Best of the best

Irish Eyes examines Notre Dame's Top 3 Running Backs of (my) era…plus more than two handfuls that just missed the cut.

Opinions are always welcomed at Irish Eyes…but in this column series, only one matters.

In the first of five historical lists leading up to August camp, we look at the program's best running backs of my era.

Note: The program's second all-time leading rusher, Allen Pinkett, graduated one year prior to my "official era" (1986-present), thus letting me off the hook.

Arguments, rational or otherwise, can be voiced in our Members Football Forum.

Best of the Best: Running Backs

Longevity was essentially removed from my top 3 consideration, focusing instead on standout performances and sheer talent. Or simply: who was better? Who would you rather have? And if you were a coach, who would you fear most?

#1 – Reggie Brooks (1992)

A lone season of excellence, but it stands as arguably the most impressive single-season rushing performance in program history – now consider Notre Dame's famous backfield names and you might understand how good Reggie Brooks was as a senior, first-time starter.

Brooks finished the regular season with 1,343 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging a remarkable 8.0 yards-per-carry. He added 115 yards in a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M to conclude the 12-game slate with 1,458 rushing yards on just 189 attempts. His only pass reception on the season: a 24-yard touchdown. His only two-point conversion: the game-winning, diving catch in the Snow Bowl to beat Penn State near the final gun.

He ripped rival and 17th-ranked USC for 227 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 carries. Two weeks prior, Brooks assaulted a fraudulent seventh-ranked Boston College squad for 174 yards and two scores including a 70-yard burst that blew the contest open midway through the second quarter.

Few at the program have matched Brooks' senior-season in terms of one-year excellence, at least not on an Irish team in my viewing lifetime. The only argument to be made against Brooks in the top spot: he benefited greatly from the presence of the next player on my list, one who lined up in front of him for the entire 1992 season.

#2 – Jerome Bettis (1991 and '92)

At one point in 1991, Bettis, a true sophomore, was the nation's second-best offensive player – and thus likely the final fullback to garner such praise in college football history. Bettis scored 20 regular season touchdowns (16 rushing), then added three more in a colossal upset – according to Vegas, or anyone that watched the '91 Irish defense in November – over #3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The sophomore Bettis enjoyed tailback contributions from Rodney Culver and Tony Brooks, and the following season, Bettis helped pave a path for Reggie Brooks (above): the "Thunder and Lightning" backfield that dominated 10 of 12 contests in 1992.

Bettis backed up Rodney Culver at fullback in 1990 as a true freshman, but later amassed 2,327 yards from scrimmage and 38 touchdowns over his final 23 college contests – among the best two-year statistical performances by any player in program history. He scored six total touchdowns in his only two bowl starts/victories.

#3 Ricky Watters (1989-90)

Watters moved from No. 2 tailback as a true freshman to flanker as a sophomore to replace graduating Heisman Trophy winner, Tim Brown. In his only season as a flanker in 1988, Watters served as the team's punt returner (2 TD; 13.3 per return) and led the option-oriented Irish in pass receptions while ranking No. 2 in receiving yards, yards-per-catch (behind Rocket Ismail's obscene 27.6 per grab), and touchdown receptions en route to a 12-0 season and national championship.

Back at tailback for his final two seasons, Watters struck for 1,624 yards from scrimmage with 20 touchdowns (including an Orange Bowl run) while setting a program record unlikely to be broken…or approached: a ridiculous and ill-advised 97-yard punt return for a score vs. SMU in 1989.

Watters averaged 6.1 yards per carry over his final two seasons as part of a deep Irish backfield that enjoyed contributions from program legends Anthony Johnson, Rodney Culver, Tony Brooks, Rocket Ismail, and future NFL star, Dorsey Levens.

There are two handfuls of more accomplished collegiate running backs at the program – none possessed the varied talents or explosiveness of Ricky Watters, who shined as a pro, concluding his truncated career as the sixth-leading rusher in NFL history.

Though arguments can be made for those listed below, Watters has a distinct advantage to consider: His highlights are unmatched.

Honorable Mention

This category could have run 15-deep, but acceptable arguments include:

  1. Autry Denson (1995-98): Why honorable mention? The program legend would have likely remained a defensive back, his initial slotting at the school, had he joined the stacked Irish backfields of the late 80s and early 90s. But no writer's opinion can detract from his contributions to the program, one in which he ranks as the all-time leading rusher (4,318 yards), first in career 100-yard games (22), and as its second leading touchdown scorer 47 (43 rushing, 3 receptions, 1 punt return). Denson added 298 rushing yards (two hundred-yard efforts) and three touchdowns in post-season play (not included in his totals). He averaged 5.0 yards per carry during his collegiate career, though just 4.75 over his final two seasons.

