Like a lot of people, my absolute favorite part of Tyrone Willingham’s storied, successful tenure with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was the defense his team fielded in 2002 — you know, the one that carried the team to an 8-0 start despite
very little next-to-no offensive support.
Specifically I, along with everyone else, loved that team’s secondary — a collection of talent and leadership and bad-assery in the defensive backfield that the program hasn’t seen since and hadn’t seen since the early ‘90s.
Shane Walton was the All-American, lock-down corner who came from nowhere as a converted soccer player. Glenn Earl was the safety who could really lay the lumber (Wikipedia says his teammates called him “The Quiet Assassin”). Gerome Sapp was incredibly consistent and came up with some big interceptions in his time at the other safety spot.
But it was Vontez Duff, the speedy corner and return man from Copperas Cove, Texas, who was my absolute favorite of the group. He was the playmaker, and due to his kick return abilities, the game breaker of that 2002 squad.
Oh, and side note — he had the best name on the team, especially when making an excited call about a long kick return. “Vontez Duff” is just a perfect combination of unique, fun-to-say first name and short, simple, and fun-to-say last name.
His junior season in 2002 he earned 3rd-team AP All-American honors while accumulating 36 tackles, 7 pass break-ups, and an interception against Purdue that he returned 33 yards for a touchdown. Along with that pick-six, he also returned a kickoff for a 92-yard touchdown against Navy and a punt for a 76-yard touchdown against Maryland, making him the first player in school history to return an interception, punt, and kickoff for touchdowns in the same season. According to his UND.com profile, he also had a fumble return come up about 2 yards short of a touchdown, meaning Duff came this close to being the first player in NCAA history to return an interception, kickoff, punt, and fumble for a touchdown all in the same season.
The dude was an electric and versatile playmaker, plain and simple. Just check out this best-quality-I-could-find video of him in action.
The first Notre Dame teams I really remember were Bob Davie’s last few teams, meaning I was indoctrinated into Irish fandom by the electric play-making abilities of guys like Autry Denson and Joey Getherall and Julius Jones. So, it’s pretty clear why Duff was able to endear himself to me so easily in his 4 years at ND, being an All-American caliber corner while also finishing his career as one of the best return men in Notre Dame history, behind just a few people you might have heard of (Brown, Ismail, Rossum).
Vontez Duff gave me tons of great early ND football memories, and was a huge part of the best Notre Dame defense I’ve probably ever seen (the only exception MAYBE being that 2012 defense, but 2002 definitely had the better secondary).
Vontez, I salute you, wherever you are, and hope you are doing well. God bless you, and go Irish.