To be a Notre Dame football captain is to be in rare, prestigious company.
Since the first year of Notre Dame football in 1887, approximately 3,000 young men have worn the Notre Dame uniform and represented the Fighting Irish in game completion.
Of those thousands, 202 players have served as captains of the Fighting Irish, beginning with HB-Henry Luhn and cracking the 200 mark in ’14 with RB-Cam McDaniel, OG-Nick Martin, DT-Sheldon Day and S-Austin Collinsworth.
The days of one player representing the entire team have curtailed significantly since the 1967 season when RB-Bob “Rocky” Bleier was the last solo captain until 1986 when LB-Mike Kovaleski served as Lou Holtz’s first captain at Notre Dame.
There have been a few others since. RB-Rodney Culver was a solo captain in 1991, which was repeated in 1999 when QB-Jarious Jackson was the lone captain in the third year of the Bob Davie regime. Brian Kelly named game captains in his first season with the Irish (2010) and S-Harrison Smith headed up the 2011 squad.
It was under Lou Holtz that four captains first became commonplace. Four served in that capacity in 1990 – C-Mike Heldt, NT-Chris Zorich, RB-Ricky Watters and CB-Todd Lyght. In 1995, there were five players in the leadership role – NG-Paul Grasmanis, OGs-Ryan Leahy and Dusty Zeigler, WR-Derrick Mayes and CB-Shawn Wooden.
The only other time five players served as captains was in 2007 when Charlie Weis named C-John Sullivan, TE-John Carlson, LB-Maurice Crum, Jr., S-Tom Zbikowski and RB/ST standout Travis Thomas.
With the 2015 season fast approaching, Notre Dame has multiple options for captainship. Two players who likely won’t be captains but were in a position before an injury and a suspension respectively derailed their candidacies are fifth-year senior LB-Jarrett Grace and senior CB-KeiVarae Russell, although their leadership will be valuable to the ’15 squad.
Notre Dame’s 2015 captains likely will come from the list of seven players below. If center Nick Martin and defensive tackle Sheldon Day are re-elected captains in ’15, they will be the 20th and 21st players in Notre Dame history to hold the title at least twice. (Note: The only three-time captain in Irish history is end Jack Mullen [1896-98] under head coach Frank Hering.)
There have been 13 two-time captains since South Bend native OG-Pat Filley in 1943-44:
• LB-Bob Olson (1968-69)
• DE-Willie Fry (1976-77)
• LB-Bob Crable (1980-81)
• RB-Phil Carter (1981-82)
• LB-Ned Bolcar (1988-89)
• OG-Ryan Leahy (1994-95)
• QB-Ron Powlus (1996-97)
• DE-Grant Irons (2000-01)
• QB-Brady Quinn (2005-06)
• RB/LB-Travis Thomas (2006-07)
• S-Tom Zbikowski (2006-07)
• LB-Maurice Crum, Jr. (2007-08)
• OT-Zack Martin (2012-13)
Complicating matters in selecting captains in ’15 is that when there are four, it’s usually two on offense and two on defense. Five of the seven players proposed for captainship by Irish Illustrated play on the defensive side of the football.
If there has ever been a year to justify five captains, the 2015 season would be it.
• C-Nick Martin (5th) – LB-Bob Golic (1979) and OLB/DE-Mike Golic (1984) were the only two brothers to serve as captains at Notre Dame until offensive linemen Zack Martin (2012-13) and Nick Martin (2014) came along. The Martins will hold the distinction of being the only two-time brother captains with the current Irish center a slam-dunk to be named this month.
• DT-Sheldon Day (Sr.) – Could a previous captain be unseated? It’s very unlikely since Day ascended to a leadership role on the defensive line following the departure of veterans Prince Shembo, Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt in 2013. But the list of candidates on the defensive side of the football is extensive, which just might prompt a rare five-captain corps.
• LB-Joe Schmidt (5th) – Nobody is more committed to the team/cause than the Orange, Calif., product, who is a throwback to the days when certain student-athletes would crawl to Notre Dame for an opportunity to play for the Irish.
But with Schmidt, it goes far beyond his love of representing Notre Dame. He is the brains of the operation on the field for the Irish defense (see Matthias Farley below), and his absence from the lineup over the last five-and-a-half games of the 2014 season contributed to its downfall.
• OT-Ronnie Stanley (Sr.) – By mere fact of his ability and experience does Stanley land on this list, but there’s also the leadership that Brian Kelly pinpointed following the Music City Bowl victory over LSU when Stanley led vocally as well as physically. With Martin a lock to be named a captain in ’15, it would require two offensive linemen to be chosen if Stanley is included, which hasn’t happened since ’95 when Leahy and Zeigler were tabbed.
• LB-Jaylon Smith (Jr.) – Working against Smith’s bid for captaincy is his workload and the versatility that is expected of him as both a Will and Sam linebacker. There is a ton on Smith’s plate without having to worry about the “burden” of serving as captain.
By the same token, he’ll be the best and most talented player in a Notre Dame uniform this fall, and in most instances – particularly when the best player also has been an earnest and dedicated teammate – that leads to a captainship. He’s just a junior, which would make it somewhat rare, particularly in a year when there are so many senior leaders.
• S-Matthias Farley (5th) – Farley clearly ascended to a leadership role in ’14 as an ever-present fixture at Notre Dame’s nickel back spot. He responded with a co-team-leading four interceptions, and then was the face of the football program on and off the field from the spring through the summer. If Schmidt is the brains of the defense, Farley is right there with him.
Farley could very well be one of the leaders of the country some day. Being named a captain of the Notre Dame 2015 team may be a bit more difficult because a) two captains return and b) three other strong defensive candidates are back on defense, including the reigning team MVP (Schmidt) from 2014.
• DE-Isaac Rochell (Jr.) – Of the seven candidates on this list, Rochell is the least likely to land a captain’s spot. He’s only a junior and there are six candidates ahead of him, five of which are seniors or fifth-year seniors.
In a year when the senior leadership isn’t quite so strong, Rochell would be a frontrunner because of his work ethic, maturity, productivity and great representation of Notre Dame when the camera/recorders are rolling. A likely slam-dunk to be named one of the 2016 captains.