  2. Anthony Johnson (1987-89): One of the program's most underrated players of my, or any other era, Johnson totaled 2,017 yards from scrimmage and 37 touchdowns (including bowl games) while averaging 4.2 yards-per-carry as a true option fullback. The South Bend, Adams, product was dropped for a loss just once as a senior in 1989, started for 23 consecutive Irish victories, and ranks as the best lead-blocking fullback of the last 25 years.

  3. Tony Brooks (1987-1991): Finished as the second leading rusher on both the national title team of 1988 (behind Tony Rice) and the school's highest-scoring team (1991), but missed what would have been his prime season of 1989 due to academic suspension. Brooks averaged 5.7 yards per carry (667 yards) for the '88 national champions and earned praise as the team's "hardest player to tackle" from teammate, captain, and All-America linebacker, Ned Bolcar. If you find this ranking in error, well, you obviously never saw him run...

  4. Rodney Culver (1988-1991): Scored 19 touchdowns and accounted for 2,058 yards from scrimmage in 49 career games, 42 of them victories. Culver made his mark from the outset, earning 30 carries (6.5 yards per carry) as a true freshman and scoring the game's first touchdown in the 1988 national championship (Fiesta Bowl). Culver scored the game-clinching touchdown vs. #2 Miami on a 21-yard screen play reportedly devised at breakfast on game day, and led that 1990 squad in rushing, the first fullback to pace an Irish offense since Jerome Heavens in 1977.

  5. Marc Edwards (1993-96): The last great fullback at the program, Edwards concluded his career with 33 touchdowns (41 games/23 starts), a staggering 5.1-yard rushing average as a true fullback/single set-back, and 2,189 yards from scrimmage on 357 touches. Little known fact regarding Edwards: he led Notre Dame's last great team – the 11-1 squad of 1993 – with eight rushing touchdowns, a program record for a true freshman.

  6. Lee Becton (1993 only): Seven consecutive 100-yard games as a junior for the 1993, 11-1 Irish, while leading the squad in rushing (1,182 yards including the Cotton Bowl). Glided, then burst past defenders with one innate vicious cut/sidestep move he perfected and used about 150 times during the '93 season. Becton also elicited this gem from his head coach following a pulled hamstring as a sophomore in 1992: "I didn't think he was fast enough to pull a hamstring…"

  7. Julius Jones (2003 only): Would the 5-7 Irish of 2003 have won a game without the efforts of Jones? The 5th-year senior rushed for more than 200 yards in three Irish victories and brought a dormant offense to life in a late comeback win vs. Washington State in the season opener. (I suppose a 57-7 win at Stanford was safe without the indomitable Jones' exploits.) The 2003 version of Julius Jones, a player returning to campus after a year of academic probation, could crack as high as No. 4 on this list, but his lack of production for previous teams (1999-2002) that desperately needed his contributions detracts from his final standing.

  8. Mark Green (1986-88): A flanker entering the program in 1985, Green made 25 consecutive starts at tailback from the finale in '86 though the national championship in '88, piling up nearly 2,408 yards from scrimmage with 15 TD along the way. Of note, a tri-captain for the '88 champs, Green started ahead of (freshman) Ricky Watters in '87 and (sophomore) Tony Brooks in '88...and his coach knew a few things about great running backs/running games.

  9. Darius Walker (2004-2006): Few would refer to Walker as "a great 'back," but he's the program's most consistent, versatile running back since Autry Denson's graduation following the 1998 season. The three-year starter finished with 3,640 yards from scrimmage and 26 touchdowns before skipping his senior year (ultimately going undrafted, but also thereby avoiding the carnage that was the 2007 season).

  10. Ryan Grant (2002): A true workhorse on a team bereft of offensive skill, Grant finished with 1,085 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, 910 of which occurred over the season's first eight games (all wins) before injuries and about 200 too many hits took its toll on the team's only reliable running back. The loss of two costly fumbles as banged-up runner in a Week Nine loss to Boston College sullied an otherwise outstanding season.

Also crossing my mind for the list: fullback Ray Zellars, combo-back Robert Farmer (though only because of an obscene 8.5-yard average on 78 carries as a junior in 1996), and tailback Randy Kinder.

Finally, the greatest 4th Quarter closer in program history: Rocket Ismail, dominated foes in spot backfield duty during the 1989-90 seasons, but his inclusion will be saved for a future list.

Comments? Questions? Criticisms? Unlikely additions? Join our discussion in the Football Forum. Top Stories