Notre Dame Top 5 Linebackers
Notre Dame has produced a number of tremendous linebackers over the years. During my lifetime of following the Fighting Irish, which began in the late 1980’s, Notre Dame has produced a number of All-American players at the position.
When you look back at all the great Irish defenses you’ll find standouts at linebacker. The 1988 team was so loaded at the position that a player who earned All-American honors in 1987 and 1989 couldn’t crack the starting lineup.
In the last decade, only two programs have produced two Butkus Award winners (nation’s top linebackers), Notre Dame and Alabama.
Creating a Top 5 linebackers of my lifetime following the program was a challenge. There were All-Americans left off the list, but here is my five:
1. MANTI TE’O (2009-12)
Career Stats: 437 tackles, 33 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 7 INT’s, 10 break ups
Not only was Te’o the most decorated linebacker in Notre Dame history, he is one of the most decorated linebackers in the history of college football. He finished his Irish career with the third most tackles in school history, and his seven interception in 2012 is a school record for a linebacker.
His 2012 season was one of the all-time great individual campaigns. Te’o was the Heisman Trophy runner up, he won the Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Award, which go to the nation’s best player, he won the Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Lombardi Award, which go to the nation’s best defensive player, and he won the Butkus Award. Te’o was also a unanimous All-American that season while being the driving force behind a Notre Dame defense that fueled a 12-0 regular season, the first in school history.
Te’o didn’t come out of nowhere as a senior. He was a second team All-American in 2011 when he racked up career highs with 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks to go with 128 tackles. That was one tackle fewer than his career best of 129 as a sophomore. Notre Dame went just 8-5 during his sophomore and junior seasons, but the Irish defense ranked 22nd and 24th in scoring defense during those two seasons.
2. JAYLON SMITH (2013-15)
Career Stats: 292 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT, 10 break ups
There isn’t a more talented player on this list, and Smith was also very productive during his Notre Dame career. Smith had 225 tackles and 18 tackles for loss in his final two seasons, which earned him second team All-American honors from the Associated Press as a sophomore and consensus All-American honors as a junior. Smith and Te’o are the only two Notre Dame linebackers to ever win the Butkus Award.
Smith was an exceptional athlete that used his speed and instincts to make a lot of plays during his career. The tackle for loss he made against Michigan in 2014 is one of the best I’ve seen from an Irish linebacker, and Smith made hard plays look normal.
Smith didn’t produce the numbers his talent would otherwise dictate, and it was no fault of his own. The reality is Smith was used poorly in this final two seasons while being stuck in a pretty poor defensive philosophy. It wasn’t apparent just how bad that philosophy was, at least to some (including the Notre Dame head coach), until after Smith left. That is when people realized just how much Smith did and how much damage he prevented. I often wonder just what his numbers would have looked like if he would have played for Mike Elko and Clark Lea.
3. MICHAEL STONEBREAKER (1986-90)
Career Stats: 220 tackles, 5 INT, 8 break ups
Stonebreaker was the first great Notre Dame linebacker that I remember watching at Notre Dame. Beyond the talent, the former Irish star has a great linebacker name: Stonebreaker. Talent wise, Stonebreaker was on the small side but he was an exceptional athlete. He could make plays against the run and he could cover.
He was suspended for the 1989 season, but on the opposite side of both seasons he was an All-American. Stonebreaker earned consensus All-American honors in 1988 when he registered 104 tackles as part of a dominant Irish defense that led the way to an undefeated season and a national championship.
He returned from his suspension to earn Unanimous All-American honors in 1990 when he registered 95 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks.
4. COURTNEY WATSON (1999-03)
Career Stats: 294 tackles, 39 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 7 INT
Watson was a highly productive linebacker throughout his career, registering at least 10 tackles for loss in each of his final three seasons. The Florida native finished his career ranked seventh all-time in tackles for loss (39).
Notre Dame ranked ninth in scoring defense in 2002, limiting opponents to just 16.7 points per game. It was a strong all-around unit, but Watson was arguably the best player on that defense. He registered 90 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and picked off four passes that season. Watson registered 76 tackles and 13 tackles for loss in 2001 and made 117 tackles and racked up 15 tackles for loss as a senior in 2003.
Watson’s 2002 campaign ended with him being named a first team All-American by ESPN and a second team selection by the Walter Camp Football Foundation.
5. NED BOLCAR (1985-89)
Career Stats: 272 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 4 INT (1987-89 only)
Bolcar was part of three outstanding Notre Dame defenses. Despite being beaten out by Stonebreaker in 1988, Bolcar still managed to make 57 tackles and five tackles for loss as a part of the linebacker rotation.
In the two seasons that surrounded the 1988 campaign, Bolcar earned All-American honors. He racked up 106 tackles and five tackles for loss in 1987 for an Irish defense that ranked 24th in scoring defense, earning Bolcar second team All-American honors by the AP.
He registered 109 tackles and eight tackles for loss in 1989 for an Irish defense that ranked ninth in scoring defense (14.5 PPG). Bolcar earned second team All-American honors by UPI and The Sporting News following that season, which ended with Notre Dame going 12-1 and ranked No. 2 in the country.
Blue & Gold Illustrated senior editor Lou Somogyi, who covered Bolcar, said the former Irish linebacker seemed to be at his best in the biggest games.