This decade of Notre Dame football comes to an end tonight, and it was the Brian Kelly decade. The Irish head coach was hired in December of 2009 and has been the only man in charge this decade.
Before we head into 2020 and decade two of the Kelly-era let’s take a look at the All-Decade team for Notre Dame. We already broke down the offense, so now it's time to break down the defense. (Note #1: The stats provided are only those accumulated during this decade - 2010-19; Note #2: This defensive squad will be chosen for a 4-2-5 look that Notre Dame currently runs. The edge rushing outside linebackers from 2010-13 will be considered defensive ends for this list.)
Stephon Tuitt (2011-13)
Career Stats: 121 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 21.5 sacks
Tuitt was a key rotation player as a true freshman and he even started three games that season. But he broke out as a sophomore, putting together one of the best single seasons from an Irish lineman in the last couple of decades. Tuitt was a top player for a 2012 defense that was truly elite and fueled the team’s perfect regular season, which ended with a berth to the BCS national title game.
During that season the native of Monroe, Ga. registered 13 tackles for loss, and his 12 sacks were the second-best single season mark in school history. Tuitt earned second-team All-American honors that season and his 21.5 career sacks ranks third all-time at Notre Dame.
A sports hernia injury slowed him down as a junior in 2013, but Tuitt still produced nine tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Tuitt was brilliant in Notre Dame’s 14-10 victory over USC that season, putting the defense on his shoulders (7 tackles, 2 sacks) and shutting down a talented Trojan offense. Tuitt was a second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Khalid Kareem (2016-19)
Career Stats: 109 tackles, 26 TFL’s, 13 sacks
Picking the second end was incredibly challenging, but I went with Kareem because of his all-around production, the fact he stayed healthy in 2019 (which played a role in Julian Okwara not getting this spot) and the fact he was such a valuable player for the defense this season.
Kareem was a clutch player throughout his career, showing the ability to step up and make plays when his team needed it. Whether it was icing the 24-17 victory over Michigan last season with a late strip sack, or making a hustle strip sack later that season against Virginia Tech, which resulted in cornerback Julian Love recovering the fumble and returning it for a touchdown. This season we saw Kareem continue that trend, and he was brilliant in the first half against Navy.
Kareem finished his career with good production, but his effectiveness against the run the last two seasons isn’t done justice by his numbers. Finishing his career as a captain and showing tremendous leadership during the final month of the 2019 season, when the Irish played outstanding defense, helped vault him into this spot.
Second Team: Julian Okwara (2016-19), Prince Shembo (2010-13)
Third Team: Romeo Okwara (2012-15), Isaac Rochell (2013-16)
Sheldon Day (2012-15)
Career Stats: 141 tackles, 32 TFL’s, 7.5 sacks
Day earned an immediate rotation role on the vaunted 2012 defense, and over the next two seasons he was a good football player for the Irish. His senior year, however, Day became a star for the Irish defense. There were times when Day would take over games, using his quickness and tremendously gifted hands to dominate off the ball, making him impossible to keep out of the backfield.
Day finished his senior season with 15.5 tackles for loss, which earned him second-team All-American honors from the Football Writers Association of America. Like Kareem, Day was a clutch player for the Irish. When he wasn’t using his his quickness to make plays, Day would use his instincts, intelligence and hustle to put himself in position to make a game changing play. That was on full display in a tough win over Temple. Day had at least two tackles for loss in four different games during his senior season, including registering two stops behind the line against Clemson and two in a win over a ranked Navy squad.
What makes Day’s numbers even more impressive is that his final two seasons were played in a defensive system that wasn’t designed for interior players to make a lot of plays. Day became a fourth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Jerry Tillery (2015-18)
Career Stats: 135 tackles, 24.5 TFL’s, 13.5 sacks
Day played a key role in the development of Tillery by showing the freshman the ropes during the 2015 season. Injuries thrust Tillery into a starting/rotation role as a true freshman, and while he showed flashes during his first two seasons, Tillery was not overly productive in those two campaigns.
Things changed when Mike Elko was hired to run the defense in 2017 and Mike Elston was moved back to coaching the defensive line. Tillery had a strong first season under Elko, registering nine tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks while playing nose guard. Elston and first-year coordinator Clark Lea decided to move Tillery to three-technique as a senior, and he responded with an All-American campaign.
Tillery registered 10.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks as a senior, which earned him second-team All-American honors from the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated. His eight sacks were the most in Notre Dame history for a defensive tackle. Tillery became Notre Dame’s first defensive lineman to go in the first-round of the NFL Draft (Los Angeles Chargers) since Renaldo Wynn back in 1997.
Second Team: Louis Nix (2010-13), Kapron Lewis-Moore (2008-12)
Third Team: Jarron Jones (2012-16), Jonathan Bonner (2014-18)
Manti Te’o (2009-12)
Decade Stats: 370 tackles, 27.5 TFL’s, 7.5 sacks, 7 INT’s
There isn’t a school in the country that can boast a better one-two punch at linebacker in the last decade. Not a single linebacker can claim the kind of accolades that Te’o put up during the 2012 season. He registered 113 tackles, made 5.5 tackles for loss and picked off seven passes that season, which earned him about every honor imaginable for a defensive player.
Te’o was named a unanimous All-American that season, he was the Heisman Trophy runner-up and he won the Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards, which go to the nation’s top player. He also won the Butkus Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Lombardi Award, the Nagurski Trophy and the Lott Trophy.
The native of Hawai’i was named a second-team All-American after racking up 128 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks as a junior in 2011. Te’o registered 370 tackles and 27.5 tackles for loss in this decade, but he was a starter as a true freshman in 2009. His 437 career tackles ranks third all-time at Notre Dame. Te’o was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Jaylon Smith (2013-15)
Career Stats: 292 tackles, 24.5 TFL’s, 4.5 sacks
Smith was a brilliant linebacker in his own right, but unfortunately he spent his final two seasons being underutilized in a system that used him more to clean up messes than it did to use his elite talent as a weapon. I often think of what Smith would have done from a production standpoint had he played under Elko and Lea during his career.
Even in a faulty system Smith was one of the best linebackers in the nation the last decade. He registered 225 tackles and 18 tackles for loss in his final two seasons. His athleticism was special, and he used his speed, quickness and instincts to make highlight reel play after highlight reel play. Who can forget watching Smith explode downhill and blow up a Michigan running back behind the line during Notre Dame’s 31-0 shutout win over Michigan in 2014.
Smith was named a second-team All-American that season, but as a junior he was the best linebacker in the nation. Smith earned consensus All-American honors as a junior after making 114 tackles, nine stops behind the line and breaking up five passes. The Fort Wayne, Ind. native won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker following that season. Despite suffering a devastating knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl, Smith was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Drue Tranquill (2014-18)
Career Stats: 292 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 11 break ups, 3 INT’s
Tranquill gets the nod for his combination of production, versatility and leadership. The Fort Wayne, Ind. native started at safety, rover and Buck linebacker during his career. At linebacker we saw Tranquill’s game truly take off, as he registered 171 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and broke up seven passes in his final two seasons. Tranquill was also a standout on special teams throughout his career. He played most of his senior season with a variety of injuries, but he battled through and remained a highly productive defender.
After Notre Dame lost to Georgia early in the 2017 season, Tranquill delivered a warning to the upcoming opponents for the Irish, and it spoke volumes about the mindset he and the rest of the defense possessed. That kind of leadership was evident throughout his career, and fellow linebacker Te’von Coney noted that Tranquill set the tone from a work ethic standpoint, and everyone else had to match it.
Tranquill was a two-time captain for the Irish. He finished his career with 292 tackles and 25 tackles for loss. He was selected by the Los Angeles Chargers in the fourth-round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Second Team: Te’von Coney (2015-18), Nyles Morgan (2014-17), James Onwualu (2013-16)
Third Team: Greer Martini (2012-15), Carlo Calabrese (2009-13), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (2017-19)
Harrison Smith (2007-11)
Decade Stats: 181 tackles, 17 pass break ups, 7 INT’s
Smith played just two seasons in this decade, but they were two highly productive seasons. Smith had 181 tackles, 17 pass break ups and seven interceptions in those two seasons. He remains one of the most underrated players in the last decade, both from a Notre Dame perspective and a national standpoint.
Smith made so many highlight reel plays, and his cross-field interception during the team’s 28-3 upset win over Utah is still the most impressive individual play by a Notre Dame defensive back in this decade. His range and playmaking ability was incredible, which Miami (Fla.) learned the hard way during the 2010 Sun Bowl. Smith made seven tackles and picked off three passes during that blowout victory.
Smith’s seven interceptions in 2010 tied for the sixth-best single season mark in school history. His 93 tackles in 2010 was then the fifth-most in a single season by a Notre Dame defensive back and his 90 tackles in 2011 was then the eight-best single-season mark. His 10 pass break ups in 2011 was then the eighth best single-season mark in school history, and his 28 pass break ups ranks third all-time and the most by a Notre Dame safety.
The Minnesota Vikings selected Smith in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Alohi Gilman (2017-19)
Career Stats: 168 tackles, 7 pass break ups, 3 INT’s
Gilman had such a huge impact at Notre Dame that went way beyond his production, but I’ll get to that in a minute. After sitting out the 2017 season due to transfer rules, Gilman became a top playmaker for the Irish defense in 2018. Pro Football Focus named Gilman a first-team All-American after the 2018 season.
He was highly productive, but more important was his penchant for making game-changing plays. Whether it was breaking up a crucial third-down throw in the end zone in the win over Michigan, stripping a Vanderbilt player of the football just inches before the goal line, making two picks in the win over Syracuse or stripping a USC receiver of the ball with the Trojans driving for a score, it seemed Gilman - like Kareem - was a guy that was at his best when it was needed the most.
Gilman registered 94 tackles in 2018, which is the fifth best single-season number for a Notre Dame defensive back. Beyond his production, Gilman was a tremendous leader for the Irish defense. His presence in the lineup provided the defense with an emotional leader, and his experience and maturity played a big role in teammate Jalen Elliott making huge strides as a player.
Second Team: Zeke Motta (2009-12), Jalen Elliott (2016-19)
Third Team: Matthias Farley (2011-15), Elijah Shumate (2012-15)
Julian Love (2016-18)
Career Stats: 176 tackles, 39 pass break ups, 5 INT’s
Love came to Notre Dame as an unheralded recruit, but he finished his career as one of the most productive corners in school history. He was a bright spot during an otherwise abysmal 2016 season, with Love showing the potential to be a quality player while starting eight players as a true freshman.
The Westchester, Ill. native broke out as a sophomore, setting a school record with 20 pass break ups and 23 passes defensed, both single-season Notre Dame records and ranked second nationally. Love was a game changer that season, returning two interceptions for touchdowns and returning a third inside the opponent 10-yard line, which set up a score for the Notre Dame offense. Love earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated following that season.
Love’s numbers weren’t as good as a junior due to most team’s largely avoiding him, but Love still managed to break up 16 passes and pick off another throw. His scoop and score against. Virginia Tech was a momentum swinging play, and Love’s outstanding play earned him consensus All-American honors that season.
Love finished his career as the all-time Notre Dame leader in pass break ups (39) and passes defensed (44). The New York Giants selected Love in the fourth-round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
KeiVarae Russell (2012-15)
Career Stats: 169 tackles, 14 pass break ups, 5 INT’s
Russell was initially recruited to play offense at Notre Dame, but an injury to veteran Lo Wood resulted in the Russell moving to cornerback as a freshman. He earned Freshman All-American honors from the FWAA and CBS Sports after the 2012 season. Russell started the first 26 games of his career before missing the 2014 season due to an academic suspension.
He returned in 2015 and picked up right where he left off. Russell was a strong run defender and a clutch player for the Irish. Whether it was a crucial sack against Virginia or game-clinching interceptions against USC and Temple, Russell was a money player for the Irish. It’s not a coincidence that Notre Dame went 31-6 in games that Russell started. He was injured in the team’s November win over Boston College, which ended his Irish career, and Notre Dame lost the next two games without him.
Russell finished his career with 169 tackles, and one thing is for certain, a starting cornerback duo of Russell and Love would have been quite good against the run. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Russell in the third-round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Second Team: Robert Blanton (2008-11), Bennett Jackson (2009-13)
Third Team: Troy Pride Jr. (2016-19), Cole Luke (2013-16)
That's my all-decade squad for the offense. In the comments section below give me your squad, or at least tell me what changes you would make to the list.