Instant Impact: freshmen in the 90s

Part II of our freshmen feature examines Notre Dame's best during the 1990s.

The 11-year segment of 2000-2010 discussed in Part I featured, in my opinion, 24 impact freshmen for the Notre Dame football program. However, more than half of those players contributed to teams that finished with a record of .500 or worse. The aggregate winning percentage of Irish teams from 2000 through 2010 was 57.7 percent (78-57).

Conversely, in the decade preceding, Notre Dame won 70.7 percent of its contests (84-35-2) – and those breakthrough freshmen stars of the 90s are reviewed below.

Freshmen Impact: The 90s

By my estimation, 23 freshmen during the decade could be considered impact players (25 if you include a pair of starting punters).

1999

Tailback Julius Jones was the team's top freshman, finishing the season as the second-most productive combo return man in team history, compiling 798 punt/kick return yards to trail only Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown's numbers (857 combined) during the 1987 season.

Jones carried 65 times for 375 yards with three touchdowns, the bulk of which was attained after mid-season. After just eight carries through the first five contests, Jones proceeded to score his first touchdown (Arizona State), lead the Irish in rushing (USC), then erupt for 146 yards on 19 carries in a victory over Navy – the yardage marking the second-highest by a true freshman in program history (Jerome Heavens posted 148 vs. Georgia Tech in 1975 – the "Rudy" game, incidentally).

Only three other freshman earned letters: Punter Joey Hilbold handled every punt during the '99 campaign, averaging 39 yards per boot. Hilbold was joined on the Irish special teams by heralded safety recruit Gerome Sapp, who appeared in all 12 games including four from scrimmage, and registered 17 total tackles along with his first career interception. Jason Beckstrom served as the team's third cornerback, appearing in 10 contests.

1998

Five future Irish stars earned freshmen monograms for Bob Davie's best team, though only Anthony Weaver qualifies as a true impact freshman among the quintet. Weaver earned first-team All-Freshmen honors from Football News as a 10-game starter at defensive end. His six tackles for loss (28 stops total) as a true freshman defender has not been matched since (Manti Te'o posted 5.5 in 2009; Ethan Johnson and Prince Shembo 5.0 in 2008, 2010, respectively). Weaver added two sacks, a forced fumble (vs. Michigan) and a pass breakup to his season totals.

Backups Arnaz Battle(QB), Rocky Boiman (OLB), Tony Fisher (RB) and David Givens (WR/KR) earned letters, the latter scoring a touchdown and starting games vs. BC and USC.

1997

Six freshmen lettered on Davie's first Notre Dame team, with two standouts among the group: RB Tony Driver and ILB Grant Irons. The Irish also received contributions from Anthony Denman (12 games played as a reserve Drop Linebacker); WR Joey Getherall, who secured 9 receptions in 9 games including two starts and a five-reception effort in his first career contest (Getherall missed the next three games due to injury); CB Brock Williams (an 8-game special teams contributor); and TE Jabari Holloway, who caught eight passes and a touchdown in five starts. (Holloway's 48-yard catch vs. West Virginia was the season's longest pass play.)

Driver finished fourth on the team in rushing yards (125 on 35 carries) with three touchdowns including scores vs. eventual national champion Michigan and rival USC.

The freshman star of the season was Irons, who posted 50 tackles despite just three starting nods. Irons moved to the defensive line the following season and for the remainder of his injury-plagued Irish career.

1996

Six freshmen lettered for Lou Holtz's final Irish squad: FB Joey Goodspeed, WR Raki Nelson, K Jim Sanson, CB Deveron Harper, S Deke Cooper and DL/OL/DL Brad Williams.

Goodspeed played in nine games, earning 16 carries for 57 yards as the third-string fullback; Nelson played in 10 contests, securing eight receptions for 128 yards and a touchdown. (The Harrisburg, PA product caught a pass in each of his first five outings.) Harper played in 11 games with one start as the team's No. 3 cornerback. He totaled 7 tackles including two for loss with two passes defended (including one at USC).

Williams ranks as one of the most versatile first-year contributors in recent memory. The USA Today first-team prep All-America played in just four games, but with two starts – both at right guard in matchups vs. Navy and Boston College. Williams earned his first start on offense without a single padded practice in preparation – he then switched back to the defensive side of scrimmage to play vs. Rutgers and Pittsburgh

First-year kicker Jim Sanson hit six of nine field goal attempts including the game-winner as time expired in a win at No. 9 Texas.

Finally, Deke Cooper was the season's freshman star, appearing in 10 of 11 games, and starting six straight at free safety during the season's second half. His 29-tackle season was augmented by two pass breakups, a fumble recovery, and three interceptions, the latter ranking second on the squad – no Irish frosh has intercepted as many passes since. Cooper added a pass reception in the home opener vs. Purdue during a brief stint at wide receiver.

1995

Considering the team's overall talent level, the 1995 season could rank as the best collective effort by true impact freshmen over the program's last 16 years.

Four future program greats and one of its unheralded stars contributing heavily to the 9-2 regular season effort. Leading the way was future record-setting running back Autry Denson, who, after debuting at cornerback in the season opener, switched to the offensive backfield and finished the regular season third on the team in rushing (695 yards – currently the third-best freshman mark in program history), second in carries (137), and third in touchdowns (8). Denson also earned a started the Fiesta Bowl matchup with No. 3 Florida State (a 31-26 defeat) and gashed the Seminoles for 48 yards on the game's opening play.

The school's all-time leading rusher with more than 4,300 yards and 50 (total) touchdowns (including Bowl appearances), Denson finished his freshman campaign with rushing efforts of between 95 and 115 yards in four of the six final regular season contests.

Also starring as a true freshman in '95 was the versatile Minor. The 11-game starter finished second on the squad with six sacks while adding 52 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, and a safety (vs. USC) over the course of the campaign.

Rounding out the talented freshmen trio was 10-game regular and three-time starting frosh, Mike Rosenthal. The Penn High School product finished his career as a 33-game starter, team captain, and Walter Camp 1st Team All-America selection in 1998.

Freshman Hunter Smith averaged better than 36 yards per punt over 11 contests in his first season. He concluded his Irish career with the second best average yards per punt in team history. Linebacker Bobby Howard appeared in each of the season's 12 contest, starting one – a 10-tackle effort vs. Purdue – in place of injured teammate Kinnon Tatum. Howard later joined Minor and Rosenthal as tri-captains of their final Irish team in 1998.

Additionally, freshman kicker Kevin Kopka hit 6 of 11 field goals before ceding his job to Scott Cengia.

1994

The worst haul of the decade in terms of instant impact, though two freshmen cornerbacks earned their keep for Holtz's most disappointing squad (6-5-1 following a #3 pre-season ranking): Allen Rossum and Ivory Covington.

Covington appeared in eight games, intercepting a pass, breaking up another, and recording 13 total tackles. He also started in place of injured Bobby Taylor in a Fiesta Bowl loss to Colorado. Rossum was considered the top nickel corner, finishing with three pass breakups in eight contests.

Eight freshmen earned monograms including linebackers Kurt Belisle, Bill Mitoulas, Jeff Kramer and John McLaughlin thanks to eight or nine-game stints on special teams, while defensive end Corey Bennett did the same, though Bennett found playing time in three games from scrimmage as well. First-year kicker Scott Cengia hit five of eight field goals while also serving as the team's kick-off specialist.

1993

A stacked, senior-laden Irish roster still enjoyed contributions from seven true freshmen: Linebackers Bert Berry, Lyron Cobbins, and Kinnon Tatum; defensive end Melvin Dansby; fullback Marc Edwards; and tailbacks Robert Farmer and Randy Kinder.

The backfield trio of Kinder, Edwards and Farmer hit the ground running, augmenting junior tailback Lee Becton's All-America season (seven straight 100-yard games in '93) with an aggregate 891 yards and an astounding 14 touchdowns. Edwards was the team's scoring leader with nine touchdowns as a true freshman, a number not topped by any frosh since (Denson later scored 8; Michael Floyd and Darius Walker 7 apiece). Edwards barreled for 186 yards on 40 carries to rank fourth on the squad.

Kinder finished second behind Becton with 537 rushing yards (6.0 per carry). His yardage total ranks fourth in freshmen history at the school. Kinder posted two 100-yard rushing outings in a backup role and added touchdown runs of 31 and 70 yards during the season. His classmate Farmer added three scores with 168 rushing yards.

Berry earned third-team All-Freshmen honors from Football News thanks to a consistent pass-rushing presence off the bench. The Humble, Texas star appeared in all 12 games and earned starts vs. BYU, USC, Boston College, and in the Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M for the 11-1 Irish.

Cobbins earned a monogram due largely to special teams contributions while Tatum started three games at linebacker (playing in four overall) and posting 18 tackles, a sack and a pass breakup. Dansby appeared in seven games as a backup defensive end on one of the three best defensive lines of the last three decades at the school.

1992

Three players on both sides of scrimmage earned monograms for the 10-1-1 Irish, with a pair of future second-round draft picks taking home top (IrishEyes) honors:

Split end Derrick Mayes scored touchdowns on the first three receptions of his collegiate career, then finished sixth on the squad in receptions over the 12-game season for a run-heavy Irish squad. (Mayes 10 grabs totaled an incredible 272 yards.)

Top defensive back prospect Bobby Taylor began the season at nickel back, then started the season's final seven games at free safety. Taylor finished tied for the team lead with nine pass breakups and was the final piece to a defense that allowed just seven touchdowns over the final seven contests.

Also earning letters were tight ends Leon Wallace and Pete Chryplewicz as well as defensive lineman Paul Grasmanis. Additionally, safety Brian Magee played in 10 games as Jeff Burris' backup at strong safety. Grasmanis and Chryplewicz joined Taylor and Mayes as future NFL draft picks.

1991

A modest season for first-year players as just four freshmen earned monograms, though 14 saw action for the re-loading, 10-3 Irish.

Defensive lineman John Taliaferro played in each of the season's 13 contests, registering 10 tackles and a sack in a backup role. Linebacker Huntley Bakich played in eight regular season contests but missed the Sugar Bowl win over Florida with a torn Achilles Tendon suffered in December practice.

Backup QB Paul Failla appeared in eight games, starting once at Purdue in place of Rick Mirer who missed two days of practice during the week due to injury prior to the contest. (Mirer played the bulk of the contest vs. the Boilers.) The team's most productive freshman was unheralded linebacker Justin Goheen, who played in nine games with two starting assignments, one of which occurred vs. USC in which the freshman recorded 12 tackles and a forced fumble that set up Notre Dame's final score in a 24-20 Irish victory. Goheen started 19 more games during his four-year career.

1990

The school's greatest recruiting class of the modern-era yielded 18 contributors including two handfuls of impact players/stars.

Pete Bercich, Jerome Bettis, Jeff Burris, Tom Carter, Willie Clark, John Covington, Lake Dawson, Jim Flanigan, Oliver Gibson, Brian Hamilton, Clint Johnson, Greg Lane, Kevin McDougal, Anthony Peterson, Marvin Robinson, Tim Ruddy, Aaron Taylor, Bryant Young all saw action for the pre-season No. 1 Irish. (The only freshmen not to appear were B.J. Hawkins, Dean Lytle, Mike McGlinn, Oscar McBride, and LeShane Saddler.)

Bettis, Clark, Carter, and Lane all earned starts while Burris, Covington, Dawson, Flanigan, Peterson, Taylor and Young joined them as regular contributors.

The freshmen of impact were Bettis, Carter, Clark, and Lane, with Bettis averaging a staggering 7.7 yards per carry as the team's sixth-leading rusher (that's how they rolled in the early 90s…). Carter started six games at free safety, shoring up a previously poor pass defense that had featured All-America Todd Lyght and three overmatched veterans for the first half of the season. Carter finished with 19 tackles while fellow freshman defensive back Greg Lane posted 33 tackles at cornerback including three for lost yardage, adding a forced fumble and pass breakup to his impressive freshman season numbers. Lane started six games and trailed only Carter for playing time among the freshmen-laden secondary.

Versatile Willie Clark played flanker, tailback, and finally free safety, posting a team-best 11 tackles with a fumble recovery in the de facto National Title game loss to Colorado (10-9). Burris also began the season at tailback (and scored a touchdown vs. Air Force) but switched to cornerback (along with Clark) prior to the team's matchup at No. 9 Tennessee (a game in which the Irish entered – and exited – as the nation's No. 1 team).

Bercich, Covington, Dawson, Flanigan, Peterson, and Young joined the quintet above as monogram winners and regular contributors. Of the 23 1990 freshmen listed above, 15 eventually appeared on NFL rosters – 13 of which were drafted, including five in the first round.

Top 15 Impact Freshmen: the 90s

Of note: No quarterbacks are included on the list. Ron Powlus was a redshirt-freshman when he debuted in 1994. Four quarterbacks earned the bulk of the decade's starts at the position: Rick Mirer (1990-92); Kevin McDougal (1993); Powlus (1994-97) and Jarious Jackson (1998-99). Paul Failla (one start in 1991 and 1993), Thomas Krug (three starts in 1995) and Eric Chappell (one starting nod in 1998) each started games during the decade as well, though of the group, only Failla was a true freshman ('91), and the incumbent Mirer finished the contest in which Failla started.

Notable omissions include Jerome Bettis, Jeff Burris, Tony Driver, Robert Farmer, Justin Goheen, Paul Grasmanis, Bobby Howard, and John Taliaferro – all discussed above.

  1. RB: Autry Denson
  2. S: Bobby Taylor
  3. FB: Marc Edwards
  4. DE: Anthony Weaver
  5. LB: Kory Minor
  6. RB: Randy Kinder
  7. LB: Grant Irons
  8. S: Deke Cooper
  9. S: Tom Carter
  10. WR: Derrick Mayes
  11. CB: Greg Lane
  12. KR/RB: Julius Jones
  13. S: Willie Clark
  14. LB: Bert Berry
  15. OL: Mike Rosenthal

Next in the series: A look at Notre Dame's impact freshmen of the 1980s…


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