Darius Walker played at Notre Dame from 2004-06, and then spent two seasons playing in the NFL for the Houston Texans from 2007-08. He was a part of the last Fiesta Bowl to feature both Notre Dame and Ohio State.
At the end of the 2005 college football season, Notre Dame and Ohio State each were loaded with future NFL players and each settled for a Fiesta Bowl berth after falling short of national-championship aspirations.
Coincidentally, a decade later, the 2015 season is no different for both teams.
After coming up a few plays short of perfect records, Notre Dame and Ohio State each failed to earn a spot in the coveted College Football Playoff. Instead, the two will compete in a Fiesta Bowl rematch filled with potential future NFL players; arguably as many as any other bowl game this season.
Having been a running back for the Irish in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, I remember the genius of Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel and the uber-talented players on both sides of the ball for the Buckeyes. Notre Dame had an opportunity to win the game in the fourth quarter, but ultimately lost, 34-20. Throughout the contest, the Irish relied heavily on the run game, while Ohio State consistently made big plays. Although the players and their respective talents are different in this year's matchup, both teams rely heavily on specific leaders.
To set the right context, I've compared some of the marquee players from the 2005 rosters to those from this season, and outlined what that might mean for the outcome of this bowl game.
Before the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, I watched a ton of film on A.J. Hawk. No amount of film study could have prepared me for his toughness. As the leader of the defense, he was absolutely relentless in his pursuit to the football and was rarely fooled by movement or formations. He influenced the entire unit through vocal commands and aggressive play. The scouting report said he was a hard-nosed 'backer with an incredible football IQ. However, he was better than advertised.
Similarly to Hawk, the Buckeyes' defense feeds off the play of defensive end Joey Bosa. At 6-foot-5, 275 pounds, Bosa has been virtually unstoppable this season. He is the nation's active career leader with 51 tackles for loss and is ranked third nationally with 26 career quarterback sacks. His explosiveness off the line of scrimmage is the key. If he can consistently force his way into the backfield, his presence has the potential to rattle young Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer. Anytime an inexperienced quarterback is flustered, mistakes are bound to happen.
From a scouting perspective, Bosa has showcased tremendous hand and wrist strength while striking opposing blockers. The only rub -- he's not as quick as some of the elite NFL edge rushers, but he makes up for it with discipline and leverage control. Some scouts compare him to Jared Allen because of his size and durability.
RB Antonio Pittman vs. RB Ezekiel Elliott
Antonio Pittman was a beast. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the Buckeyes in 2005 and 2006, and currently ranks eighth in career rushing yards in the Ohio State record book. He possessed a nice blend of speed and power with some shiftiness between the tackles and consistently made big plays. In the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, he sealed the game with a 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to put the Buckeyes up, 34-20. The New Orleans Saints drafted him in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
Much the same as Pittman, Buckeyes star Ezekiel Elliott is a threat to take it the distance at any time. Not to discredit Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry or the versatile Christian McCaffrey, but Elliott is the most talented running back in college football, by far, in my opinion. It's not even close. If his combination of speed, vision and quickness weren't enough, he's also displayed excellent receiving skills and is remarkably durable. Against the Irish, I suspect he will carry the ball a lot and if he gets going, look for the Buckeyes to put up a ton of points.
In breaking down the film on Elliott, it's obvious he has all the "feature" back characteristics NFL scouts covet in elite runners. The junior has eclipsed 3,812 career rushing yards and averages 6.7 yards per carry. However, like most young backs at the next level, he'll have to improve as a blocker in pass protection and learn his specific role depending upon the offensive scheme. Regardless, he is a certified blue-chip prospect who intends to enter the 2016 draft.
From the sideline of the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, I watched Ted Ginn Jr. have one of the best games of his career as a Buckeye. He racked up 240 total yards (167 yards receiving and 73 rushing) and two touchdowns. At times, it was almost unfair because he was faster than anyone else on the field. He torched the Irish defense on deep routes. The Miami Dolphins drafted him ninth overall in 2007. It's no surprise that he currently leads the Carolina Panthers in receiving touchdowns (10) and still outruns everyone on the field.
