Notre Dame football all-time roster: Defensive starters and backup

Who are the best defensive players in the history of Notre Dame football?

As much love as the quarterbacks and other offensive stars have traditionally gotten from their offensive stars, you could argue their talent overall on defense is historically better.  

So who are the very best to have ever played defense for the Irish?

Perhaps the best way to think of just how talented this group is, is by looking at the all-time greats that didn’t make the cut and you’ll realize just how much talent has strapped it up at Notre Dame over the years, and in all honesty we were a bit partial to the more recent years.

Who were the must-haves on the all-defensive team and who did we miss on?  

Take a look and let us know in the comment section below and then be sure to check out the all-time lineups for the other College Wire sites below.

Defensive End 1 (Starter) - Ross Browner: If you’re naming the best defender in Notre Dame history, Browner would be on the short list. The two-time All-American won the Maxwell and Outland Awards while helping the Irish to national titles in both 1973 and 1977.

Defensive End 2 (Starter) - Justin Tuck: The competition for this spot is deep with plenty not even mentioned but Notre Dame’s all-time sack leader gets the nod despite playing only three years in the blue and gold.

Defensive End 3 (Backup) - Leon Hart 1949 Heisman winner played both ways, starring as an end on both offense and defense. In his four years at Notre Dame the Irish went an absurd 46-0-2.

Defensive End 4 (Backup) - Stephon Tuitt As great as Manti Te’o was at Notre Dame, Tuitt might have been the best player on that 2012 squad that went 12-0 in the regular season.  Tuitt was a force, recording 21.5 sacks in three seasons, including 12.0 in 2012 alone.

Defensive Tackle 1 (Starter) - Alan Page Page is as big of no-doubter as you’ll find at any spot on this list.  The College Football and Pro Football Hall of Fame helped Notre Dame to the ’66 crown and is viewed by any that watched him as one of the best defensive tackles to ever play the game of football.

Defensive Tackle 2 (Starter) - Bryant Young There have been defensive players with more flash since I started watching Notre Dame football in the early-nineties but none have been better at their jobs in that time than Bryant Young. The defensive tackle was a force on the ’93 defensive front and recently became the second member of Notre Dame’s 1990 recruiting class to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Bettis).

Defensive Tackle 3 (Backup) - Chris Zorich The heart and soul of the ’88 defense and former Lombardi Award winner would start pretty much anywhere else had he just not been blocked by a pair of Hall of Fame talents.

Defensive Tackle 4 (Backup) - Louis Nix, III It honestly makes me sad just writing this.  I thought it was unfair that the football gods treated “Irish Chocolate” the way they did after he chose to return for his senior season in 2013.  The sadder part is that Nix tragically died much too young in the winter of 2021.

Linebacker 1 (Starter) - Manti Te'o Worth the hype and then some, Te’o was one of Notre Dame’s biggest recruits in program history when he enrolled in 2009.He was the unquestioned leader of the 2012 team that went 12-0 in the regular season and earned a spot in the BCS National Championship.

Linebacker 2 (Starter) - Michael Stonebreaker A consensus All-American with the 1988 national champions, Stonebreaker had a nose for the football and was responsible for fourth-quarter turnovers in 1990 against each of Michigan, Michigan State, and Miami that all secured Irish victories. He twice finished runner-up for the nation’s top linebacker award.

Linebacker 3 (Starter) - Jim Lynch A Maxwell Award winner, All-American, and national champion in 1966 before a decade-long NFL career.  Lynch is a no-doubter to start on this squad.

Linebacker 4 (Backup) - Jaylon Smith Perhaps linebacker has ever been as physically gifted as Smith, who also won a Butkus Award in 2015.

Linebacker 5 (Backup) - Bob Crable His 521 career tackles are 42 more than any other player in Notre Dame history.

Linebacker 6 (Backup) - Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah did everything at Notre Dame as he excelled in coverage, could play the run, could get after opposing quarterbacks, and hit as hard as any Irish defender before him.  He was also the 2020 Butkus Award Winner as the nation’s best linebacker

Cornerback 1 (Starter) - Todd Lyght One of the best defenders on the great ’88 and ’89 teams before having a fantastic NFL career with the Rams.

Cornerback 2 (Starter) - Julian Love Notre Dame’s latest cornerback to earn All-American. How Love didn’t win the best defensive back in college football in 2018 is still beyond me.

Cornerback 3 (Backup) - Bobby Taylor Taylor starred on the ’93 team that should have won it all, but was a rare bright light even a year later when he took home All-American honors before becoming a second round NFL draft pick and playing in the league for 10 years.

Cornerback 4 (Backup) - Shane Walton The best soccer player turned defensive back in Notre Dame history.

Safety 1 (Starter) - Kyle Hamilton Perhaps we should have known how great Hamilton would be when his first snap at Notre Dame Stadium resulted in an interception that was returned for a touchdown (above). Hamilton is on the short list of most talented defenders Notre Dame has ever seen after being a 2x All-American in three seasons.

Safety 2 (Starter) - Harrison Smith Four year starter who had seven interceptions as a junior and none as a senior because nobody threw towards him. No surprise he’s still playing at a high level in the NFL a decade later

Safety 3 (Backup) - Jeff Burris Another All-American at Notre Dame and first round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills.  Burris was an elite safety and a heck of an athlete as he also starred in Notre Dame’s backfield on the ’93 team.

Safety 4 (Backup) - Tom Zbikowski Don’t get Tom Zbikowski a Christmas present because he’s just going to return it.

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