Over the course of this week, Irish Eyes has featured a series highlighting the best single-season Irish football players spanning the last three decades.
Friday morning’s edition: Part II of the All-Defensive Team from 2002-2004.
Cornerback Shane Walton (2002)
The players listed earlier this week and those that will be listed in the coming days all qualify as Notre Dame’s best of the best in their own eras – recognition enough when breaking down five eras covering nearly 25 seasons. But if we were to choose a first-team defense in that same span, Shane Walton circa 2002 would remain standing as one of the squad’s two cornerback starters.
Walton was a dominant player in 2002, finishing with five tackles for lost yardage from the cornerback position (65 total tackles); a team-high seven interceptions – two of which he returned for scores; a team-high eight passes defended, a fumble recovery and forced fumble.
He finished third in the voting for the Bronco Nagurski Award recognizing the nation’s top defensive player and was named as a consensus first-team All American and team MVP.
Walton at his best in ‘02: In the early-season contest vs. Michigan, Walton had already forced and recovered a fumble; returned a punt for 20 yards and made a tackle in the red zone for a two-yard loss. With 2:53 remaining in the contest, Walton anticipated and batted down a two-point conversion attempt to preserve the Irish 25-23 advantage. He sealed the game two minutes later with an interception at the Michigan 38-yard line.
Quick, name the only player in college football history to return a kick, punt, interception, and fumble recovery for a touchdown in the same season? Don’t feel badly if you can’t come up with the name – the player doesn’t exist. But in 2002, Irish CB Vontez Duff was less than two yards away from turning the trick (he fell on a Chris Rix fumble at Florida State but was ruled down inside the two yard-line).
Duff kicked off The Great Playmaking Campaign of ’02 with a 76-yard punt return TD vs. Maryland in the Kick-off Classic; added a game-winning 33-yard interception touchdown the following week vs. Purdue; and sparked ND to a comeback win at Navy with a 92-yard kick-off return score that gave the Irish a 15-14 advantage in the too-close 30-23 win over the Midshipmen.
Along the way, the junior CB made 36 tackles, broke up seven passes, recovered two fumbles, and blocked a kick en route to third-team All-American honors at season’s end.
Duff at his best in ‘02: Duff’s aforementioned interception touchdown vs. Purdue in the home-opener set the tone for the squad’s 8-0 start. He finished the contest vs. the Boilermakers with six tackles; two passes broken up; and added the game-winning INT return TD with just 5:33 remaining. Duff followed his big game vs. Purdue by allowing just two receptions and recovering a fumble in the following week’s win over Michigan.
If you’re unfamiliar with Earl, there’s just one anecdote that needs to be relayed to understand what he brought to the ’02 football team: Earl and his defensive teammates kept what they referred to as a “Buck List.” Briefly, it was basically a list of players they intended to hit and hit hard in the upcoming games…and the upcoming practices.
Earl thrived on contact and collision. He finished the ’02 season as the defense’s 2nd leading tackler (81); second among DBs in tackles-for-loss/sacks (5); and added two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and four passes defended. More importantly, Earl finished first that season in punishment delivered, and he remains at the top among Irish defenders in that category this decade.
Earl at his best in ‘02: You won’t find too many bigger impact games than that turned out by Earl at Florida State in 2002. The big-hitter finished with 11 tackles, 3 passes defended, a sack, and a forced fumble in Notre Dame’s humbling of the hometown Seminoles, 34-24. The game-changing play of the day came courtesy of Earl as well. Late in the 3rd Quarter the junior safety delivered a vicious hit on quarterback Chris Rix, forcing a fumble that was recovered inside the Irish 5-yardline to set up a Ryan Grant touchdown plunge and a 20-10 Irish lead late in the 3rd Quarter.
Earl’s post-game description of the play: ''It was kind of like blood in the water. The sharks came out and everyone wanted to add to it.''
