Buster Sheridan.

Best not to appear on any ballot: Offensive guard Chris Watt, running back Theo Riddick, cornerbacks Robert Blanton and KeiVarae Russell, safety Zeke Motta, quarterback Everett Golson, linebackers Prince Shembo and Darius Fleming, tight end Troy Niklas, and running back Cierre Wood -- the leading career rusher of the Kelly era.

How close was the Te’o/Martin voting at the top?

Te’o’s six-voter tally showed: 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2 while Martin’s seven eligible ballots read 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 3, 3 -- or a 0.3-point differential.



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