As Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o prepares for his final season under the Golden Dome, it's appropriate to assess his place in the storied history of Fighting Irish football. In a program ranked the No. 3 football factory by NFL Network, it takes a truly remarkable career to be given the honor of one of the top 25 players ever to don the blue and gold.
Let's preface this discussion by noting some mitigating factors when comparing players from different eras. For any player who played prior to 1990, I've only seen highlights and videos. In addition, the game has changed drastically over time. The players have gotten bigger, faster and stronger. The passing game has become more wide open. Players are leaving for the NFL after only two or three seasons.
For purposes of this discussion, we'll assume the top 25 players are split equally between offense and defense. So, the bottom line is, is Te'o one of the 12 or 13 best defenders in Notre Dame history? With that said, let's dive into the debate.
First, let's look at Te'o's skill set. He's far from the most versatile linebacker in the world, often struggling in pass coverage. However, against the run, there might not currently be a better linebacker in college football. Once Te'o gets his hand on a ball-carrier, the play is over. One of the more instinctive players to play defense at Notre Dame, Te'o also excels at sniffing out quick passes and bubble screens.
The best NFL great to compare Te'o to is likely Chicago Bears Hall of Fame middle linebacker Mike Singletary. The leader of arguably the greatest single-season defense of all-time in 1985 also masked deficiencies in coverage with his intelligence and run-stuffing abilities. Singletary wasn't a complete linebacker, but excelled at what he was asked to do. Ditto for Te'o.
Any discussion of the best Irish defenders starts and ends with Ross Browner. The defensive end helped lead to Notre Dame to the 1977 national title, including a landmark defensive performance in the Cotton Bowl against Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell and No. 1 Texas. The elite pair of defensive end Alan Page and linebacker Jim Lynch, who were anchors of the 1966 national title-winning defense, are next in line.
The Lou Holtz era gave us stalwart defensive tackles Chris Zorich and Bryant Young, the former winning a national title in 1988 and the latter just missing one in 1993. The success under Holtz also turned linebackers Frank Stams and Michael Stonebreaker into stars, despite neither doing much of anything in the NFL.
Cornerback Bobby Taylor and safety Jeff Burris were the key cogs in shutting down eventual Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward and Florida State in the epic No. 1 vs. No. 2 game in 1993. Five years earlier, Todd Lyght and Pat Terrell anchored the back end of a national title-winning defense.
Perhaps the best comparison to Te'o at Notre Dame is linebacker Bob Crable. Like Te'o, Crable played on some mediocre teams in his career that lasted from 1978-1981, Crable holds the school record for tackles at 521, a record that should last for the foreseeable future. A two-time All-American (two more than Te'o), Crable also holds the NCAA record for most tackles in a game with 26.
So, of those mentioned, is there anyone who should get bumped by Te'o to move him into the top 25? In my opinion, Browner, Crable, Lynch, Page, Stonebreaker, Taylor, Young and Zorich are all safe. All of the others were on teams that were ranked No. 1 at some point in their careers. Notre Dame hasn't been ranked higher than No. 16 in Te'o's career. Although this is a list of individual players, wins and losses have to count for something.
While Justin Tuck is a bona fide NFL star, his Notre Dame career wasn't good enough to merit a place on the list. The same can perhaps be said about Jerome Bettis and maybe even the great Joe Montana.
Ultimately, I think Te'o currently comes in right around No. 25. However, his legacy is yet to be completed. An All-American season and being a Butkus Award finalist would likely ensure his place on the list. There's no right answer here, especially with his career still ongoing.
At any other school, it's probably a slam dunk. That's the beauty of Notre Dame, however. Anytime you look back into history, you realize just how many great players have walked down from the locker room, slapped the "Play Like A Champion Today" sign and run through the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel.