Notre Dame’s Best From Tennessee
It has been “SEC Week” of late in Notre Dame’s football recruiting efforts. Since the end of July, Notre Dame has received verbal commitments from Georgia (2022 tight end Jack Nickel), Louisiana (2021 running back Logan Diggs) and this Friday evening Jonesborough, Tenn., linebacker Prince Kollie.
Georgia in particular has become much more emphasized, with eight players from there having signed or committed since 2018, the most from any single state (although one, safety Derrick Allen, has since transferred to Georgia Tech). Some inroads have been made in Louisiana as well, notably 2019 first-round defensive line selection Jerry Tillery and current slot Lawrence Keys III.
Both of those states in their history had just more than 30 players see action for Notre Dame, by our count. Meanwhile, Tennessee has had 23, most recently reserve offensive tackle Cole Mabry (Brentwood).
Who are the best from Tennessee to play for Notre Dame? Most have been in the 21st century while the recruiting scope keeps broadening for the Irish more into SEC territory. Here is our Top 10 countdown from Tennessee.
10. Thomas Knight (Memphis, 1992-93)
Knight, a second-team USA Today All-American, broke into the defensive line starting unit for the 11-1 team in 1993 that featured three seniors who would be at least 10-year NFL performers: Bryant Young, Jim Flanigan and Oliver Gibson.
After finishing the year with 26 tackles, five stops for loss and two sacks, Knight ran into academic difficulties, which led to a different direction.
9. Donté Vaughn (Memphis, 2016-19)
Injuries helped derail the rangy cornerback’s career after a promising freshman year in which he tied for the team lead in passes broken up (six), but he remained a regular in the lineup.
The plan was to redshirt Vaughn last season so he could be available in 2020 for a fifth year, but injuries necessitated that he play.
8. Joe Signaigo (Memphis, 1943, 1946-47)
Signaigo was listed as a second-team guard on three national title units, which was something special on those ultra-talented Fighting Irish teams that sent fourth-team players into the NFL. He played three years in the pros.
7. Matt Shelton (Collierville, 2001-05)
In 2004, Shelton set the Notre Dame single-season record for yards per catch (25.8) with his 20 grabs, six of which were touchdowns. He also nabbed 28 receptions as a fifth-year senior under first-year head coach Charlie Weis.
6. Justin Yoon (Nashville, 2015-18)
Yoon played his high school football at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, but Notre Dame officially lists his hometown as Nashville, so it’s sort of a “split decision" between those two states.
Regardless, the all-time scoring leader at Notre Dame (367 points) was a reliable, clutch figure, converting 59 of 73 field goal attempts, a 80.8 percentage that is the best at the school among players with at least 50 attempts.
5/ Alex Bars (Nashville, 2014-18)
Bars was a versatile offensive lineman who started a couple of games in year two for injured classmate Quenton Nelson, and then started all of 2016 (right tackle) and 2017 (right guard) while earning a team captaincy in 2018 and shifting to Nelson's left guard spot.
His final year was cut short with a knee injury in game five, but Bars made the Chicago Bears roster as a rookie free agent last year and played in five games.
4. Chuck Lanza (Germantown, 1983-87)
A powerful figure at center, Lanza was a second-team Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) All-American as a fifth-year senior and served as a co-captain in head coach Lou Holtz’s second season.
He was drafted in the third round by the Pittsburgh Steelers and played three years in the NFL.
The top three is the tough part that could go in any order, depending on what one values the highest: starring on top teams, stats or pro career.
3. Willie Fry (Memphis, 1973, 1975-77)
Inexorably linked with classmate and fellow “bookend” Ross Browner, the Browner-Fry tandem is the Gold Standard at Notre Dame for pass-rushing duos at end, helping the Irish to two national titles.
The UPI second-team All-American was a second-round pick who recorded 214 tackles at Notre Dame, 29 for lost yardage. He also was a rare two-time captain.
Major injuries ended his NFL career before it ever began, but he rose to prominence on Wall Street and would regularly host the Notre Dame men’s basketball team on trips to New York City and take them through the New York Stock Exchange, He died young after suffering a massive heart attack in 1998 at age 42.
T1. Harrison Smith (Knoxville, 2007-11) and Golden Tate (Hendersonville, 2007-09)
Speaking of inexorable linkage, this duo signed in 2007. One would be hard pressed to find a better tandem from Tennessee that went out of state to the same school in the same year.
Whereas Fry lost only seven games in his four years with the Irish, neither Smith nor Tate was on a team that lost fewer than five games. Of course, Paul Hornung still won the 1956 Heisman Trophy while his Notre Dame team was 2-8.
After dabbling at linebacker earlier in his career, Smith developed tremendously his last two seasons as a safety under Brian Kelly’s new staff and became the first Irish player from Tennessee to become a first-round selection. He recorded 307 tackles, ranks among the school's top five in passes broken up, and all seven of his interceptions came in 2010, three in the Sun Bowl win over Miami.
Smith has made the NFL Pro Bowl each of the past five seasons and is putting himself into future Pro Football Hall of Fame conversation.
Tate was Notre Dame’s most electrifying triple threat since Rocket Ismail (1988-90), the 2009 Biletnikoff Award winner turned pro after a junior season in which he caught 93 passes that averaged 16.1 yards per reception and included 15 touchdowns. He also rushed for 186 yards that season, averaging 7.4 yards per carry, and had an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown at Pittsburgh.
The second-round pick was the top receiver for the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, and his 660 career receptions for 7,890 yards and 44 touchdowns are second among Irish NFL alumni, behind Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Tim Brown.
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