The Best of the Best - Part XIII

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

Today we complete our look back at the 1997-2001 seasons with a review of an unheralded group The Davie Era Defensive Backfield.

Cornerback Shane Walton (2001)

Walton cemented his name in Irish Football lore with a 2002 campaign that ranked among the best single-season defensive performances in school history. But the former Irish soccer player (Walton walked onto the football team in the spring of '99) didn't morph into a first-team All-American overnight.

As a senior for the 5-6 squad of 2001 (he was a fifth-year senior in '02), Walton toiled in obscurity for a defense that ranked 14th in the nation and 10th overall vs. the pass – the third best (statistical) pass defense for a Notre Dame team since 1947. Walton led the '01 Irish with eight pass breakups; finished fifth in tackles (43); an impressive sixth in tackles-for-loss (7 for 20 yards) and added a sack, forced fumble, and two interceptions.

Always a playmaker (a football player more so than a "cornerback"), Walton added a blocked punt at Nebraska to set-up Notre Dame's only touchdown and put the Irish in position for a score vs. USC, stopping a fake punt at the Trojans 28-yard line. The 27-16 Irish win (after trailing 13-3) stands as the most recent Notre Dame victory in the bitter rivalry.

Notre Dame's pass defense allowed just four touchdowns via the pass in 2001, and Shane Walton was the unit's best player.

Walton at his best in ‘01: It seems odd to choose a matchup with Navy to illustrate Walton's playmaking skills, but we'll let the big plays in big games of the 2002 season stand alone. In November of '01, Walton emerged as a playmaking force vs. the Midshipmen, posting three tackles for lost yardage (seven stops on the day), a sack, and an interception. The Irish needed all of Walton's heroics, leading just 23-16 entering the final period (34-16 final).

Cornerback/Weapon Allen Rossum (1997)

The mid-90s most dangerous man, CB Allen Rossum culminated his Irish career in style, intercepting a pass in the regular season finale and returning it for a 37-yard score. The play was significant for two reasons:

  • The Irish defeated the (then) Rainbow Warriors 23-22
  • It was (his NCAA record) 9th career return touchdown (3 KR/3 PR/3 INT)

    Rossum starred for three years under Lou Holtz, but finished his career as Bob Davie's top CB in ‘97, totaling 53 tackles (one for loss), two interceptions, three pass break-ups, two sacks, and three return touchdowns (two kicks and the aforementioned interception) on a pass defense that ranked as the overall strength of the team, allowing just five touchdown passes and 180 aerial yards per game. Rossum's 28.5-yard kick return average in '97 ranks as the 8th highest total at Notre Dame over the last 50 years (Rossum averaged an amazing 37.6 yards per KR in 1996).

    The senior finished his career as a finalist for the Mosi Tatupu Special Teams Player of the Year Award and is currently a member of the San Francisco 49ers. Rossum has at least one return touchdown in each of his NFL stops: Philadelphia, Green Bay, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.

    Rossum at his best in ‘97: The Notre Dame record 43-game winning streak vs. Navy was snapped in the lost season of 2007, but that improbable run of success was nearly snapped a decade earlier. Trailing 21-17, the Midshipman had a final chance to spring an upset, possessing the ball at the Irish 29-yard line with three seconds remaining. Navy QB Chris McCoy's pass ricocheted off the helmet of Safety Deke Cooper and fell into the hands of Navy wide out Pat McGrew at the Irish 18. McGrew had an angle to the end zone (and what would have been the game-winning, streak-snapping score), but Rossum the sprinted to the corner and knocked McGrew out of bounds short of the one-yard line. McGrew's desperation pitch to a trailing teammate fell harmlessly and ND held on for the victory – a game in which the Irish were outgained by more than 100 yards.

    Safety Tony Driver (2000)

    One of the most versatile Irish players of the last three decades, Driver began his Notre Dame career as a valuable special teams contributor and the squad's fourth-leading rusher as a true freshman in '97. He moved to the defensive backfield in the spring of '98 and finished fourth on the squad in tackles that season while ranking second in interceptions and serving as the team's top return man. In '99, Driver moved back to tailback before settling in at free safety for 2000, his senior season.

    Driver finished second on the 2000 team in tackles (65) and passes defended (7). He added two fumble recoveries, both of which he returned for touchdowns in a blowout win over Navy, becoming the first Irish player to score on two fumble recoveries in his career and just the second player in NCAA history to do so in a single contest.

    Driver finished with double-digit tackles in three of ND's first four contests (all vs. ranked opponents): Texas A&M, Nebraska, and Michigan State.

    Driver at his best in ‘00: Driver picked off two passes in '00 and he made them count: the first was a late fourth-quarter pick that sealed the season-opening win vs. Texas A&M. The second put the Irish ahead to stay in the season-finale at USC, as Driver returned a Carson Palmer interception 43 yards to set up an Irish score.

    Safety A'Jani Sanders (1999)

    As a fifth-year senior in 1999, Sanders led the Irish in tackles (91) and tackles-for-loss (10); finished second on the squad with three interceptions (for 48 return yards and one touchdown) and four passes defended, while adding a forced fumble. A versatile DB, Sanders split time between strong and free safety over 13 starts in a three-year period before settling in at SS in his fifth (and best) season.

    Sanders finished his Irish career as a four-year letterman, accumulating 225 tackles, 10 passes defended, 4 forced fumbles, and 8 interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns (both, incidentally, vs. Arizona State in 1998 and again in 1999).

    Sanders at his best in ‘99: With the Irish leading 7-0 early in the 2nd Quarter vs. Arizona State, Sanders stepped in front of a Ryan Kealy pass and returned the pick 28 yards for a touchdown. The Irish never looked back, scoring 27 points in the period to blow the game open in a surprising 48-17 victory.

    Safety Deke Cooper (1998)

    Though Cooper will always be remembered for one game-saving tackle (more on that below), his Irish career and the 1998 season featured multiple memorable moments.

    Cooper made his most meaningful impact in his junior ('98) season, finishing third on the team in total tackles with 78 (including two for lost yardage); first in fumbles forced (3); while adding an interception and three pass break-ups.

    While a host of DBs have produce better statistical seasons than did Cooper in '98, not many have matched his playmaking prowess, as the junior from Indianapolis scored on a 96-yard fumble recovery touchdown vs. Michigan State (a game in which he led the squad with 16 tackles in a relief role); added another touchdown to his personal tally with a 34-yard INT return in the blowout of Arizona State; and produced an Irish score with a forced fumble (of which DE Lamont Bryant returned for a touchdown) in the 39-36 thriller against LSU.

    None of which rank as his greatest moment in an Irish uniform, as you'll read below.

    Cooper at his best in ‘98: With the Irish leading Boston College 31-26, the Eagles had been stopped on three plays inside the Irish 4-yard line. On fourth and goal from the one, Cooper knifed through the Eagles line to bury RB Mike Cloud, culminating the four-play goal line stand with one of the most dramatic tackles of the last 30 years at Notre Dame.

    Honorable Mention Defensive Backs

    • S A'Jani Sanders (1998)
    • S Deke Cooper (1999)
    • CB Brock Williams (2000)
    • CB (nickel back) Vontez Duff (2001)

    Up Next in our series examining the best single-season performances of recent eras: The Lou Holtz Years, broken down into two separate time frames: 1986-1990; and 1991-1996.

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