Over the next five days Irish Eyes will feature a continuing series highlighting the best single-season Irish football players spanning the last three decades.
This morning's edition: The Weis-Era Offense
Quarterback: Brady Quinn (2005)Perhaps the easiest selection of the lot, Quinn was equally impressive statistically in 2006 but his '05 campaign could long stand as the season by which future Irish signal-callers are measured. The junior leader was at his best in ND's six highest-profile regular season games (Pittsburgh, UM, MSU, Purdue, USC, Tennessee) accounting for 17 total touchdowns vs. four interceptions. His best statistical effort came in the wake of the epic loss to USC as Quinn cemented his status as a darkhorse Heisman candidate throwing for six touchdowns, 467 yards, and no interceptions in a home thrashing of BYU.
In ND's three 2005 losses, Quinn completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,037 yards, 7 scores (including a rushing TD), and 2 INT.
Also considered: Quinn 2006
Running Back: Darius Walker (2005)Admittedly, Walker's 2006 effort is slightly better statistically as the Irish junior finished with more yards gained; fewer yards lost; more yards receiving and total receptions; and a better average-per-carry (5.0 to 4.7) than in '05. Walker did score two more TD as a sophomore in '05 than as a junior in ‘06 (11 vs. 9) and the overall numbers are slightly misleading as the Irish played an extra contest in '06. The difference between Darius' total yards from scrimmage per game was negligible (128.9 in '05 vs. 127.6 in '06).
But Walker's sophomore season goes beyond raw statistics. He kicked off the Charlie Weis era in style with a 20-carry, 100-yard effort (and the season's first touchdown, a 51-yard catch on run on a beautifully blocked screen play) vs. Pittsburgh. He carried the Irish to a tough win in Ann Arbor, accounting for 126 of the team's 244 total yards in the 17-10 upset win; and he was at his best when the Irish needed him most, logging 61 carries for 278 yards and three TD on the ground along with 16 receptions for 104 yards and a score via the pass in ND's three '05 losses. Walker rushed for 90 yards on 16 carries while scoring all three Irish touchdowns (from 20, 10, 3 yards out respectively) in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
Also considered: Walker 2006
Wide Receiver: Jeff Samardzija (2005)Yes, his '05 numbers were superior to his '06 encore (77 receptions, 1,249 yards, 15 TD in 12 games vs. 78/1,017/12 in 13 contests) but that's not the main reason for the selection. 2005 was the year of the Shark. He was a phenomenon. A long-haired, clutch-catching, trash-talking whirlwind that came out of nowhere to become the best, most intriguing wide receiver in the nation.
Samardzija was example No. 1 that things were changing in South Bend; that new head coach Charlie Weis' offense was a force to be reckoned with; and most importantly (at the time), that Notre Dame was back, and it had more to offer the college football world than a storied tradition. Samardzija's performance on the field was top-notch and the extra attention and sideshow that accompanied it was not only refreshing but deserved - a far cry from the norm in an era when the hype machine of college football usually destroys such stories as soon as they're unearthed.
Like Quinn and Walker, Shark performed well in the team's losses. He exploded for 6 receptions, 96 yards, and 3 TD vs. Michigan State and grabbed 6 balls for 99 yards and a 30-yard score vs. USC. Samardzija was held in check in the Fiesta Bowl loss with 6 receptions for 57 yards, though he did break free on ND's first play…an opening statement opportunity that ultimately failed as Quinn's bomb sailed past the wide open receiver.
Wide Receiver: Maurice Stovall (2005)Stovall's selection represents the first tough decision on the board (over 2006 Samardzija), but anyone that watched evolution of Mo from probable future star as a freshman in '02, to complete afterthought as a junior by '04 is likely onboard with the choice. The arrival of Charlie Weis in '05 not only provided a pro career for the gifted but struggling receiver, it gave Irish fans its most unstoppable receiving tandem in team history (as of this moment, of course). Stovall began the '05 season the same way he did the '04: slowly, and with a case of the drops that did little to suggest he'd be a featured aspect of the offense.
Then something clicked. A drop while the Irish were struggling at home vs. MSU begat a diving catch; another leaping catch, a clutch 3rd down touchdown grab, and ultimately a one-season wonder was born – a senior that might have rewritten the Irish record books had he been under Weis' tutelage for four years.
Season Highlights: Eight receptions for 176 yards and a score vs. MSU; eight more grabs for 134 yards at Purdue; the incredible 14-reception, 207-yard, 4 TD effort vs. BYU; and another eight grabs for 130 yards and three scores vs. Navy.
Stovall finished his senior season with 10 touchdown receptions in the final five regular season games while totaling 69 receptions for 1,149 yards and 11 scores on the season.
Also considered: Samardzija 2006
Tight End: John Carlson (2006)Carlson burst onto the scene with a crucial first-half effort vs. Penn State and LB Dan Connor, as the Irish junior repeatedly beat the future All American for receptions down the seam, finishing with six grabs for 98 yards in the victory. Carlson was again at his best two weeks later in the epic comeback victory in East Lansing, finishing with 121 yards on four receptions including a key 3rd Quarter catch and run covering 62 yards that cut the Spartans lead to 10.
Carlson proved to be a more-than-capable replacement for the departed Anthony Fasano, providing consistency throughout the '06 campaign as the second-round pick and Seahawks record-setter notched eight different games with at least four receptions, including a season-high eight grabs for 91 yards and a score in a 45-26 win over North Carolina.
Carlson's final numbers: 47 receptions, 634 yards, 4 TD
Tight End: Anthony Fasano (2005)There was no doubt the All-Weis Offense would feature two tight ends rather than a fullback, so for full disclosure if forced to choose one tight end for the squad it would be Fasano circa 2005. While Carlson provided a slightly more explosive downfield target in '06, Fasano qualified as the superior blocker – a sixth lineman with hands. He was a key component in the running game; a leader on the field; and an early-season crutch for a still-developing Quinn on which to lean.
Fasano's steady play was his calling card, but his season highlight occurred in the 41-21 defeat of visiting Tennessee as the Irish senior scored the game's first touchdown, a 43-yard catch-and-run that ended with a flying Fasano tumbling over the final would-be tackler at the pylon. He finished the contest with four receptions for 78 yards, one of eight games in which Fasano totaled at least four receptions.
Fasano's final numbers: 47 receptions, 576 yards, 2 TD
Honorable Mention: Kyle Rudolph 2008; John Carlson 2007
Later Today: Part II of the All-Weis Offense