Best of the Best - Part XV

Our look back at the best single-season Irish players of the last five eras continues with the wide receivers and tight ends from 1991-1996.

One key element of football - a punishing ground attack - yielded a consistent end result - a victory - during Lou Holtz's time at the school. As a result, wide receivers and downfield tight ends were not a featured aspect of most Holtz-led victories. But two players from the '91-'96 era standout nonetheless. Below is our look at two ND stars that could have thrived in any system at any time in Irish history.

Wide Receiver Derrick Mayes (1994)

Two of our Holtz Era backfield stars highlighted this weekend (tailback Reggie Brooks and quarterback Kevin McDougal) took a circuitous route to Irish stardom. Both waited patiently behind talented teammates, and neither emerged as starters until their respective senior seasons.

On the other hand, Derrick Mayes apparently subscribed to the theory: The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. His first catch? A one-handed, 38-yard touchdown grab as a freshman at Michigan State. His second? Touchdown No. 2, this time at Pittsburgh when Mayes hauled in a 31-yard strike in the 2nd quarter. And just to make sure you were paying attention, Mayes' third career grab also counted for six points – a 69-yarder in the fourth quarter in that same 52-21 route of the Panthers.

Mayes' first three grabs were a portent of things to come as the Indianapolis product set career marks (both since broken by Jeff Samardzija) for touchdowns (22) and receiving yards (2,512). Mayes occupies both wide receiver spots on our 1991-1996 All Holtz Team, with his finest season occurring in 1994.

Mayes was named third-team All American on an Irish roster depleted by graduation (19 Irish players had been drafted over Mayes' first two seasons including seven as first-round selections). The team finished a disappointing (and Holtz Era worst, considering expectations) 6-5-1 after beginning the season ranked No. 3 in the AP Poll. Mayes performed at a high level each week finishing with a then team record 11 touchdown receptions to augment his 47 receptions (18.0 average) and 847 yards (he added 93 yards and two scores in the Fiesta Bowl defeat vs. Colorado).

Mayes was voted the team MVP for his effort and named as one of ten finalists for the Biletnikoff Award for the nation's top receiver.

Mayes at his best in 1994: With the Irish trailing No. 6 Michigan 23-17 and under one minute remaining, Mayes hauled in a leaping go-ahead touchdown grab in the back of the end zone (pictured) to set the Irish up for a 24-23 victory. The Irish defense failed to hold the lead as Remy Hamilton's 42-yard field goal split the uprights with two seconds remaining. It was the second consecutive home loss (dating back to the previous season vs. BC) for the Irish at The Stadium. Mayes finished the contest with 7 receptions for 103 yards and the aforementioned score in quarterback Ron Powlus' second career start.

Wide Receiver Derrick Mayes (1995)

As a senior, Mayes finished with 48 receptions for 881 yards (and 18.1 average per catch) and six touchdowns (adding two more in the Orange Bowl) for an extremely run-heavy offense (Irish tailbacks Randy Kinder, Autry Denson and fullback Marc Edwards totaled 30 touchdowns and accounted for almost 2,300 rushing yards for the 9-3 Irish).

As with every Holtz-Era receiver, Mayes also excelled as a downfield blocker (if you didn't block, you didn't play) but his ability to make the circus catch coupled with his reliability as a chain-moving force separates Mayes from his contemporaries at the school. In a three-game October stretch vs. No. 13 Texas; No. 7 Ohio State; and No. 15 Washington, Mayes put the Irish (2-1 in the three-game span) on his back with 18 receptions for 403 yards and three touchdowns.

Two Weis-Era receivers have already passed and tied Mayes on the school's touchdown and yardage lists. Three have passed or tied Mayes single-season record of 11 touchdowns (1994). Two more on the current roster will likely do the same in both categories. But Derrick Mayes was a record-setting receiver and the best football player for two Notre Dame squads that featured the option as its main offensive weapon. Arugments for the greatest pure wide receiver in Irish history will forever include Derrick Mayes.

Mayes at his best in 1995: The 1996 Orange Bowl: Mayes' final game in an Irish uniform ranked as one of his greatest individual moments. The Irish entered the contest vs. No. 3 Florida State without their starting quarterback, Ron Powlus, and leading rusher, Randy Kinder. Luckily the offense still had Derrick Mayes, whose six-catch, 96-yard performance included two spectacular touchdown catches over future NFL Pro Bowl CB Samari Rolle. The first, a fly pattern burst of speed from 39 yards out; the second, a leaping, tipped-to-himself, jump-ball from 33 to give the Irish a 17-14 third quarter lead. Never considered a burner (or a punt returner, for that matter) Mayes added a 52-yard punt return touchdown that was called back as the Irish relinquished a 12-point fourth quarter lead in a wild 31-26 defeat.

    Honorable Mention

  • Derrick Mayes (1993): 24 receptions for 512 yards (a 21.3 average) and two touchdowns. Against BC, Mayes put forth one of the best second-half efforts in team history though its place in Irish lore was sullied by the final score. Mayes finished the contest with 7 receptions for 147 yards including a twisting 46-yard grab between two defenders to set up ND's final drive, go-ahead touchdown in the shocking 41-39 defeat.
  • Lake Dawson (1992): On an offense that averaged 34 points a game and rushed for 34 touchdowns, Dawson (a junior) totaled 25 receptions for 462 yards (18.5 average) and one touchdown. He added a 40-yard touchdown reception in the 28-3 Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M.
  • Tony Smith (1991): 42 receptions for 789 yards (18.8 average) and four touchdowns. The Irish rushing attack produced 37 scores in '91 (Smith's senior season).
  • Lake Dawson (1993): 25 receptions for 395 yards and two touchdowns.

Tight End Irv Smith (1992)

A second team All-American selection, Smith emerged as a first-round draft pick after the 1992 season. Smith's senior class finished with a 41-8-1 record and three bowl victories (and one yellow flag away from a fourth). In his senior season, Smith helped the Irish offense rank third nationally (470 yards per game) and third in rushing offense (nearly 281 yards per contest).

Smith finished second on the team with 20 receptions totaling 262 yards and two scores. He and '91 graduate Derek Brown rank among the most complete tight ends in Irish history and we're left to imagine what type of impact Smith would have as a downfield receiver in Charlie Weis' offense.

Smith at his best in 1992: This is cheating, but we're going to allow a highlight (below) from 1991, Smith's junior season, to illustrate his ability.

Honorable Mention

  • Pete Chryplewicz (1996): Chryplewicz led the Irish as a 5th year senior with 27 receptions on the season for 331 yards and four touchdowns.
  • Derek Brown (1991): 22 receptions for 325 yards and four touchdowns. Brown was a first-round draft pick due largely to his ability as a run-blocker (and potential as a pass-catcher) as the four-year starter helped pave the way for 37 rushing touchdowns in his senior season of '91.



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