Instant Impact

History suggests at least three true freshmen will contribute heavily to the Irish fortunes this fall.

Note: This column initially began as a look at potential impact freshmen for Brian Kelly's 2011 Irish. But, as Johnny Lawrence of the Cobra Kai once opined: "I couldn't leave well enough alone..." and it evolved into a four-part feature reviewing the program's best true freshmen over the last 30 years.

The final installment will include a look ahead at the 2011 crop, led by defensive end, Aaron Lynch.

But first – a 30-year review of the program's top freshmen stars:

A decade (plus one) of impact freshmen: 2000-2010

My definition of "impact" may differ from yours – but I'm looking for true game impact, not simply monogram winners at season's end. Additional credit rewards any freshmen that contributed heavily to a solid squad rather than ascent up the depth chart by default.

2010

(QB Tommy Rees, WR T.J. Jones, LB Prince Shembo, ST/KR Bennett Jackson). Nine freshmen saw action – four had a major impact on the season with one member of the class serving as the 2010 campaign's defining player.

Both Jones and Jackson made an immediate splash, the former with the season's first touchdown reception; the latter with a breakout opening game performance in kick coverage that included the season's first three KR tackles. Jackson, who five games later won the role of lead kick returner and immediately produced the year's longest return (47 yards at Boston College), finished the season as the team's Special Teams Player of the Year.

Jones appeared to win a starting role as a January enrollee for Brian Kelly's first spring session, then re-earned that spot to became the first true freshman receiver to start the season-opener at Notre Dame since Milt Jackson in 1982. Jones finished with three touchdowns, including one in both of the first two contests and started seven games total, finishing fifth on the squad in receptions (23) and receiving yards (306). His three touchdowns tied for fourth on the squad behind Michael Floyd (12) Dayne Crist (4) and Cierre Wood (40).

Shembo first flashed his pass-rushing form at Chestnut Hill in Week Five, registering two sacks as a backup edge rusher. He later made his mark with a five-tackle/sack/QB Hurry effort in a November upset of Utah.

Rees became the first true freshman to win four games as a starter since Brady Quinn (who finished 4-5) in 2003. Rees accounted for eight touchdowns and four interceptions as a starter; four more scores with four additional picks as a reserve. Rees is the only freshman quarterback to lead the program to a bowl victory, a 33-17 drubbing of Miami in the Sun Bowl last December.

Kick coverage specialist Austin Collinsworth deserves mention as well for 13 games of duty with seven special teams tackles and a key forced fumble (that led to a touchdown) in the upset of Utah.

2009

Seven freshmen lettered with two in starring roles: (LB Manti Te'o and K Nick Tausch) – Tausch broke a 29-year program record with 14 consecutive successful field goals, finishing 14 of 17 in his fist season. Te'o was a freshman All-America selection by Collegefootballnews.com and 10-game starter, finishing fourth on the squad in tackles (63) – the third-highest total for any freshman in program history.

Te'o added a sack and 5.5 tackles-for-loss to rank sixth on the squad. He concluded the season ranking either first or second in total tackles in five of the final seven games. The future star posted just six tackles through the season's first four games; 57 over the final eight contests.

RB/KR Theo Riddick and S/LB Zeke Motta also saw regular time on Irish special teams while breaking into backup roles from scrimmage. Two more specialists lettered: Long-snapper Jordan Cowart and part-time punter Ben Turk, while backup slot receiver Robby Toma also forged his way onto the team's two-deep depth chart, seeing crucial field time in successive outings in mid-October.

2008

Eight freshmen earned letters with four emerging as full or part-time starters: (WR Michael Floyd, TE Kyle Rudolph, CB Robert Blanton, DE Ethan Johnson) – Johnson was the team's best defensive linemen in November and finished tied for first on the squad in sacks (3.5) despite starting just four contests. Blanton earned four starts to conclude the season and was one of two Irish defenders to score touchdowns during the year while finishing with five passes defended, two interceptions and three tackles for lost yardage.

Rudolph started each of the season's 13 games, and was, for the bulk of the season, the team's only healthy, and eligible, scholarship tight end. He scored three touchdowns and finished fifth on the team in receptions (29); fourth in receiving yards (340). Each of Rudolph's three scores occurred prior to mid-season.

Floyd was the unquestioned breakout star. He concluded his record-shattering freshman year as the best first-year receiver in program history, securing 48 passes for 719 yards and 7 TD (each placed him second on the squad) despite playing just nine full games due to injury.

Guard Trevor Robinson and LB Darius Fleming were also essential components as freshmen in 2008, both earning three starts. Fleming appeared in all 13 games, posting 24 tackles with 2.5 sacks.

