This top ten countdown is based on the players who were the most valuable and talented to come out of Notre Dame during the Brian Kelly era.
10. DeShone Kizer
What if Malik Zaire didn’t break his ankle at Virginia, would Kizer ever have gotten a chance? Kizer was a good recruit coming out of high school, but there were questions about his athleticism. He continued to prove skeptics wrong with his running game and in only 2 seasons at Notre Dame he accumulated 997 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. Pretty good for a guy who can’t run, right?
Last year was a tough year for the Irish, and that put tremendous pressure on Kizer. The offensive line struggled to open the kind of holes in did a year earlier for the running game. The defense was the worst of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame. As a as a result, the burden was on Kizer every game to put the team on his shoulders. At times he looked like an NFL quarterback. Other times he tried to force the issue knowing he had to for the Irish to have any hope.
Anyone who has watched Kizer knows how high his potential can be. At times Kizer showed great accuracy. His game winning touchdowns at Temple and at Virginia showed he could put the ball on the money in critical situations. At other moments his accuracy was nowhere to be found. Kizer will need to continue to develop on this aspect, but his size and ability can allow him to become the next great Notre Dame Quarterback in the NFL.
9. Ronnie Stanley
Ronnie Stanely was the best offensive lineman on Notre Dame’s dominant line in 2015. That offensive line paved the way for Josh Adams to average 7.22 yards per carry and C.J. Prosise to average 6.55 yards per carry. In 2015, he allowed only four hurries, four hits, and three sacks on 421 pass blocking snaps (97.4%).
Stanley was drafted 6th overall by the Baltimore Ravens and became the ESPN AFC North Rookie of the Year. Like the left tackle he succeeded, Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley could have the Pro Bowl in his future.
8. Harrison Smith
Harrison Smith is perhaps the best safety during the Brian Kelly era. Every time I think of him, I recall the game winning interception he had against USC in 2010. It was the first time in nine tries that Notre Dame had beaten USC and his interception sealed the game for the Irish.
Harrison has established himself as one of the best safeties in the NFL with his hard hits and pro bowl appearance in 2015 and 2016. Smith has already accumulated 411 tackles for the Vikings with 12 interceptions. He has been a key part of the Minnesota defense since he has entered the NFL.
7. Stephon Tuitt
Stephon Tuitt helped lead the front seven of the Notre Dame defensive line, for the best defense statistically in the 2012 regular season. He was always getting pressure on the quarterback, sacks, or knocking down passes with his height. Tuitt made it very hard for offenses to move the ball on the Irish defense under Bob Diaco.
Tuitt, like many others on this list has the opportunity to have a long career in the NFL. He has the ideal body type (6ft 5in, 303lbs) for a defensive lineman and is a key part of the Pittsburgh Steeler’s defense. And at 23 years old, Tuitt is just scratching the surface of his pro potential. That is very young considering he played for Notre Dame on the 2012 team and has been in the NFL for several seasons, so Tuitt definitely has a ton of room to grow and develop.
6. Tyler Eifert
The Notre Dame offense went through Tyler Eifert in 2012. Like others on this list, he is also an Indiana native who helped carry on the legacy of homegrown talent. Although he didn’t have as many touchdowns over his career as you might have thought (11), he was a go to target for the Irish in 2012. That season he won the John Mackey Award, given to the best tight end in the nation.
Without Eifert the Notre Dame offense in 2012 would have been almost one dimensional. Not to take anything away from DaVaris Daniels or TJ Jones, but Eifert’s size that can’t be taught.
5. Zack Martin
Next on our list is another Indiana native – Zack Martin. Martin and his brother Nick both played at Bishop Chatard in Indianapolis. Martin was a vital part of the offensive line for the Irish throughout his career and the run to the national title game. He was a great leader on and off the field for that team.
No Notre Dame player in history started as many games in an Irish helmet as Zack Martin.
Most Irish fans did not fully recognize his abilities fully until he became a part of the best offensive line in the NFL. Martin has already went to three pro bowls in as many seasons. If he can stay healthy and keep up this impressive production, the Hall of Fame could be in his future.