The Best of the Best - Part IX

Irish Eyes resumes its off-season feature highlighting the best single-season Irish football players spanning the last three decades.

Part IX: The Skill-Position Stars of 1997 through 2001…The Davie Era.

Quarterback Jarious Jackson (1999)

If the primary function of a quarterback is to win games, then Jackson's junior season of 1998 (9-2 record with Jackson at the helm) would rank as the best of the Davie era. But ultimately, a quarterback is only as successful as the 50 or so players that take the field with him each week, which is why we can't ignore 1999, Jackson 's final season, as his personal best.

Jackson put an inconsistent start, two last second losses, and a 1-3 record behind him, rallying an Irish team with a leaky defense, suspect leadership, and impossibly poor clock-management skills to four consecutive wins and a 5-3 mark entering November. The team's unquestioned pulse and leader was at his double-threat best during the winning streak (home wins over Oklahoma, Arizona State, USC, and Navy), a four-game span in which the senior from Tupelo accounted for 1,250 rushing/passing yards, 12 total touchdowns, and just three turnovers. Three of the four wins weren't assured until the final two minutes of the respective contests.

Befitting the era, the Irish dropped their next four games (at Tennessee , at Pitt, home vs. BC, and at Stanford vs. Tyrone Willingham). Jackson finished his senior season with a then Irish-record 2,753 passing yards, completing 58% of his throws for 17 touchdowns while adding seven more touchdowns on the ground and 464 net (734 gross) rushing yards.

Jackson at his best in ‘99: Jackson rallied the Irish after a 1-3 start with a combined six touchdown passes and no interceptions (and 200 total rushing yards) in subsequent wins over Oklahoma (who won the BCS Title the following season) and Arizona State. Despite the team's pedestrian 3-3 mark, Jackson ranked third in the nation in QB Passing Efficiency entering the Week Seven contest vs. USC, a game in which Jackson led the program to its biggest comeback (19 points) since the 1979 Cotton Bowl, as the Irish beat USC for the first time since 1995, 25-24 in a driving rainstorm.

Also considered: Jackson (1998)

Honorable Mention: Matt LoVecchio (2000)

Running Back Autry Denson (1998)

He might not be the best running back to graduate from the school…he might not even rank in the top two of his own decade; but Irish RB Autry Denson is the most consistent and prolific ball carrier in Notre Dame's storied history, and 1998 was his best individual effort.

Denson carried the load for an Irish offense with a new signal-caller (Jarious Jackson) and led the squad to a 9-3 mark, totaling 1,176 yards (actually his third highest single-season total) and 15 touchdowns (a 4.7 ypc average).

Denson topped the 100-yard mark in six games while adding at least 80 in four others. He scored 12 touchdowns during Notre Dame's eight-game winning streak that season and finished the year with a 26-carry, 130-yard, three touchdown effort in a 35-28 Gator Bowl loss to Georgia Tech (Bowl statistics were not included in season-end totals at the time).

No game showed Denson's value to the '98 offense more than the season opener vs. the defending National Champion Wolverines. On a day in which the Irish completed just four passes, Denson led the Irish to a 36-20 win (over a QB named Tom Brady) on the strength of 163 yards and two touchdowns.

Denson at his best in ‘98: On November 14 in Landover Maryland, a senior running back who stated (as a freshman) that he wanted to be remembered as the best in school history, laid claim to that title passing Allen Pinkett as Notre Dame's all-time leading rusher (finishing his career with 4,318 yards).

Running Back Autry Denson (1997)

Denson's highest rushing total occurred in his junior season of '97, finishing with 1,268 yards on 264 grueling carries and 13 (total) touchdowns. The number remains the fourth highest single-season total in Irish history. After a shocking 1-4 start to the season (the first of the Bob Davie era), the Irish regrouped to even their record at 7-5 due largely to the efforts of Denson. The Irish junior scored seven touchdowns in a five-game mid-season stretch, while piling up 559 rushing yards including the game-winner in a 28-24 home victory over Navy.