2007

Freshmen ruled the roost on a team bereft of veteran talent. Seven true frosh ranked among the best players on a poor football team: (WR Duval Kamara, RB/KR/PR Armando Allen, RB Robert Hughes, QB Jimmy Clausen, LB Brian Smith, LB Kerry Neal, NG Ian Williams) – Allen finished second on the team in rushing (348 yards) and fifth in receptions (24) while Hughes exploded at season's end, finishing with back-to-back 100-yard rushing efforts en route to 294-yard, 4-TD season. His four TD tied him for second on the squad with Duval Kamara. Kamara finished second on the team with and 357 yards and 32 receptions (plsu the aforementioned four scores) – the latter pair of numbers set freshmen records that stood for one season (Floyd).

Neal started five contests and was one of just three defenders to record multiple sacks on the season while Smith scored an interception touchdown vs. Boston College, registered four tackles for loss (tied for sixth on the squad) and earned three starts. The active Williams finished sixth on the team with 45 tackles with two starting assignments.

Clausen finished 3-6 as a starter, accounting for each of the team's trio of wins in '07. He lost three fumbles and tossed six interceptions under constant pressure and harassment, but also managed seven touchdown passes and two TD runs (third on the plodding squad). Finally, freshman Golden Tate posted the season's best individual game effort, a three-reception, 104-yard, TD masterpiece at Purdue. He caught just three passes for 27 yards over the final seven contests.

2006

The veteran group saw a lone freshman distinguish himself, as RT Sam Young held down the starting role from season opener through the Sugar Bowl. Two others appeared in the bulk of the season's contests: CB Darrin Walls (8 games/2 starts) and backup RB James Aldridge (37 carries and 142 yards to rank second on the squad). Walls helped limit future first-round draft pick Calvin Johnson to a pair of second half receptions in the season-opening win at Georgia Tech.

Young earned freshman All-America honors from multiple outlets and became first Irish player to start the season opener on the offensive line since freshmen regained their eligibility in 1972.

2005

Charlie Weis' first season did not feature an impact (true freshman), though two skill position players earned extensive playing time: WR David Grimes played in 11 games, earning a start vs. BYU, while FB Asaph Schwapp played in all 12 games, earning one start as the team's lead blocker for TB Darius Walker. Linebacker Steve Quinn made 100 special teams appearances while fellow ‘backer Scott Smith made a major game impact on his first of three season tackles – a backfield loss vs. Michigan WR Steve Breaston in a 17-10 upset Irish victory in the Big House.

2004

Tyrone Willingham's final season featured one of the best freshman efforts in team history as tailback Darius Walker paced the .500 Irish in rushing with 786 yards – breaking the longstanding freshmen mark set by Jerome Heavens in 1975. Walker added seven rushing scores, the second-highest total in frosh history behind Autry Denson's eight in 1995. Walker posted two 100-yard rushing outings along with a 98-yard effort in a defeat of Michigan State in East Lansing. His breakout effort was a 115-yard, two TD outing in Week Two vs. heavily favored Michigan after not playing in a season-opening loss at BYU (a game in which the Irish managed just 11 rushing yards) one week prior.

Fellow running back Justin Hoskins was the only other 2004 freshman to earn a letter for Willingham's final Irish squad.

2003

Six freshmen played extensive minutes with three distinguishing themselves over the uneven (5-7) season: LT Ryan Harris solidified a shaky front line, becoming just the third true freshman in program history to start on the offensive line (both Sam Young and Trevor Robinson have done so, since). The Irish averaged nearly 220 yards rushing per game during Harris' eight starts, the first of which resulted in a program-record 262 rushing yards from senior Julius Jones (Jones rushed for 200+ yards in two of the next seven outings as well). Harris finished the season a first-team freshmen All-American.

Defensive End Victor Abiamiri played in all 12 games, earning five starts and finishing as honorable mention for the freshmen All-America team. Abiamiri was just the fourth defensive linemen to earn a start at the school since 1991 (Ian Williams and Ethan Johnson have since). He finished with 22 tackles, including four for loss – tied for sixth on the team, and a sack for the 5-7 Irish.

Quarterback Brady Quinn was thrown to the wolves in Week Four – taking over a 1-2 Irish squad for a road matchup at No. 22 Purdue. Quinn led the Irish to a 4-5 W-L mark to conclude the season, finishing with nine TD passes (ranked then as the second-best mark by a freshman QB in team history, prior to Rees' 12-TD effort last fall) while completing 157 passes in 332 attempts and 1,831 yards – each stands as the program's freshmen record today.

2002

WR Maurice Stovall was the singular impact freshman for Willingham's first Irish squad. The 6'5" newcomer finished third on the team with 18 receptions, 312 yards and 3 TD – the first of which landed a cover shot on Sports Illustrated following an upset win at East Lansing, a victory that snapped the program's five-game losing skid to Michigan State.

Fellow freshman target Rhema McKnight played in 12 games, finishing with nine catches for 91 yards including a two-reception effort in the season-opening win vs. Maryland.

