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 second edition: The Weis-Era Defense, Part II – Defensive Backs.
Half-man, half-gazelle, Bruton roamed the back line of the Irish secondary for two seasons and was likely the best football player on the squad over the course of those 25 contests. The ’08 Irish allowed 15 touchdowns through the air, the program’s lowest total since the ’02 season, and Bruton deserves much of the credit – credit for covering for mistakes made in front of him; credit for continuing to develop the fundamentals of the free safety position, a practice which allowed him to use his incredible speed to his advantage. Finally, Bruton deserves credit for saving countless touchdowns as the last line of a defense that featured the blitz as its main weapon. Without David Bruton as the last man back, Notre Dame likely would have suffered a second straight losing season.
Ultimately, Bruton finished second on the squad in total tackles (97) and passes defended (10) and tied for first in fumbles caused and recovered (2). That includes the forced fumble and recovery that changed the course of the ’08 Irish season – a goal line meeting between fellow S Kyle McCarthy (low), Bruton (high) and SD State RB Brandon Sullivan (victim). The would-be touchdown run Bruton negated would have provided a 20-7 Aztecs advantage with less than 12 minutes remaining in the contest. Instead, the Irish recovered, the ball was spotted at the 20-yard line, and the Irish took the lead for good six plays later on a Clausen to Tate touchdown bomb.
Bruton at his best in ‘08: Bruton’s best game of the ’08 season was undoubtedly the 35-20 home victory over Michigan. The senior safety finished with 15 tackles (10 solo and 1.5 for lost yardage); a forced fumble, a QB hit, and an interception which he returned for 39 yards. His 3rd and goal blitz in the first quarter forced the Wolverines to settle for a field goal on the next play while his 2nd and goal stop and strip of RB Kevin Grady late in the 3rd Quarter kept Michigan at bay, 28-17. Bruton continued his red zone excellence with a 4th Quarter pick of a Nick Sheridan pass on 3rd and 2 from the Irish 12-yard line.
Strong Safety Kyle McCarthy (2008)
It was trial-by-fire for the first-time starter in last year’s season opener. The Irish defense had sprung a leak, and McCarthy was forced to limit the damage. That September afternoon the senior safety transformed himself from question mark to leading man with 15 total tackles, many of which saved excessive yards and a touchdown or two at the tail end of plays. At season’s end, McCarthy ranked exactly where he finished after San Diego State left town … as the squad’s leading tackler, with 110 total stops (64 solo). He was the defense’s steadying presence. A rock the back seven could count on when opponents ran free. And McCarthy should be that rock again and more in ’09 as the unit’s veteran leader.
McCarthy posted double-digit tackle totals in five games last season (SD State, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, and Pittsburgh). His best statistical effort was likely the win over Stanford when the sure-tackler added a pick and a tackle for loss to his not-unusual allotment of 14 total tackles.
McCarthy at his best in ‘08: In the never-ending battle vs. Pittsburgh, McCarthy notched 15 total tackles (two for loss). He forced the Panthers to punt on three separate occasions with third-down tackles short of the marker (McCarthy forced a fourth punting situation but the Irish were hit with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the play). The Irish senior also forced the Panthers to settle for a field goal in the game’s third overtime with a 3rd and 1 stop of RB LeSean McCoy.
Honorable Mention: Chinedum Ndukwe (2006), David Bruton (2007), Tom Zbikowski (2006)
It wasn’t easy being a defensive player for the Irish in 2007. In fact, I wouldn’t blame then-sophomore Darrin Walls and his cohorts if they just habitually lifted their facemasks for a brief drink of water; buckled up; and prepared to take the field yet again after the requisite three-play break. The unit was under fire. They couldn’t stop the run. They couldn’t get off the field. And most of all, they couldn’t take a break as the Irish offense owned no part of the football field that season (they had “a lease with(out) an option to buy” so to speak).
But the undervalued aspect of that squad was the play on one corner, if not the entire secondary. The ’07 Irish defense held opponents to 5.6 yards per pass attempt and 10.7 yards per catch (compared to the ’06 unit’s 7.8 and 14.1 averages in those same categories). And the secondary allowed five fewer touchdowns through the air (19) than did the ’06 squad. The bright spot was Walls, whose sticky coverage resulted in a team-high nine pass breakups, two forced fumbles; and 2.5 tackles for lost yardage (starting outside CBs Raeshon McNeil and Terrail Lambert combined for zero last season by comparison). Walls played solid football for 12 weeks without the benefit of a pass rush or an offense that could keep the defensive players rested. A team that goes 3-9 shouldn’t be recognized for much, but that squad had two players (Trevor Laws the obvious second) that deserve mention for a job well done.
Walls at his best in ‘07: The sophomore CB gave the Irish program life (and hope) with a 73-yard interception return touchdown at Penn State in Week Two. It was one of the few highlights of the season’s first three weeks and a shot in the arm for ND fans after the disheartening season-opening loss to Georgia Tech.
As a junior CB in 2005, Mike Richardson was miscast as an outside defender, asked to run with and defend the best wide receivers in the nation. As a senior in 2006, Richardson remained the technical starter at the position, but he was moved inside in the team’s nickel coverage, and the long-time contributor finally had a chance to shine.
Richardson thrived over the slot receiver, finishing ’06 with 66 tackles (50 solo), including six for lost yardage. He posted career highs with four interceptions (to lead the squad), seven passes defended (second to Chinedum Ndukwe), and two forced fumbles. More importantly, he lent a physical presence to the nickel position after two seasons that featured undersized, finesse players manning the crucial spot on the field.
Richardson at his best in ‘06: Richardson intercepted four passes in the season’s final three games, including a 3rd down, 3rd Quarter interception while trailing 21-10 at USC. The pick gave the Irish the ball at mid-field but the offense failed to capitalize.
Honorable Mention: Raeshon McNeil (2008)
Defensive Back/Football Player Tom Zbikowski (2005)
It was (easily) his best season in an Irish uniform. Tom Zbikowski wasn’t the best technical player at his position in this, or any other decade, but he made one of the greatest single-season impacts for an Irish defensive player in recent memory.
His 71 solos and four pass breakups were incidental. The real story was the desire and will Zbikowski displayed every time he touched the football: Five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns; 14 yards per punt return (and two more touchdowns). He exhibited an absolute refusal to go down; produced big plays in big games; and gave the team a toughness it lacked in recent seasons. Zbikowski was the real deal in 2005 … the defense’s answer to Jeff Samardzija – a game-changer that gave Irish fans hope again after seasons of discontent.
Zbikowski at his best in ‘05: There are many to choose from, but Zbikowski’s biggest impact play was undoubtedly a 60-yard punt return touchdown to give the Irish a 21-14 lead in the classic vs. USC. The nature of the return not only defined the player but (however briefly) the entire approach of the program under a new regime in 2005.
Tomorrow: ND’s best offensive players from 2002-2004.