Top 10 Notre Dame Football Players of the Brian Kelly Era

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.

4. Will Fuller

Will Fuller was a phenom for the Fighting Irish. Any time Notre Dame needed a big play, Fuller came through. Even when defenses played 10+ yards off him to prevent the deep ball, he still soared past them.

His touchdown in the final seconds against Virginia, the 3 touchdowns at Pittsburgh, the touchdown at Temple, and lots of other heroic moments helped to build his legacy at the University. Perhaps the biggest example of his speed is when Fuller squared off against Adoree’ Jackson of USC.  On the first offensive play of the game for the Irish, Fuller blew right past Jackson on his way to a 75 yard touchdown.

In his last 2 seasons alone, Fuller had 29 touchdowns, and averaged around 18 yards per catch. If he would’ve stayed for his senior year, Fuller more than likely would have broken a lot of records.

Fuller wasn’t even a big time recruit out of high school. ESPN had him listed as the 172nd wide receiver in his class. Hopefully the Texans can find a quarterback suitable enough for Fuller to unleash his true potential.

3. Michael Floyd

Michael Floyd was an absolute stud at the wide receiver position for the Irish. Since Floyd decided to stay all four years, he was able to break a lot of school records. He had 271 catches, over 3,600 yards, and 37 touchdowns as a Golden Domer (all Notre Dame Records). There is a lot of debate over who is the best receiver in the history of Notre Dame, and from a statistical standpoint he takes that honor.

Michael Floyd’s size made him a nightmare for any cornerback trying to cover him. He has had a pretty steady NFL career up until last year when he ran into some problems off the field. Floyd’s NFL future is now very unclear as a free agent set to face at least 24 days in jail for his “severe DUI” that caused his release by the Cardinals.

2. Jaylon Smith

My favorite thing about Jaylon Smith is that he is a homegrown Hoosier. It is not too often that the State of Indiana produces a five star prospect. The Irish have had their struggles with five star athletes over the years, but Jaylon Smith was not one of them. Smith is hands down the best athlete to play for Brian Kelly. The physical specimen had enormous biceps and was fast enough to play running back for the Irish.

Two years ago Smith won the Dick Butkus Award as the best linebacker in college football. In the 2015 season alone, Smith was responsible for 115 tackles – 69 of which were solo tackles. Smith could have been a part of an even better defense if it weren’t for Brian VanGorder and his ineffective defenses during his Irish tenure.

Unfortunately Smith suffered a knee injury during the Fiesta Bowl, which cost him the entire 2016 NFL season. Could Jaylon have put the Dallas Cowboys over the top against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers? Hopefully fans will find out next season. It appears that his nerve has regenerated and Smith should be ready for the 2017 NFL season.

1. Manti Te’o

Many people forget that Manti Te’o visited Notre Dame on an atrocious, snowy day where he played video games in the locker room during the football game. He surprised a lot of people when he left the islands of Hawaii for the mystique of South Bend.  Once he arrived on campus, he created his own mystique.

If Johnny Football Manziel did not have the best game of his career on the road in Tuscaloosa, Manti Te’o very well could have won the Heisman as a defensive player.  In the middle of the SEC dominance of college football, Johnny Manziel beat Nick Saban in his backyard, a truly monumental feat. This game secured him almost every vote from voters in the South. Although Manziel did have a great game against Alabama, an argument can be made that Manti Te’o had a more consistent season and was the MVP of the best defense in the country.

In 2012 Te’o racked up 113 tackles, 7 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, and unmeasurable leadership. He was the key reason the Irish had an undefeated regular season for the first time since 1988. That season Manti won the Butkus Award, Maxwell Award, and Walter Camp Award, just to a name a few. The Irish defense was exposed in the national title game, but then again they did run into perhaps the best Alabama team of the Saban era. It is also still uncertain how much the “girlfriend incident” effected his play in the title game.

Brian Kelly has produced a lot of NFL talent at the University of Notre Dame. Sometimes a five star comes in to South Bend, like Jaylon Smith, and lives up to the hype. Other times it’s an overlooked wide receiver like Will Fuller who emerges. Equanimeous St. Brown, Daelin Hayes, Brandon Wimbush.  Who will be the next great star to be born in South Bend?

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  1. I agree with Chris, Will Fuller should be ranked higher, otherwise what about Smardzjia (sp)? He deserves some mention. I would have put him 10th dropping the egomaniacal DSK to 11th.

    But, the discussion about Manti, whose #1 ranking I agree with, brought up the ugly memory of ND getting beaten by Ala, not because we didn’t belong on the same field, but because Kelly played not to lose and when that happens you usually wind up not winning. I never liked Kelly from the start, (his on- field antics), but that cemented it.

    1. Samardzija left ND in 2006, and BK didn’t get there until 2010. But hypothetically, if you went Samardzija, you’d have to go Golden Tate first. The sad thing is Weis recruited half these guys listed.

      1. Thanks George. BTW, it’s ironic that Manti was picked as the #1 player of the Kelly era, which hopefully ends this year, considering that Kelly’s ego allowed that “Manti is only riding in the bus, I’m driving it.”

      2. I wonder if he was driving last year during the 4 win season. And if they suck again next year, we can all just blame it on still getting acclimated to the new DC, OC, SC, ect.

  2. Good read on what players did work and no one can argue that Manti remains one of the most significant signings post Holtz.

    The fact that after all the catfishing nonsense his teammates at San Diego voted him a Captain, remains one of the most under reported stories of the yeasr.

  3. Good read, with little to argue with regarding these ten.

    Many quality players on this list, with many others who could qualify, suggesting talent is not the issue with ND since BK has arrived and recruited better than most since St. Lou. Current NFL rosters have several former players, and many who are stars on their teams.

    An interesting follow-up article would be rating the top ten ND head coaches.
    Has ND had enough quality head coaches to even have a top ten coach’s list?

    Does ND have one now? I suggest that remains to be seen.

    Stay tuned.

  4. Good list, Michael. I agree with all 10, and even the order for the most part. I think Fuller would have been higher than Floyd had he played a 4th year. I wish there were more QBs on this list than just Kizer but unfortunately none have been close to deserving a spot on a top 10 of the Kelly era list.

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