Below is a list of the 10 best single season performances by an Irish inside linebacker over the last three decades. Order is subjective (mine is listed) but with full knowledge that Manti Te’o’s 2012 campaign cannot – and will not – be topped.
10 ON TOP
Are you familiar with the old adage, “Write what you know”? Well that applies here, and as a result, former Irish stars Bob Crable (1980-81), Bob Golic (1977-78), and Jim Lynch (1966) are not included – as I never saw them play. Each a consensus first-team All-American, they clearly could have challenged for the next three spots behind Te’o.
1. Manti Te’o (2012): Let’s put it this way: aside from the Heisman Trophy, if Te’o was eligible for an award in 2012, he won it. The Nagurski, the Bednarik, the Walter Camp, the Maxwell (each a national player of the year award), the Lombardi, the Butkus, and the Lott IMPACT Trophy, plus, obviously, Notre Dame’s Monogram Club MVP
Te’o posted 113 tackles (a detailed review shows 29 Stuffs) with a remarkable seven interceptions at linebacker, tying for the highest mark nationally by any linebacker this century. Had a hand in forcing 11 turnovers overall and led the team with 11 passes defended.
2. Michael Stonebreaker (1988): Consensus first-team All-American and finalist (along with Broderick Thomas and Derrick Thomas) for the Butkus Award. Finished with 104 tackles including a whopping 33 in the season’s opening pair of wins against #3 Michigan and #20 Michigan State. Added two interceptions against the Spartans, one in the end zone and the other returned for a touchdown to seal the contest.
Collected seven pass breakups, two sacks, and forced two fumbles for the nation’s third-best defense, surrendering just 12.3 points per game, (still) the lowest average at the program since 1981.
3. Courtney Watson (2002): Played in just 10 games (missed the first two and later the Gator Bow) due to a pair of injuries but stuffed the stat sheet nonetheless with 90 tackles (including a whopping 36 Stuffs) to go with 3 sacks, 4 interceptions (returned for 123 yards) and 4 pass breakups. Watson’s interceptions occurred vs. Stanford (TD), Navy (to seal a 30-23 victory), No. 11 FSU and No. 5 USC.
He placed third in the Butkus Award vote and was named first-team All-American by ESPN while earning consensus second- and third-team selections thereafter. Notre Dame finished 10-3 and had the nation’s ninth-ranked defense yielding 16.7 ppg.
4. Jaylon Smith (2015): Consensus first-team All-American and winner of the 2015 Butkus Award, Smith has posted a team-high 27.5 Stuffs (includes 9.5 tackles-for-loss) and team-best 21 third-down “wins”. Leads the squad with 113 tackles while recording two fumbles and forcing another. Has 6 QB Hurries and 5 passes defended entering the Fiesta Bowl. (Assume at least10 tackles, 2 Stuffs, and multiple third-down wins await.)
The Irish defense is ranked 34th nationally yielding 22.4 ppg.
5. Michael Stonebreaker (1990): Consensus first-team All-American and again finished third in Butkus Award voting. Including Orange Bowl, Stonebreaker compiled 104 tackles while recording either a forced fumble, fumble recovery, or interception against Top 20 foes Michigan, Michigan State, Miami, Tennessee, and USC (plus unranked Pittsburgh) – the Irish prevailed in each contest.
Notre Dame played for a chance at the national championship, losing to Colorado in the Orange Bowl. In the era of championship Irish defenses, this edition fell from grace, finishing 50th nationally at 22.6 ppg.
6. Anthony Denman (2000): A consensus second-team All-American, Denman finished with 93 tackles including a whopping 17 tackles-for-loss for the nation’s 22nd ranked defense en route to a 9-3 record. Added five sacks, a trio of forced fumbles and a pass breakup. (Includes bowl statistics, not officially recognized until the 2002 season.)
Denman is one of just players on this list to be named Notre Dame’s Team MVP, joining Manti Te’o in 2012.
7. Demetrius Dubose (1991): A first-team All-American selection by Football News, a consensus second team selection thereafter, and a Butkus Award semi-finalist as a true junior, Dubose posted 136 tackles including seven for lost yardage. Recovered two fumbles, picked off a pass for a touchdown (Notre Dame’s first score of the season) and broke up three passes for the 10-3, Sugar Bowl champion Irish.
8. Manti Te’o (2010): Finished with a team-high 128 tackles including 9.5 for lost yardage as a true sophomore. Registered a ludicrous 48 Stuffs (FORTY-EIGHT!) among his 128 stops while recording 19 third-down “wins.” Forced a fumble, broke up three passes, and recorded a sack as well for an 8-5 Irish team that finished 23rd nationally defensively allowing 20.3 ppg.
Named second-team All-American by Sports Illustrated.
9. Manti Te’o (2011): A consensus second-team All-American, Te’o finished with 128 tackles with a whopping 40 Stuffs (including 13.5 tackles-for-loss). Had a hand in 16 third-down “wins” but forced just one turnover (a FF recovered by teammate Zeke Motta for a touchdown vs. FSU). Posted
The Irish defense allowed 20.6 ppg. (#24 nationally) and finished 8-5, losing to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
10. Ned Bolcar (1987): Named second-team All-American by the Associated Press but was named the National Defensive Player of the Year by CBS Sports. Was tabbed as the national defensive player of the week after a win against USC (13 tackles, INT, FR).
Bolcar forced four turnovers in 1987, two apiece vs. rivals Michigan State and USC. Including a Cotton Bowl loss to Texas A&M, the true junior recorded a team-high 115 tackles en route to an 8-4 finish for the nation’s 21st ranked defense, allowing 16.6 ppg.
Honorable Mention: Tony Furjanic 1985, Mike Kovaleski 1986, Wes Pritchett 1988, Ned Bolcar 1989, Demetrius Dubose 1992, Lyron Cobbins 1995, Jimmy Friday 1997, Anthony Denman 1999, Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays 2005, and Jaylon Smith 2014.
*All statistical totals include bowl games, numbers not recognized by the NCAA until the 2002 season.