Of all the positions on the All-Decade team, none have been as hard to figure out who belongs than safety. Normally, one or two guys will jump out and it’s fairly easy to tell who should be named the best for the decade. Not safety. Six players legitimately can claim to be one of the top two safeties in the 2000s for Notre Dame. You wouldn’t be wrong picking any of the six. Of course, you can’t be right either. Someone worthy of being named on the team will be left off. Even when you throw in backups, two guys who rightfully can claim they deserve a spot will not be a part of this team. How do you figure this thing out? Let’s give it a shot.
Starting S: Tom Zbikowski (2003-2007)
One of the most electrifying players of the decade, Tom Zbikowski should go down as the best safety of the 2000s. A playmaker of the highest degree, he always seemed to make something happen. Zbikowski finished with 300 career tackles which ranks ninth all-time and first for a defensive back. More than his tackling ability, though, was Zbikowski’s ability to create and cause turnovers. He snagged eight interceptions in his career, forced seven fumbles, and recovered four. Two of his fumble recoveries went for touchdowns (’04 against Michigan State, ’06 against Penn State) as did two of his interceptions (’05 against Tennessee and BYU). His 83-yard interception return for a TD in that BYU game is the fourth longest in Irish history.
Zibby was great on defense, but his play as a punt returner is what truly made him an Irish star. He’s in the top-10 for punt return yards in a season and career. His three punt returns for touchdowns is tied for fourth most in school history. The punt return for a TD against USC in 2005 will go down as one of the greatest plays of the decade. Only Golden Tate was a more dangerous, exciting player in the last 10 years. For his efforts, Zbikowski earned second team All-American status from the Walter Camp foundation in 2006 and third team AP All-American honors in both 2005 and 2006. It was a tough call, but Zibby tops the safety list last decade.
Starting S: David Bruton (2005-2008)
The choice for the second starter on the All-Decade team was extremely tough to make. Any one of the five remaining guys on the list could be on here. David Bruton gets the slight nod because his career was great. Unfortunately, he might be a guy overlooked by a lot of Irish fans for a number of reasons. Bruton played his best during 2007 and 2008, seasons that weren’t exactly filled with great play. He and the defense were overshadowed by the offense, and Bruton, in particular, may have been overshadowed by his fellow safety Kyle McCarthy. It’s too bad . Look at the numbers. Bruton collected 214 career tackles, fourth all-time for an Irish defensive back. He’s fourth and seventh on the list for tackles in a season by a DB. Bruton picked off six passes, forced three fumbles, and recovered two. He did all that in basically two seasons. Take away 18 of his tackles that he recorded in 2006 and Bruton still had the seventh most career tackles by a DB in school history. 196 tackles in two seasons. That’s pretty impressive. Bruton covered a lot of ground at free safety and made the Notre Dame secondary better than it otherwise would have been. Not an electrifying player, not glamorous, but a tough, hard-nosed, great safety and the second starter on the All-Decade team by a nose.
Backups: Chinedum Ndukwe (2003-2006) 157 career tackles in two years as a starting safety. 150 of them in his final two seasons. His 98 tackles in 2006 is third most ever in one season for a Notre Dame defensive back. A ball hawk, Ndukwe picked off four passes, forced four fumbles, and recovered six including the huge fumble recovery to keep Michigan out of the end zone in the 2005 victory.
Kyle McCarthy (2006-2009) Mr. Everything for the Fighting Irish defense in 2008 and 2009. 240 career tackles, second most ever for a DB. Also sits #1 (110 in 2008) and #2 (101 in 2009) on the list for tackles in a season by a DB. Eight career interceptions, including two against Stanford in 2008 to help preserve the win and a game-clinching pick against Michigan State in 2009. He was everywhere for the defense. If there was a play to be made, Kyle McCarthy would be involved guaranteed.
Honorable Mentions: I cannot do this column without mentioning Gerome Sapp and Glenn Earl. A great tandem of safeties, helped turn the 2002 ND defense into the best of the decade. Sapp recorded 161 career tackles and five interceptions. Earl had 169 career stops with four picks. His most memorable play was the block of a 28-yard game-winning field goal attempt by Air Force in 2000. His assignment was to lay back and play for the fake. Smartly realizing Air Force would never fake the FG attempt, he went for the block and got it allowing the Irish to force overtime where they would win and preserve their BCS hopes.