Over the course of this week, Irish Eyes will feature a series highlighting the best single-season Irish football players spanning the last three decades.
Today’s first edition: The Weis-Era Defense – Defensive Line and Linebackers.
The ’07 Irish had a run defense in name only, but very little of the blame for the unit’s shortcomings can be placed on Laws. Despite a position switch (Laws was a career 4-3 defensive tackle that moved to 3-4 defensive end) Laws posted one of the finest statistical seasons for a defensive lineman in the history of the program: 112 tackles (53 solo); eight tackles for lost yardage including four sacks; seven additional hits on the quarterback; five pass breakups; two fumble recoveries; and three blocked kicks.
The ’07 Irish shortcomings are well-documented, but Laws held down the left side of the Irish D-Line for 12 games. His best individual effort was likely a 15-tackle performance (unheard of from a 3-4 DE) in the loss to Navy. The contest with the Midshipmen was one of six games in which the senior posted at least nine tackles.
Laws at his best in ‘07: With the Irish trailing 10-0 late in the 1st Quarter at Purdue, Laws imposed his will on the Purdue O-line, dropping RB Kory Sheets for an 8-yard loss on 1st down and sacking QB Curtis Painter for an 11-yard loss on the following play.
Abiamiri produced two seasons under Weis that challenged for a spot on this list, but his senior year was likely the better overall effort. He matched his ’05 total with 15 tackles for losses in ’06 while notching 10.5 sacks and 14 additional hits on the quarterback. Though the Notre Dame pass defense proved to be the team’s Achilles Heel in ‘06, Abiamiri and the rest of the D-line held up well vs. the run, limiting opponents to 3.8 yards-per-carry while registering 24 of the teams 31 sacks on the season.
Abiamiri was named the team’s defensive lineman of the year in both ’05 and ’06.
Abiamiri at his best in ‘06: The Irish senior dominated Stanford throughout his career, with seven of his 18.5 sacks in his junior/senior season occuring vs. the Cardinal. In the ’06 matchup, Abiamiri produced two of his season-high three sacks to stifle Stanford on third down (while his third QB take down ended the first half).
Also Considered: Abiamiri (2005)
Defensive Tackle: Derek Landri (2006)
Calling a player “the most underrated” is a bit pointless, as we all define and appreciate players for different reasons. But if I told you that a Notre Dame DT recorded 15.5 tackles behind the line (for 81 total yards lost) with seven sacks and five more quarterback hits, you’d likely look for him on a year-end award list. Such is life for the underappreciated Derek Landri – the key to Notre Dame’s front seven in 2005 and 2006.
The numbers above represent Landri’s ’06 season, but his contributions to the defense’s cause went beyond numbers. Landri’s consistent penetration into the backfield wreaked havoc on opposing offenses, allowing teammates Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws, and Mo Crum to combine for 34.5 tackles behind the line in ’06.
Landri at his best in ‘06: Lost in the 2nd half offensive explosion and defensive heroics of CB Terrail Lambert was Landri’s contribution to the 40-37 comeback win over the Spartans in East Lansing. The senior DT recorded five tackles for lost yardage or no gain. He dropped back into coverage to alter QB Drew Stanton’s ill-fated pass which was eventually intercepted by CB Terrail Lambert for the game-winning touchdown, and finally, with 37 seconds remaining, stopped Spartans QB Drew Stanton one-yard short of the first down marker at the MSU 45-yard line. One play later the Irish sealed the win with Lambert’s second pick in the game’s final three minutes.
Defensive Tackle: Trevor Laws (2006)
Laws’ second appearance on the list, this time as an interior player, illustrates two truths: A.) he was a valuable, versatile defender; and B.) the dearth of defensive tackles over the last two seasons has been a glitch in the Weis regime. Laws was an anchor in ’06, accounting for 63 total tackles (9.5 for lost yardage), 3.5 sacks, an interception, fumble recovery, and two passes defended at the line. Teaming with Derek Landri the two formed the most productive pair of interior defenders since Darrell Campbell and Cedric Hilliard in 2002.
Laws at his best in ‘06: Laws played his best in the season’s two closest contests, recording 4.5 tackles-for-loss and a fumble recovery in comeback wins over Michigan State and UCLA.
Also Considered: Landri (2005)
Honorable Mention: Pat Kuntz (2008)
Linebacker: Brandon Hoyte (2005)
The 2005 defense received its character and heart from the fifth-year senior. The weak side ‘backer was one of two team captains (along with Quinn) and a natural team leader. He blossomed in ’05, recording 15.5 tackles for loss to lead the team as well as 92 total tackles (also the highest on the squad). Hoyte finished with six sacks, the most for an Irish LB since Kory Minor recorded the same total in 1995 (Minor later switched to defensive end).
Hoyte’s best single-game performance occurred in the season-opening win at Pittsburgh when the Irish senior kicked off the ’05 campaign with nine solos (four for lost yardage) and three sacks in the 42-21 win.
Hoyte at his best in ‘05: While Hoyte had better statistical games, he saved his top tackle for USC RB Reggie Bush. With the score even at 14 early in the 2nd Quarter, the Trojans faced a 3rd and 10 at their own 19-yard line. USC wisely ran the nation’s most unstoppable play: a screen to Bush, but Hoyte knifed through traffic to drop Bush for no gain on the play. The Trojans were forced to punt, and Tom Zbikowski capitalized on Hoyte’s tackle, giving the Irish a 21-14 advantage with a 60-yard punt return for a score.
After an apprenticeship behind a quartet of solid linebackers from 2002-2004, Mays finally capitalized during his final season in an Irish uniform. The fifth year senior finished second on the team in total tackles (80), third in tackles-for-loss (12.5), sacks (5), and hits on the quarterback (4), and led the squad in forced fumbles (3) and fumble recoveries (3).
Far more important than numbers was the presence Mays added to what was viewed in the pre-season as a potentially soft and undersized linebacker unit. He doubled as the team’s best special teams defender and was ultimately recognized by his ’05 teammates as one of four winners of the Nick Pietrosante Award, which recognizes individuals who best exemplify the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication, and pride shown by Pietrosante, an Irish All-American fullback from 1956-1958.
Mays at his best in ‘05: The new team leader announced his presence to Irish fans with a crushing 1st Quarter hit on Michigan RB Mike Hart. The one-yard stop knocked the Wolverines leading rusher from the game and ranks among the top hits of the ’05 season.
Honorable Mention: Maurice Crum (2006); Brian Smith (2008)
Coming Later Today: Five of the top 11 single-season defensive efforts of the Weis Era were provided by defensive backs. As a result, Irish Eyes will run a nickel defense for Part II of the Weis-Era defense.