Who is the best Notre Dame football recruit this century?

Manti Te'o, Notre Dame Fighting Irish. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame Fighting Irish. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

Which player was the best recruit for Notre Dame football since 2000?

Notre Dame football’s ability to recruit nationally has always been its calling card.

Given that the University of Notre Dame is tucked away up there in Northern Indiana in a state lacking a ton of blue-chip college football talent, the Irish must recruit nationally to stay relevant. Technically, even in a down cycle, the Irish are always nationally relevant because they are among the most popular brands in the sport. Having the NBC television contract is pretty sweet, too.

So when it comes to who is the best the Irish have recruited since 2000, the answer is pretty obvious. Though quarterback Jimmy Clausen from Westlake Village, California and linebacker Jaylon Smith from in-state Fort Wayne, Indiana have higher recruiting grades in the 247Sports Composite, the best recruit to play for the Irish this century is linebacker Manti Te’o going away.

Te’o was a five-star recruit in the class of 2009. The Punahou School standout from Honolulu, Hawaii was the No. 1 player from his state, the No. 1 inside linebacker in his class and the No. 4 player in the country that year. Te’o was the No. 92 recruit all time in the eyes of the 247Sports Composite. He had nine offers, made five official visits, but opted to play for the Golden Domers.

Te’o’s primary recruiter to Notre Dame was special teams coordinator Brian Polian. He has landed five five-star recruits in his career, including Clausen, Te’o and 2020 five-star quarterback commit Tyler Buchner from La Mesa, California. Te’o also made visits to the BYU Cougars, the Stanford Cardinal, the UCLA Bruins and the USC Trojans.

Despite being on the other side of the country, the Mormon from Hawaii committed to play for the Catholic university on Feb. 4, 2009. Notre Dame was the second of the five schools he visited, after UCLA, but before BYU, Stanford and USC. Te’o enrolled on the South Bend campus on June 30, 2009.

Manti Te’o is the best recruit Notre Dame football has had this century.

Te’o played in all 12 games as a freshman in 2009, as he had 63 tackles in his first year playing for the Irish. That was the third most in school history for a freshman. Naturally, he earned a spot on a pair of Freshman All-American teams after his 2009 campaign playing for Charlie Weis. However, Notre Dame went 6-6 that year and Weis was fired at the end of the season.

As a sophomore and junior in 2010 and 2011, Te’o led the Irish in tackles, as he started to climb up Butkus and Lombardi Award watch lists. He earned Second-Team All-American status in a few publications during those two seasons, but what we were in store from him in his senior season of 2012 was unlike we’ve ever seen before.

Te’o finished as runner-up to Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel for the Heisman Trophy. The Irish went 12-0, playing for the BCS National Championship. Te’o was a unanimous All-American, taking home the Butkus, the Lombardi, the Nagurski, the Bednarik, the Lott, the Walter Camp and the Maxwell Awards. It was one of the greatest seasons we’ve ever seen.

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Even though the Irish got blown out by the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2012 national title bout, the strangest thing about Te’o’s senior season was the catfishing hoax he got caught up in. It was so crazy, in fact, that ESPN is making a documentary around this mind-blowing story involving Te’o and his fake girlfriend. It is the definition of stranger than fiction. Who could make this up?

Te’o left South Bend with 437 total tackles (212 solo, 225 assists), 34 of them going for a loss of yardage, 8.5 sacks, seven interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. A lock for the College Football Hall of Fame when his football playing career comes to an end, Te’o would be a second-round pick by the then-San Diego Chargers in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Te’o played four years in San Diego before spending the last three NFL seasons with the New Orleans Saints. At 29 years old, Te’o remains a free agent, looking to play in the league for an eighth season. Though never a Pro Bowler, Te’o was able to carve out a decent NFL career for himself, even though his days of playing in the league might be coming to an end in 2020.

Despite a catfishing incident, Te’o is one of the best players Notre Dame has had in decades.

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