Denson at his best in ‘97: Denson was the key figure in a season-opening victory (the first game in a renovated Notre Dame Stadium) over Georgia Tech. He scored both Irish touchdowns (including the game-winner) and caught a crucial 3rd and 4 pass from senior Ron Powlus at the Tech 34-yardline with just over four minutes remaining.

Honorable Mention: Tony Fisher (1999), Julius Jones (2000)

Wide Receiver/Football Player Joey Getherall (2000)

Times have changed when a player with 17 receptions can be considered (much less selected) to an All-Era team.

But Irish fans who suffered through the uneven Bob Davie era can likely agree that Joey Getherall could have played, and made an impact, on any Irish team over the last three decades.

Getherall, like Tom Zbikowski in 2005, made this team because of his contributions as a football player rather than simply at his listed position in the program. The numbers show 17 receptions (2nd on the squad) for 323 yards (1st); a 19-yard average (2nd) and four touchdowns (1st). The numbers show 17 receptions (2nd on the squad) for 323 yards (1st); a 19-yard average (2nd) and four touchdowns (1st). Getherall added to his totals with eight carries for 78 yards and a rushing score (more on that below).

He returned 24 punts for a 16.3-yard average and two touchdowns and that 16.3-yard average is the second-highest qualifying total in team history (the highest total, an astounding 20.2 yards per return set in 1996 by Allen Rossum, is not an official mark as Rossum fell short of the minimum required total of 1.5 per game).

Five of Getherall's seven touchdowns in 2000 either tied the score or gave the Irish a lead.

Getherall at his Best in 2000: Getherall was a one-man show in the 34-31 overtime win vs. Air Force, totaling 136 yards and three touchdowns on just six total touches (four receptions and two carries) from scrimmage. His final touchdown of the day provided the Irish with the overtime victory – a fake option pitch back to Getherall who sprinted nine yards (on 3rd and Goal from the 6-yard line) for a diving touchdown, preserving an eventual BCS appearance for the Irish.

Wide Receiver Bobby Brown (1997)

Brown steadily improved throughout his Irish career, leading the team in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns over the course of his three seasons. As a sophomore in '97, Brown led the offense with 45 receptions and six touchdowns while finishing second to senior Malcolm Johnson in receiving yards (596-543).

Brown caught seven balls for 64 yards in his first career start (a 17-13 win over Ga. Tech). He added seven receptions in both of the team's next two contests, losses at Purdue and at home to Michigan State (the first home loss to the Spartans since 1983). The sophomore added the second touchdown reception of his career vs. eventual National Champion Michigan to give the Irish a 7-0 advantage in the 21-14 defeat.

It was tempting to list 1999 as Brown's best, a year in which he set career highs for receiving yards (608) and yards-per-catch (16.9) while adding five touchdowns in an up-and-down campaign. But more than one-third of Brown's receptions (35) and yards came in a loss at Pittsburgh that season when the star-crossed senior finished with 12 catches for 208 yards in the 37-27 defeat.

Numbers don't necessarily tell the entire story for the Davie-era receivers, and both Brown and Getherall are examples of contributers whose efforts have been overlooked in a scattered offensive era at the school.

Brown his best in ‘97: The sophomore caught a game-winning, 11-yard touchdown pass from fifth-year senior QB Ron Powlus to give Notre Dame a 21-14 win over West Virginia and the Irish their fifth win in six games (and a 6-5 mark heading into the season's final week at Hawaii ). The Irish student body stormed the field after the victory, prompting Mountaineers head coach Don Nehlen to exclaim: "I don't know, the way they were acting, you'd think we were Notre Dame."

Honorable Mention: Malcolm Johnson (1997); Bobby Brown (1999); David Givens (2000)

Tomorrow: Part II of the 1997-2001 Offense: The Davie Offensive Linemen and Tight End. Top Stories