For my answer, and the sake of research, I'll isolate just the player's fifth and final season, not their entire Irish careers.
On a related note, three of Notre Dame's six 5th-year competitors for 2012 have potential for memorable swan songs in South Bend this fall, but a quick gander at the list below suggests Lewis-Moore, Jamoris Slaughter, and Braxston Cave have a tough road to ho to crack our all-timer's group:
#1 Ross Browner 1977The two-time consensus All-America, college football Hall of Famer, and four-year Irish starter who played on two national championship teams (1973 and 1977), Browner, in his 5th season, won the Maxwell Award as the nation's best player, the Lombardi Trophy as its top interior lineman, and finished fifth in year's Heisman Trophy voting for the National Champion Irish.
Browner, who was suspended from the University as a sophomore in 1974, enjoyed a 5th-year senior season included 104 tackles,18 of which occurred behind the line of scrimmage totaling an astounding 130 lost yards for the opponents. Incredibly, Browner, who sat out as a true sophomore in 1974, might have been better as a true senior in 1976 (team-record 28 tackles for loss on 97 stops). Regardless, everyone else listed below is playing for second…
#2 Frank Stams 1988The polar opposite of the career stalwart Browner, Stams muddled through four seasons at fullback and outside linebacker before settling in as Notre Dame's rush end for 1988. He saved his best for last and played his best against the best:
#3 Michigan: 7 tackles, 1.5 sacks in a 19-17 season-opening win in which the offense didn't produce a touchdown.
#1 Miami: Recorded a sack, two forced fumbles, a recovery, and tipped a pass that led to an interception touchdown to earn game MVP honors in a 31-30 upset win over the defending national champions.
#2 USC: Produced a season-high 9 tackles with 2.5 sacks and a pass breakup in the 27-10 hammering of 10-0 USC in Los Angeles.
#3 West Virginia: Earned the game's defensive MVP award on the strength of two sacks and a forced fumble to help the IRish secure the 1988 National Championship.
Stams, who sat out the 1986 season with a leg injury, led the 1988 squad in sacks while ranking second in passes defended and was a consensus first-team All-America selection as well as the team's Lineman of the Year, no small feat on a team with fellow first team All-America Andy Heck as well as Chris Zorich. Ranked as the biggest impact player on the 12-0, national champion Irish defense.
#3 Michael Stonebreaker 1990Earned first-team All-America honors and placed third nationally in the voting for the Butkus Award presented to the nation's top linebacker. Bouncing back from injury in '89, Stonebreaker recorded 95 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, two interceptions, and a fumble recovery.
Stonebreaker was at his best vs. top foes, recording a game-changing end zone interception in a comeback win vs. #4 Michigan (along with 8 tackles), and a game-changing, momentum-stifling fumble recovery in the fourth quarter vs. #2 Miami. Stonebreaker added 16 tackles and a late interception in a 20-19 win at #19 Michigan State, and later in the season was all over the field at #9 Tennessee, recording 7 stops, a sack, a forced fumble, two pass breakups, and a third-down stop for lost yardage in that 31-27 victory. He concluded the regular season with six tackles, a forced fumble and a sack in a 10-6 win at USC.
Stonebreaker, like Browner, likely produced a previous better season (1988) than his 5th-year campaign highlighted here. That National Championship season also saw Stonebreaker garner consensus first-team All-America honors and his first of two third-place finishes for the Butkus Award on the strength of 104 tackles including He missed the 1989 season due to a broken kneecap and dislocated hip suffered in an off-season car accident. Stonebreaker also sat out the 1987 season with ear surgery and academic issues.
#4 Shane Walton 2002A former walk-on and Notre Dame soccer player as a true freshman in 1998, Walton was an underrated cornerback on a bad team with a solid defense in 2001. But he was a revelation and dominant coverman/playmaker for the rejuvenated, 10-3 Irish of 2002.
A superstar for the season's first 11 games, Walton finished with 7 interceptions and a whopping 68 tackles plus five for loss from the cornerback position. He added seven more passes defended, a fumble recovery, two touchdowns, and the game-sealing breakup of a two-point conversion vs. Michigan in a 25-23 home upset. Walton then ended the Wolverines last-gasp efforts with a mid-field interception near the final gun.
Walton's third-place finish in the Bronco Nagurski Trophy vote ranks as the program's highest in the 19-year history of the award recognizing the nation's top defensive player.
#5 Julius Jones 2003Tyrone Willingham's second Irish team earned just five wins, but in three of those victories, Julius Jones ripped off better than 200 rushing yards. In another, the season-opener vs. Washington State, Jones was the catalyst in a comeback from a 19-3 second half deficit and overtime Irish win. Jones added 161 yards and three touchdowns in the other, a 16-point victory over BYU.
It's not an overstatement to suggest the 5-7, 2003 Irish would have finished 2-10 without the breakout 'back, one who missed the far more successful 2002 season with academic problems. He finished the '03 campaign with 1,268 rushing yards (tied for fourth all-time,) 10 touchdowns (still the most since 1998 for an Irish runner) and a whopping 5.5 yards per carry on a team. (Ryan Grant, by comparison, averaged 3.6 yards that same fall.)
Does Jones' effort on a poor Irish team deserve a spot alongside the standouts listed above? Its debatable, unless you saw him play, and appreciate what might have been without his return from exile in '02.
Other Recent 5th Years of NoteThe toughest cut was doubtless the first player listed below:
Trevor Laws 2007: Toiled at left defensive end for the worst team in modern program history but fell just one tackle shy of tying the all-time single season mark for an Irish defensive lineman, finishing with 112 (8 for lost yardage including 4 sacks). Laws also contributed three blocked field goals, 7 QB hurries, 5 pass breakups and recovered two fumbles in his solo mission to keep the defense afloat. To say he was the team MVP does his effort in obscurity great injustice. Still, the Irish rush defense finished 96th that season…it's hard to elevate a defensive end under such circumstances.
Courtney Watson 2003: A poor defense and even worse team finished 5-7 but Watson produced a remarkable 117 tackles including 15 for lost yardage in just 10.5 games, losing the end of this season to a knee injury. Watson finished third in the voting for the Butkus Award the previous season for the far better, 10-3 Irish.
Renaldo Wynn 1996: 61 tackles including 6 for lost yardage, 9 sacks, 1 pass breakup and two fumble recoveries, including one he returned for a 24-yard touchdown. Wynn's play merited first round selection in the 1997 NFL Draft -- no Irish defensive lineman has been selected in the first round since.
Rhema McKnight 2006: Scored 15 touchdowns and finished second to Jeff Samardzija with 67 catches for 907 yards.
Arnaz Battle 2002: Was the lone perimeter playmaker on the 2002 squad that raced to an 8-0 start and #3 BCS ranking entering November. A former quarterback, Battle finished with 58 receptions for 786 yards and 5 touchdowns for the ground-oriented Irish. Editor's Note: From a colleague: Omitted Luther Bradley, 1977 first team consensus All-America cornerback for the national champion Irish (along with Browner).