Like Ginn, Ohio State's Michael Thomas has tremendous top-end speed. In traffic, he's shown steady hands and a unique ability to separate from defenders. At 6-3, 210, he effectively uses his frame to attack the ball aggressively in the air. Against a fast Notre Dame secondary, I'm curious to see if Thomas can turn short passes into big plays. Interestingly enough, his uncle is Keyshawn Johnson, who was selected first overall in the 1996 NFL Draft.
While scouts will appreciate his straight-line speed, it's clear that he lacks some elusiveness. At times he appears stiff and struggles to make defenders miss in the open field. His size and ability are comparable to the Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas (no relation), but Michael Thomas will have to develop some lower-body strength as past his performance suggests he has a tendency to allow corners to reroute him on deep vertical routes.
DE Victor Abiamiri vs. LB Jaylon Smith
I had the luxury of competing against Victor Abiamiri on a daily basis in practice at Notre Dame. He was one of those rare athletes who was not only extremely imposing physically, but also deceptively fast. I watched him chase down many running backs from the back side of a defense. As a senior, he had 10.5 sacks with 15 tackles for loss. He went on to be an honorable mention All-American and was drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith is imposing physically, just like Abiamiri. He's probably the best linebacker in all of college football. At 6-2, 235, he's the ideal size, but it's his athleticism that sets him apart. Against the Buckeyes, he will line up all over the field. But his main focus should be tackling Ezekiel Elliott in space. If Smith can consistently manage to get Elliot down, it will force Ohio State to become a one-dimensional offense and the scales will tip in Notre Dame's favor (much like they did for Michigan State when it held Elliott to 33 yards rushing earlier this season).
On film, it's clear that Smith's dominance should translate at the next level as a linebacker. His agility in covering a receiver in the slot and his dynamism in blitzing off the edge make him a special talent. Smith's running ability combined with his efficiency in changing directions makes him a complete player. Like most young linebackers, Smith will need to improve on shedding blocks. In previous games, he's allowed offensive linemen to gain inside leverage and push him out of position.
WR Jeff Samardzija vs. WR William Fuller
Jeff Samardzija was one of the best athletes I have seen at any level. He was a two-sport athlete at Notre Dame and easily could have made the basketball team as a reserve guard. As a football player, his natural ability to control his body in the air resulted in some of the most amazing (and clutch) acrobatic catches ever. He was a consensus All-American and set school records for both receiving and touchdown receptions. He finished his career as the all-time leader with 2,593 yards. He had the skills to be a first-round NFL draft pick, but opted to play baseball instead. He inked a $90 million deal with the San Francisco Giants this year.
Like Samardzija, Will Fuller has had a spectacular career for the Irish. He currently ranks second all-time in career touchdown receptions at Notre Dame with 29. With his prowess, the Buckeyes would do well to bracket or double cover him. If he can still manage to get open -- specifically, outrun the Buckeye secondary on deep routes -- the Irish offense will be hard to contain.
At 6-0, 180, Fuller lacks the desirable physicality for the NFL, but he redeems himself with crisp route-running and great vision with the ball in his hands. His top-end speed is sufficient; however, he does the most damage in exploding in and out of breaks to create separation from defenders. As a pro, he'll need to bulk up and strengthen his mental toughness because he sometimes drops easy passes and loses field awareness in one-on-one jump-ball situations.
So, who will win?
This game will come down to who can control the line of scrimmage. If the Buckeyes can create holes for Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa wreaks havoc on the Irish offensive front, Ohio State will win the game. On the flip side for Notre Dame, if it can give quarterback DeShone Kizer time, he will eventually find Will Fuller streaking toward the end zone. Of course, Jaylon Smith has to continue to make plays for Notre Dame to be successful.
Regardless, NFL scouts certainly will be tuned in to the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, and all these players have a lot to prove in their final collegiate game as they look toward the draft.