Best of the Best - Part XII

Irish Eyes continues its off-season feature highlighting the best single-season Irish football players spanning the last three decades with Saturday's edition...

1997-2001: The Davie Era Linebackers

Linebacker Bobbie Howard (1998)

He wasn't the fastest, most physically imposing, or talented Irish linebacker of the era, but inside linebacker Bobby Howard was at his best when the Irish defense needed him most. Howard paced the '98 Irish with 118 tackles (the highest single-season total since the late Demetrius Dubose racked up 127 in 1991). Howard exhibited a nose for the football, excelling vs. the pass and stuffing the run for the '97 and ‘98 Irish squads that were lost without his presence in the middle (Notre Dame was 15-5 in games Howard started; 1-4 in those missed due to a '97 ankle injury).

He shined in rivalry games, posting 14 tackles (one for lost yardage) and a pass break-up in the 1998 season-opening upset over Michigan; adding 11 stops vs. Purdue in a 31-30 home win; and saving his best for the 31-26 last minute win at Boston College, a game in which Howard recorded 17 tackles (16 unassisted) and intercepted an Eagles' pass at the 12-yard line to set up an Irish score. On the final, four-play, game-saving goal line stand, Howard influenced every play: slipping around left end for a tackle on RB Mike Cloud on first down; knifing through for a solo stop on second; hitting Cloud low while LB Jimmy Friday cleaned up the runner high on third; and most importantly, re-aligning Safety Deke Cooper prior to fourth down. Cooper, who Howard believed had originally lined up slightly offsides, came free to make the crushing, gave-saving tackle.

Howard, the '98 team's tri-captain along with OT Mike Rosenthal and LB Kory Minor, won the Nick Pietrosante Award, which recognizes the player who best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, dedication, teamwork, and pride exhibited by Pietrosante, the late Irish fullback who died of cancer in 1988.

Howard at his best in ‘98: In a 39-36 Senior Day victory over LSU, Howard finished with 16 tackles, an 89-yard interception touchdown (the second longest in school history behind Luther Bradley's 103-yard romp vs. Purdue in '75) and a 4th Quarter blocked field goal to lead a furious Irish comeback. Howard's pick brought the Irish to within one, 34-33 early in the fourth quarter in a game that featured four blocked kicks, a kick return touchdown, three defensive touchdowns, and the now infamous intentional safety that knocked QB Jarious Jackson out of the ensuing game at USC...and the Irish out of the BCS.

Linebacker Anthony Denman (2000)

When Irish fans reminisce and reflect on their favorite games, players, and moments, it's inevitable that the team's stars during the '97-'01 timeframe receive the short shrift. Program-shaping wins, consistency, and household names proved relatively absent from the uneven seasons. And one of the best examples of excellence operating in the obscurity of the era was inside linebacker Anthony Denman.

Denman, a team captain and the MVP of the 2000 Irish, led the 9-3 squad in tackles (84); tackles-for-loss (14.5, the 15th best total in Irish history); finished tied for third on the team with five sacks (the only inside linebacker to top that number in the decade since was Brandon Hoyte with six in 2005); and added two forced fumbles and two pass break-ups. He was selected second-team All-American by The Sporting News, Rivals.com, and the Associated Press.

Denman proved to the stabilizing force the defense desperately needed after a rocky '99 season. He led the team in tackles in eight of 12 starts and accounted for either a sack, turnover, or tackle for lost yardage in nine of the team's 12 games in 2000 – on a defense that allowed 20.5 points per game (a full touchdown less than the '99 unit allowed per contest).

Denman at his best in ‘00: The effort was a microcosm of Denman's career: September 9, 2000. No. 1 Nebraska, favored by 13.5 points vs. the No. 23-ranked Irish in South Bend. The senior linebacker played the game of his life vs. ‘Huskers QB Eric Crouch and the Nebraska option offense finishing with 13 tackles (two for loss) and a sack vs. the nation's best rushing attack. Denman, OLB Rocky Boiman, DE Ryan Roberts, and a host of other solid, but too often overlooked defenders from the era of near misses came up short in overtime, 27-24.

Linebacker Courtney Watson (2001)

Watson, the runaway top selection among linebackers in the 2002-2004 era, emerged as a starter at ILB as a junior in '01 after serving in a reserve role while earning a special teams monogram as a sophomore for the 9-3 squad of 2000.

Watson finished 2nd on the team in tackles in 2000 (76) but was the unit's best playmaker and key figure on a defense that ranked 14th in the nation at season's end. The future Butkus Award finalist made an immediate impact, finishing with 18 tackles in his first career start, the season-opening loss at No. 1 Nebraska. Watson continued to pile up tackle totals in September losses, adding 10 more (and a sack) vs. Michigan State and 11 stops at Texas A&M.

2002 ranks as his best season, but Watson announced his presence as the best playmaking Irish LB of the decade in '01, pacing the team with 13 tackles for loss, while adding two sacks, a fumble recovery, three pass break-ups and an interception touchdown. Over the course of three seasons as a starter ('01-'03) Watson accumulated 283 tackles (38 for lost yardage), 8.5 sacks, 7 interceptions, 10 pass break-ups, a fumble recovery, and two forced fumbles.

Watson at his best in ‘01: It was a performance Irish fans had longed for in a frustrating '01 season and one they'd come to expect from Watson over the next two years: an 8-tackle, one sack, 31-yard interception return TD effort vs. the seventh-ranked Tennessee Volunteers. Watson and the Irish defense held the Volunteers to just 78 yards rushing on 34 carries but fell at home, 28-18.

Honorable Mention Outside Linebackers

  • Kory Minor (1997 and 1998). Minor's '96 season will be recognized in next week's look at the Holtz Era.
  • Lamont Bryant (1998)
  • Rocky Boiman (2000)

    Honorable Mention Inside Linebackers

  • Jimmy Friday (1997 and 1998)
  • Anthony Denman (1999)
  • Tyreo Harrison (2001)

Up Next: The conclusion of our look back at the Davie Era with the top defensive backs of 1997-2001.


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