Safety Gerome Sapp (2002)
In Sapp’s senior season, a talented defensive backfield quickly found its playmaker (Walton), its ball hawk (Duff) and its big hitter (Earl). It also found a leader in Gerome Sapp. The 2002 Irish secondary was one of the best in school history and Sapp was the unheralded member and quarterback of the group.
The heavily recruited high school prospect blossomed as a senior: in just 11 games Sapp finished third on the squad in total tackles with 71; he tied LB Courtney Watson for a second-best four interceptions, and ranked second behind All-American Shane Walton for the team lead with seven passes defended.
Sapp played a key role in three close September victories: vs. Purdue (eight tackles and a 54-yard fumble recovery touchdown); Michigan (six tackles, including a goal line stop that limited the Wolverines to a field goal as well as a forced fumble that set-up a field goal giving the Irish an 8-point advantage); and Michigan State (two interceptions including the game-ending pick at the Irish 3-yard line). He continued to shine with a final series pass breakup in Irish territory vs. Pittsburgh and vs. Air Force, a game in which he posted 10 tackles (two for lost yardage) in a win over the undefeated and favored Falcons.
Sapp at his best in ‘02: Sapp made the most athletic interception in recent Irish history during the now infamous green jersey game loss to BC (to say Sapp was parallel to the ground would be shortchanging him, as his feet were well above his head on the diving pick). But his real value is illustrated in this statistic: Through 11 games with Sapp in the lineup, the ND pass defense yielded just seven touchdowns via the pass. In the two games Sapp missed due to injury (USC and NC State) the Irish secondary allowed another five, and dropped both contests.
Defensive Tackle Cedric Hilliard (2002)
Hilliard was the anchor for a defense that allowed just 2.8 yards per rush in '02 and a mere seven rushing scores through the season’s first eight games. The junior nose tackle posted a season-high seven tackles vs. Air Force but his two best efforts came in wins over Michigan State and Pittsburgh. In the victory over the Panthers in South Bend, Hilliard recorded three of his six stops for no gain or lost yardage, including a 3rd down sack of QB Rod Rutherford. And facing MSU in East Lansing, two of Hilliard’s three tackles were for lost yardage and both possessions resulted in punts for the Spartans.
Hilliard’s true contribution to the team was evident in his absence. Injured in the 34-24 win at FSU, Hilliard missed the following two contests vs. BC and Navy. A team that was 8-0 with Hilliard and had limited its opponents to just two 100-plus yard outings in eight contests (including just 104 to Air Force, the nation’s No. 1 rushing attack) struggled without the big man in the middle, losing to Boston College and narrowly escaping the Midshipmen, 30-23 while allowing 218 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Hilliard at his best in ‘02: Hilliard was a man possessed in ND’s 25-23 win against the rival Wolverines. He consistently fought off double-teams to record a tackle for loss, forced fumble, sack, blocked field goal, and finally ended the contest with a break up of John Navarre’s final pass leading to Shane Walton’s game-sealing interception.
Defensive Tackle Darrell Campbell (2002)
In 2002, nose tackle Cedric Hilliard gave the Irish an immovable man in the middle. That same season, senior defensive tackle Darrell Campbell gave the ND defense an interior playmaker and game-changer, as Campbell tallied one-fourth of his 33 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Campbell finished second on the squad in sacks (6) while providing a consistent push up the middle allowing defensive ends Ryan Roberts, Justin Tuck, and Kyle Budinscak the freedom to work vs. a single blocker.
Campbell’s top effort in ’02 came in the home win over Pittsburgh when he posted a career-high seven tackles, including two for lost yardage and one sack. He added sacks vs. Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, USC, and NC State. and was a key cog in an Irish run defense that held three opponents (Air Force, Florida State, and Rutgers) to season-low rushing totals.
Campbell at his best in ‘02: Campbell was involved in seven tackles vs. Pittsburgh – five of which accounted for no gain or lost yardage. The Irish prevailed 14-8 despite gaining just 185 yards on the afternoon while improving to 6-0.
Also Considered: Derek Landri (2004)
Honorable Mention: Cedric Hilliard (2003), Greg Pauly (2004)