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Notre Dame Football: Jersey Number Countdown - 9

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It’d be hard to find a better number group than this one.

Bobby Norell

If you follow me on Twitter, which a good number of you probably don’t, you know that for the last few weeks I’ve been posting photos of old and current ND players in countdown to the first game. Today we are officially 9(!!!) days away from kickoff between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Temple Owls, so here are your 9s. This is arguably the best number group in the history of the program.

Tony Rice - QB - 1987-89

With all of the talented players to wear number 9, it kinda leaves me in a tough place to start, so I’ll go with the last man to quarterback Notre Dame to a National Title — Tony Rice. First off, Rice is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He’s usually around campus on game days, so if you get the chance to meet him, do it.

With a career record of 31-4 as a starter, Rice is one of the winningest quarterbacks in Notre Dame history. He came to Notre Dame as a Prop 48, which meant he didn’t have the grades coming out of high school, but if he sat out his freshman season and made the grades then he could stay. If you saw the 30 for 30 last year, Rice actually caught a lot of flak from ND fans for being a Prop 48 player.

Rice became the starter in 1987 after starter Terry Andrysiak got injured. Behind Rice’s guidance, Notre Dame finished with an 8-4 record, with impressive wins over USC and Alabama.

Going into 1988 Rice was the clear-cut starter. He was the perfect fit for Lou Holtz’ triple-option attack. As we all know, Rice led the Irish to a perfect 11-0 regular season, with wins over Michigan, Miami, Penn State and USC. In the season finale against USC, Rice scampered for 65-yard touchdown. Then he capped off the season with a win over West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl to capture the program’s 11th National Title.

In 1989, again Rice led the Irish to an undefeated record going into the season’s last game, but it didn’t have the same outcome as 1988. Miami stifled the Irish attack, as they held Rice to just 50 yards on 20 carries. The Hurricanes won 27-10. Notre Dame would earn a birth to the Orange Bowl where they took down No.1 Colorado 21-6. The Irish finished the season ranked No.2.

Jeff Burris - DB - 1990-93

Burris was an All-American in 1993, as he played an important role on both sides of the ball for the Irish. Not only was a hard hitting safety, but he was also Notre Dame’s goal line back. For his career, Burris only ran the ball 29 times for 167 yards, but he punched it home 10 times. That’s a pretty good percentage when you think about it.

Burris was the 27th overall pick in the 1994 NFL Draft. He played 10 seasons with the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals.

Jaylon Smith - LB - 2013-15

Now I haven’t seen every football player play at Notre Dame, but I’m going to say this and going to say it with confidence — Jaylon Smith is the best athlete ever to play football at Notre Dame.

Smith was an absolute freak. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do on a football field. He could line up at linebacker and play the run or pass. He could put his hand in the ground and rush the passer. He could cover the slot receiver. Heck, he probably would have made one helluva running back or wide receiver if he had played offense.

Smith was special from the beginning. One play that will always stick out in my mind was in the 37 31-0 thumping of Michigan in 2014. I believe it was early in the first half, but Michigan ran a running play to the Notre Dame side of the field. Smith lined up clear on the opposite side of the field. He somehow came flying across the field, and drilled the back in the backfield for a loss. There aren't too many guys capable of making a play like that.

Smith’s Notre Dame career ended on a sour and ugly note as he suffered a gruesome knee injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. (Personally, I think it was an unnecessary shove by Taylor Decker of Ohio State, but that’s a conversation for another time). If it wasn’t for that injury, Smith surely would have gone in the top 10, if not the top five, of the NFL Draft. Instead, he slid to the 34th overall pick to the Dallas Cowboys. He sat out all of 2016 rehabbing, and just made his NFL debut last week in a preseason game against the Colts.

Kyle Rudolph - TE - 2008-10

Notre Dame has had a phenomenal pedigree of great tight ends, and Rudolph has certainly played a part in that. He ranks among the all-time leading tight ends in Notre Dame history. Rudolph is fourth all-time in receptions and yards among tight ends with 90 and 1,032. He was also just the fourth tight end ever to surpass the 1,000 mark plateau. These numbers would undoubtedly been higher if he hadn't been injured for much of his junior year.

After the 2010 season, Rudolph decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft. He was drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Vikings. He’s going into his seventh season with the Vikings. He’s had a very solid career thus far. He was a Pro-Bowler in 2012. He was also the Pro-Bowl MVP that year.

I’ll always remember Rudolph for catching the game-winning pass on the road at Purdue in 2009. That was the first road game I ever attended and was a great memory.

Tommy Zbikowski - FS - 2004-07

There was a trio of guys who were fan favorites on those early Charlie Weis teams — Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija and Tommy Zbikowksi. Zbikowski was always my favorite among the group. He had that blue-collar attitude, just did his job and went about his business.

His breakout season came in 2005, where he excelled as Notre Dame’s free safety and punt return man. He had four touchdowns — two interception returns and two punt returns — including that memorable punt return against USC. He finished the season with 70 tackles, which was fourth best on the team.

Zbikowski was named a captain in 2006. He tallied 79 tackles in ‘06 and returned his third career punt for a touchdown against North Carolina. He was named an All-American by the AP for the second straight season .

He returned as a fifth year for the tumultuous 2007 season. He recorded a career high 80 tackles and even saw a little action at quarterback on Senior Day against Duke.

After Notre Dame Zbikowski played six seasons in the NFL, with the Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears.

After he retired, he fell on some hard times. You can read about his redemption story here in a 2015 article in the South Bend Tribune. His story is a must read.

Zbikowski is currently a firefighter with the Chicago Fire Department.

Louis Nix III - DT - 2010-13

Nix was a big personality, and because of it, he was a fan favorite on that 2012 team. More importantly, he helped anchor a dominant and stout defensive line. Nix was a menace to opposing offensive lines, getting into backfields and blowing up plays. Notre Dame has been looking for someone like Nix since he graduated. That’s how vital Nix was to that defense.

After being drafted in the third round in 2014, Nix’s NFL career has yet to really take off. He’s bounced around from team to team, but has yet to stick. The latest news on Nix is that he’s currently in training camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars.