Instant Impact: 1980-85The span below includes the five-year Gerry Faust era (1981-85 – a 30-26-1 mark) and the final season of Dan Devine's six-year run at the program (9-2-1 in '80; 53-16-1 overall).
1985A mere four freshmen lettered for Faust's final squad: tight end Andy Heck, tailback Mark Green, and defensive backs George Streeter and Aaron Robb.
Robb was a backup cornerback while Streeter appeared in all 11 games, making his presence felt with a crushing forced fumble en route to a 37-3 mid-season blowout of USC. Heck – a future first team All-America at left tackle – appeared in 10 games as a backup tight end behind Tom Rehder (coincidentally, Rehder also relocated to the offensive line later in his Irish career).
Green was the only freshman who could be considered a player of impact in '85 and his contributions were mitigated by the presence of all-time program great Allen Pinkett at tailback, forcing Green's early audition as a flanker. He finished sixth on the squad in receptions while playing in every game with the exception of an opening loss at Michigan. Green switched to tailback the following spring and later captained Lou Holtz's national championship squad in 1988.
Of note, linebacker and 1987 CBS Defensive Player of the Year Ned Bolcar did not appear from scrimmage as a true freshman in '85. The recruiting class of '85 endured one of the three worst seasons of the last 45 years at the program at the outset, but concluded its run at the University with a national championship.
1984The class saw just five freshmen earn monograms but nonetheless boasted a trio of program greats with another solid four-year competitor in freshman star, Cedric Figaro.
Figaro was the top freshmen defender, finishing with 30 tackles in a backup role (behind luminaries Mike Golic and Mike Larkin) with one starting assignment. A native of Lafayette, LA, Figaro earned the game ball for a seven tackle effort vs. LSU in a 30-22 upset win over the #6 Tigers in Baton Rouge. He holds the program record for fumble recoveries in a single season (7 in 1986– a mark not approached in the 25 seasons since).
Offensively, fullback Frank Stams earned a monogram in a backup role behind Mark Brooks and Chris Smith (Brian's father). Miscast and oft-injured in the offensive backfield, Stams later switched to Rush End (DE/OLB) and as a 5th-year senior, was named first-team All-America for the champion Irish.
The team's most explosive freshmen were a pair of wide receivers: Reggie Ward and Tim Brown. Ward secured six receptions for 194 yards and a touchdown – the score occurred on memorable 74-yard bomb from quarterback Steve Beuerlein in a comeback win at Missouri.
Brown led the quintet of freshmen in playing time, catching a pass in every game, and finishing tied for second for the team lead in receptions behind future Pro Bowl tight end Mark Bavaro. Brown's first collegiate play is cemented in Irish lore: a fumbled kick-off return in the season opener vs. Purdue (in Indianapolis). Four years later, the Woodrow Wilson High School (Dallas) product ranked as one of the greatest return men in college football history.
Safety Brandy Wells earned a varsity letter thanks to his work on the coverage units while defensive linemen Jeff Kunz (six game appearances including the Aloha Bowl) narrowly missed a first-year monogram in a backup role to future pro Mike Gann. Linebacker Wes Pritchett was the most notable future star withheld from action in 1984.
The recruiting class featured the school's seventh and most recent Heisman Trophy winner, four future All-America selections (Brown, Figaro, Pritchett and Stams) and five NFL draft picks (Brown, Figaro, Pritchett, Stams, and Wells).
1983An impressive 13 freshmen earned monograms for Faust's best Irish team, with a trio ranking as all-time impact players in their first seasons.
Linebacker Mike Kovaleski was the only regular starter among freshmen defenders, earning the nod in the season's first nine contests (as well as the Liberty Bowl win over Boston College after missing two starts with an ankle injury). He led the team in tackles once (15 in a loss to eventual national champion Miami) while finishing third on the squad overall, forcing two fumbles, breaking up four passes, intercepting a pass and recording one sack.
Joining Kovaleski as a letter-winning linebacker was freshman Robert Banks. Banks played in all 12 games, beginning at defensive end, shifting to inside linebacker (due to Kovaleski's injury) and later earning a start in the finale vs. Air Force on the weak side. Banks and Kovaleski went on to start a combined 70 games in their Irish careers.
The 1984 secondary saw a pair of monogram winners among the freshmen crop, with safety Steve Lawrence serving in a backup role and cornerback Troy Wilson as a key performer. Lawrence appeared in six games with one start, securing an interception and season-best 43-yard return in his lone starting appearance. Wilson started two games, was the best corner in two more, and finished with 18 tackles (including a 24-yard tackle-for-loss that resulted in a safety), a fumble recovery and two picks over the 11-game regular season. His deflection of a Doug Flutie pass ended the contest in a 19-18 Liberty Bowl win over Boston College.
Nose guard Mike Griffin was the class's best defensive linemen, finishing with 23 tackles as a backup to senior Jon Autry inside.
The offense included seven freshmen letter-winners, led by quarterback Steve Beuerlein. The freshmen record-setter started the season's final eight games, leading the squad to five consecutive wins when he took the reigns following a 20-0 loss at Miami.
Two first-year receivers won monograms: Alvin Miller and Alonzo Jefferson (3 receptions, 12 games played; one 91-yard kick return TD called back due to penalty). Miller was the nation's top recruit and played in every game with the highlight of a touchdown grab and 34-yard effort in the Liberty Bowl victory. After breaking several school track records including the 60-yard dash and 60-yard high hurdles, Miller endured two major knee injuries, truncating his Irish career (27 games played and just two starts over four seasons).
Two freshmen running backs earned varsity letters: Hiawatha Francisco (5.1 ypc on 38 rushes) and Byron Abraham. Francisco finished third on the squad in rushing behind the starting backfield of Allen Pinkett and Chris Smith. He hit the ground running with a nine-carry, 81-yard effort in his first collegiate game (Purdue) and later led the offense with 146 special teams appearances during the regular season. Abraham finished with just 32 rushing yards but scored a touchdown in his first collegiate contest, a 52-6 demolition of Purdue.
Tight end Joel Williams also earned a letter thanks to six game appearances.
Joining Kovaleski and Beuerlein as one of the program's all-time impact freshmen was kicker John Carney. The future two-decade (plus) NFL veteran served as the team's kick-off specialist, booting 43 of his 59 kick-offs into the end zone for touchbacks.
Carney and Beuerlein combined to play 39 years in the National Football League.
1982Eight freshmen won monograms with tailback Allen Pinkett the impact star. Pinkett, who finished his career as the school's all-time leading rusher (since passed by Autry Denson) and touchdown scorer (a mark that still stands), finished with 532 rushing yards (5.0 per carry) and five touchdowns, adding another 94 receiving yards and a 25.3-yard average on kickoff returns, including a 93-yard score vs. #5 Penn State.
The program legend added an oft-referenced 76-yard TD scamper at Pittsburgh in a 31-16 upset win over the #1-ranked Panthers. Pinkett earned second-team All-Freshman honors from Football News for his season efforts and in an occurrence familiar to fans during the Tyrone Willingham/Darius Walker era, Pinkett did not appear from scrimmage in the team's season-opener, then evolved as a 10-game regular during the '82 campaign.
Tim Scannell was the only freshman on the offensive front to letter in '82, appearing in the final eight games. The State College, PA-product earned second-team All-America honors three years later.
Two pass catchers earned monograms: Milt Jackson played in 10 games including an opening week starting assignment at flanker vs. Michigan – notable in that since, only Tai-ler Jones has started a season opener as a true freshman wideout for the Irish. Future Irish assistant coach and 1982 freshman flanker Mike Haywood finished fourth on the team in receptions despite starting only five games. Haywood played more minutes than any offensive freshmen (including Pinkett).
Massive defensive tackle Eric Dorsey led the defensive class in minutes played, finishing with 24 tackles with three sacks and a forced fumble in a backup role. He earned one start at nose guard and another at "flip tackle" vs. USC. Defensive tackle Greg Dingens joined Dorsey as a letter-winning frosh, playing in the season's final 10 contests.
Middle linebacker Tony Furjanic lettered as a special teams coverage standout and backup to team captain Mark Zavagnin inside. Furjanic appeared in every game with the exception of the season opener and finished with 19 tackles and two forced fumbles, earning first-team freshman All-America honors from Football News. He later became a team captain, finishing with 147 tackles in 1985 – a total not matched at the program since. Cornerback Pat Ballage also earned a monogram thanks to work on special teams and as a backup to future Los Angeles Raiders safety, Stacey Toran.
From the group, Pinkett and Scannell eventually earned All-America honors while Dorsey, Furjanic, and Pinkett were drafted into the NFL.
1981Faust's first squad included nine monogram winners from the freshmen class: FBs Mark Brooks and Chris Smith, linebackers Joe Bars and Mike Larkin, defensive linemen Mike Gann and Mike Golic, safety Joe Johnson, walk-on snapper Kevin Kelly, and the star of the group, flanker/wing-back/kick returner, Joe Howard.
Gann played the most minutes among freshmen defensive linemen. He started twice, posting 11 combined tackles in games vs. Air Force and Miami while Golic served as a backup defensive tackle in 11 contests.
Larkin worked largely in a backup role as well, finishing with 10 tackles including a 15-yard sack and fumble recovery while Bars joined Larkin as a letter-winning freshman ‘backer.
The defensive freshmen star, however, was Johnson, finishing with 22 tackles, two forced fumbles and one start over 11 contests. The walk-on Kelly handled all snapping duties for the Irish (Editor's note A novel concept: a player that can snap both short and long…and without the benefit of a scholarship) while augmenting his efforts by leading the punt coverage squad in total tackles.
In the offensive backfield, Brooks averaged 5.2 ypc on 24 rushes with a touchdown while Smith appeared in eight games totaling 161 yards and a touchdown. He debuted with a 61-yard performance at LSU.
Like Raghib "Rocket" Ismail seven seasons later, the team's breakout freshman star was a versatile return man/receiver with a catch nickname: "Small Wonder." Joe Howard played in 11 games as a wingback, finishing with 17 receptions for 463 yards (a 27.2 average) and three total touchdowns. He secured a 96-yard touchdown grab (a team-record nearly matched by Kyle Rudolph last season) and posted two 100-yard receiving games en route to first-team freshman All-America honors.
Of note: Future Pro Bowl tight end and two-time Super Bowl Champion Mark Bavaro appeared in just two games as a true freshman in 1981.
1980Dan Devine's final Irish squad received key contributions from six freshmen though a trio stood above the pack: Blair Kiel, Tim Marshall, and Stacey Toran.
Toran was named first-team freshman All-America by Football News following a 10-game starting effort at left cornerback. The future sixth-round draft pick and NFL starter broke up six passes, intercepted another, and recorded 30 tackles with two tackles for loss. Perhaps most impressive: the Irish coaching staff moved incumbent CB Dave Duerson to safety upon his return from injury due to Toran's efforts on the corner.
Marshall earned just two starts but was a fixture in a three-man defensive tackle rotation for all 12 contests, finishing with 43 tackles including a whopping 10 for lost yardage as a first-team freshman All-America. Marshall exploded for three sacks at Arizona with eight additional tackles in a 20-3 win under the lights that pushed the Irish to 6-0 on the season.
Kiel started nine consecutive games after bringing the Irish back from the brink of defeat vs. both Michigan and Michigan State, including a 5-play, 46-yard drive to set up the school's most famous game-winning field goal – the 51-yard boot by Harry Oliver to defeat Michigan in the season's second week. Kiel also handled punting duties for the Irish, highlighted by a 40.1 yard average and 80-yard touchdown run on a faked punt in Arizona.
The team ascended to the nation's No. 1 ranking under Kiel before an unexpected 3-3 tie vs. a poor Georgia Tech squad derailed an 8-0 start; the squad finishing 9-2-1 including a Sugar Bowl loss to national champion Georgia.
John Autry earned a letter at linebacker, later switching to defensive end and then defensive tackle to conclude his collegiate career. Naylor finished with eight tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in 12 games though he saw extended action in the season's final weeks. Chris Brown served as the team's nickel back in the secondary.
Ten on TopThe top impact freshmen of the early 80s (toughest omissions – Eric Dorsey, Cedric Figaro, Joe Johnson, and Troy Wilson):
- Allen Pinkett – Ranked as one of the team's five best players midway into his first college season.
- Blair Kiel – His team had a shot at the national title in early November and on January 1...that counts in my rankings system.
- Tim Marshall – Numbers (10 tackles-for-loss) are staggering for a true freshman defensive lineman.
- Steve Beuerlein – Took over for Kiel during the former freshman phenom's senior season. Coincidentally, both Beuerlein and Kiel replaced incumbents in Week Four of their freshmen years.
- Mike Kovaleski – An injury was the only obstacle that precluded a wire-to-wire starting assignment as a true frosh linebacker.
- Stacey Toran – The impact of his 10-game starting stint actually forced a future first round NFL pick and Pro Bowl player to switch positions at the University.
- Joe Howard – Pocket Rocket...but on a sub par team.
- Tony Furjanic – First-team freshman All-America and one of the team's best defenders by season's end.
- Tim Brown – There's a chance his career has clouded my analysis of his first season, but he was a special – albeit unpolished – freshman as well.
- John Carney – 43 touchbacks in 59 kick-offs? Are you kidding me?
Tomorrow: The conclusion of our review of 30 seasons of impact freshmen at the program with a look-ahead at the 2011 class and their potential impact on the season.