Our summer preview series (95 consecutive days of Irish articles leading up to the outset of August camp) begins Thursday, May 1. Prior, we've looked back at the best of the best, position by position, from Brian Kelly's four seasons in South Bend.
Next in the series: Kelly's top single-season performances from defensive linemen:
#1 -- Louis Nix 2012During Notre Dame's 12-game 2012 regular season, Louis Nix was as effective at his main responsibility -- maintaining and/or changing the interior line of scrimmage in Notre Dame's favor -- as any Irish player at any position, in recent memory.
Nix was the interior rock of a two-gap, no crease, low risk defensive unit that led the nation in seven defensive categories: red zone TDs allowed by percentage, points allowed per red zone trip, total red zone TDs allowed, red zone rushing TD allowed, total red zone points allowed, passing yards per completion, and rushing TDs allowed. The latter total, two rushing touchdowns surrendered during the regular season, is the lowest in modern program history.
Nix's final numbers (50 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 5 passes defended, a forced fumble) did not afford him All-America status, but according to a Notre Dame staff member in the wake of an undefeated regular season, "If Te'o end up your No. 1 player on film reviews, Nix should be 1B, not No. 2."
He was that good.
#2 -- Stephon Tuitt 2012The team's best football player in September 2012 when the squad raced to 4-0, Tuitt played the final seven games of the 2012 season with a sports hernia. His season-end totals (47 tackles including 13 for loss, 12 sacks, a pass defended, 9 QB hurries, a fumble recovery touchdown that spanned 77 yards, 3 forced fumbles and blocked field goal) rank among the best by a Notre Dame defensive linemen since the position dominated college football in the late 1970s.
Tuitt was at his best prior to injury, posting six tackles for loss over the season's first four contests (adding the aforementioned scoop-sprint-score touchdown) while forcing a fumble during one of his NCAA-best six sacks in the season's opening month.
Playing through pain, Tuitt recorded a combined four sacks and 19 tackles as the Irish defeated the Cardinal in overtime, Brigham Young by a field goal, upset Oklahoma in Norman, and came back to beat Pittsburgh in three overtimes.
#3 -- Kapron Lewis-Moore 2012The unsung hero of the 2012 Irish defense, Lewis-Moore capped his four seasons as a starter with an effort worthy of honorable mention All-America honors and a No. 8 spot overall in the Irisheyes.com film reviews.
Nine tackles for loss including six sacks and 40 tackles, that despite missing large parts of the first three contests due to an ankle sprain. Lewis-Moore placed among the team's top 10 players seven times following film reviews with two more honorable mention nominations -- that's nine of the final 10 contests in which he stood out on film en route to a 12-1 finish.
At his best vs. Michigan, Stanford, BYU, Pittsburgh, and USC (consider the magnitude of those wins), the fifth-year senior captain put a bow on his Irish career with six tackles (two for loss), a forced fumble, and 1.5 sacks in the season-ending victory at USC. What Tuitt was to the Irish defense in September, Lewis-Moore was in November, finishing the season's money month with 5.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, three QB hurries, and a pass breakup.
#4 -- Stephon Tuitt 2013A fair share of no-show outings will forever be linked to Tuitt's final season in South Bend, but his overall numbers (50 tackles including 9 for loss, 7.5 sacks, three passes defended, 13 QB pressures, a forced fumble, and an interception touchdown) are unlikely to be duplicated by any defensive lineman at the program over the next two seasons.
Tuitt dominated USC's embattled front (seven tackles, two sacks) in a 14-10 Irish victory and played a large role in Notre Dame's upset win over Arizona State (four tackles, 1.5 sacks) one game prior. After hitting his stride in late October vs. the Trojans, Tuitt played three consecutive contests without registering a tackle for loss (Air Force, Navy, and Pittsburgh), the latter due in part to his ejection for a ludicrous "targeting" penalty. He rebounded to play well on Senior Day vs. Brigham Young, recording a season-best eight tackles with a sack included.
Even in his worst snap-for-snap outing, the 41-30 defeat in Ann Arbor in which he struggled to beat either Michigan offensive tackle, Tuitt made his presence felt with one of the most athletic diving interceptions in recent memory -- at any level -- a fourth quarter score that pulled the Irish to within four points of the red hot Wolverines.
Tuitt wasn't the All-American fans expected last fall, but his 2013 numbers still place him among the top 15 at the program for a defensive lineman since the turn of the century, and among the five best of the Kelly era.
#5 -- Aaron Lynch 2011Seven tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hurries, a forced fumbled, a pair of pass breakups, far too many personal foul penalties, and a heaping helping of promise and untapped potential.
Lynch was a head case. He was undisciplined as a run defender, and he was a less-than-ideal practice player. He was also a difference-maker that helped the Irish defeat Michigan State (a game in which the team entered 0-2), erupting all over the Spartans with a remarkable six QB hurries, a sack, five tackles, and a forced fumble.
Lynch started just six games as a true freshman in 2011, his last of the season -- and in an Irish uniform -- was against his home state Florida State Seminoles. Lynch posted five tackles, a QB hurry, and 1.5 sacks, with all five tackles dropping Florida State ball carriers for loss or a gain of two yards or less, as the Irish raced to a 14-0 lead in what became a disheartening Champs Sports Bowl defeat, 18-14.
Lynch concluded his first and only season in South Bend with a tackle-for-loss in four of his final five contests.
Honorable Mention Kapron Lewis-Moore (2011), Louis Nix (2011), Ian Williams (2010), Louis Nix (2011). Lewis-Moore, Nix (2012) and Williams each had their seasons truncated by injury with at least four contests remaining.Next in our Best of the Best series: The Kelly era linebackers...
Previously in the series: Wide Receivers
Previously in the series: Running Backs
Previously in the series: Tight Ends
Previously in the series: Quarterbacks