2001

Ranks alongside the 2005 campaign as the least notable in terms of freshmen impact. Tailback Ryan Grant played in five games, carrying 29 times for 110 yards and a touchdown, while cornerback Dwight Ellick served in a kick coverage role in 10 of 11 contests.

2000

One star with two others of note: Vontez Duff, and LB Mike Goolsby – the latter appeared in 11 games with one special teams tackle. Duff was the team's only freshman defender to appear from scrimmage, also playing in 11 games as a member of the coverage units.

As with last season, the 2000 campaign will be remembered for the contributions of a freshman quarterback, as Matt LoVecchio took over under center in Week Four vs. Stanford and proceeded to guide the 2-2 Irish to a 9-2 finish and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. Lovecchio set the team record for lowest interception percentage (.0080) with one pick vs. 11 TD tosses in 125 pass attempts. He became the first player to earn victories in each of his first seven outings since Kevin McDougal (10-0) turned the trick as a senior in 1993.

Irish Eyes All-Decade Freshmen Team (2000-2010)

Toughest omissions include Tommy Rees, Maurice Stovall, Robert Hughes, and Brady Quinn, who deserves special mention for repeated beatings endured while triggering a disjointed, misguided offensive attack in 2003.

QB: Matt Lovecchio – 7-1 record as a starter; 11 TD passes vs. 1 Interception, 980 yards passing; 2 TD runs with 300 rushing yards on 72 carries. An easy nod over Rees/Quinn for decade honors.
WR: Michael Floyd – One of the most productive true frosh – at any position – in team history. Would battle Walker (below) for the mythical crown of best freshman offensive player of the decade.
WR: Duval Kamara – Never matched his impressive first-year production over the remainder of his Irish career.
WR: T.J. Jones – Deserves a spot thanks to historic season-opening start and immediate impact. Narrow choice over Maurice Stovall who operated as the third receiver on a run-heavy squad in 2002. (In fairness, this is a complete toss-up; I won't argue if you prefer Stovall's freshman season to Jones').
TE: Kyle Rudolph – The choice by default, but numbers and impact backup the selection nonetheless.
OL: Ryan Harris – Easily the best first-year blocker of the group.
OL: Sam Young – 13 freshman-year starts evolved into 50 straight by the end of his career, a program record.
OL: Trevor Robinson – Three starts as a true freshman for a sub par 2008 squad. <
RB: Darius Walker – One of the best freshmen runners in program history and likely the top freshman player on this list, considering he was far and away the best offensive player (at the time) on the squad.

DE: Ethan Johnson – One of three players who appeared to belong on the field vs. the mighty USC Trojans in 2008…and he was a mere 18 years old at the time.
DE: Victor Abiamiri – Easily the best of a growing group of freshmen defensive linemen pressed into action over the course of the decade.
DT: Ian Williams – 11-tackle effort vs. Navy as a true frosh ranks as the highest total of the decade.
LB: Brian Smith – A playmaker and fan favorite from the outset, Smith finally blossomed at the tail end of his senior season.
LB: Manti Te'o – Showed the most potential of any true freshmen defender on the list, though his dramatic improvement since clouds the memory of his actual 2009 impact.
LB: Prince Shembo – Emerged as a late-season force for the 2010 Irish, as did mentor Darius Fleming two seasons earlier. Shembo gets the nod for playing on a team that improved greatly as the season progressed.
LB: Kerry Neal – Flashed pass-rushing potential as a 2007 true frosh. It's easy for Irish fans to forget how much promise Neal showed off the edge in his first season.
CB: Robert Blanton – Excellent finish to the season and solid throughout, Blanton was better as a freshman in '08 than as a sophomore in '09…and much better than both as a junior last fall.
CB: Darrin Walls – Default choice as few true freshmen CB distinguished themselves over the past decade.
S: None selected – Current junior Zeke Motta would be on the (very) short list of contributing freshmen safeties over the last decade. Motta played 11 minutes from scrimmage in 2009 along with 166 special teams appearances, fourth on the squad.
K: Nick Tausch – Broke a 27-year program record as a freshman by hitting 14 straight field goals…As Keith Jackson once mused: "That…will get your name in the yearbook."

Just for fun – Top 5 Frosh overall: Reasonable minds can disagree, the key is to separate first-year performance from the rest of their collegiate careers.

  1. Michael Floyd: Only injury kept him from status as a no-brainer No. 1 selection
  2. Darius Walker: Solo mission: accepted.
  3. Matt Lovecchio: Offensive MVP of a 9-2 regular season squad.
  4. Tommy Rees: Backup QB on my freshmen all-decade team, but No. 4 overall. Rees helped revive a 4-5 squad in 2010.
  5. Manti Te'o: Second-best player on a terrible defense in 2009.

Note: Next – a look at the impact freshmen of the 1990s.


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