Best of the Best: 1991-96 Defensive Backs

Our Best of the Best Series (detailing the top single-season players over the last five eras) continues with three All American defenders, including two first-round NFL Draft choices and a Pro Bowl cornerback populating our list of the best Irish defensive backs from the early 90s.

Note: This is the final position group feature of the second half of Coach Lou Holtz's tenure. The best players from 1986-1990 will be featured prior to the start of the '09 season.

Safety Jeff Burris (1993)

A three-year starter at free safety and the rock of the Irish secondary in the early 90s, Burris was Notre Dame's most recent (and possibly last) great two-way threat. In his senior year of '93, Burris led all defensive players in total playing time from scrimmage and led the squad in total special teams appearances as well. Burris finished with 53 total tackles, six passes defended, three interceptions (20 yards per return), two sacks, a blocked kick, and two forced fumbles as a team co-captain (with OT Aaron Taylor, C Tim Ruddy, and DT Bryant Young).

Burris doubled as a goal line running threat, rushing 16 times for 92 yards (a 5.8 average) while scoring six touchdowns (tied for second on the squad with record-setting tailback Lee Becton, who rushed for 1,044 yards in '93). He also returned the only punt he fielded 60 yards for a touchdown in a 42-0 win over Pittsburgh.

Burris wasn't just a goal line curiosity, he was a weapon, and as with all great players, at his best in big games. In Week Two at Michigan, the senior roamed the back line with six tackles, two interceptions, and a deep pass defended in Notre Dame's 27-23 upset win over the No. 3 Wolverines. In the late-November battle vs. No. 1 Florida State, Burris played one of the most complete games in recent Irish history, finishing with six solo tackles, a season-high four pass break-ups of eventual Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, and three rushing attempts for 19 yards with two touchdowns – the first, a six-yard carry to give the Irish a 21-7 lead; the latter, an 11-yard run to complete a 9-play, 80-yard drive that extended the Irish lead to 31-17 with just under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

On the final play of his Irish career, Burris planted a perfect form tackle on Texas A&M running back Rodney Thomas, forcing a fumble (recovered by CB Bobby Taylor), to seal a 24-21 Cotton Bowl victory. Burris was a consensus first-team All America selection as a senior and drafted in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts in 1994.

Safety Jeff Burris (1992)

Though the 1993 secondary has received plaudits as the best in recent Irish history, the 1992 group, at least by season's end, ranks as the most impenetrable of the Holtz era. And Jeff Burris' versatility was the key feature. Playing free safety for the season's first six games and switching to strong safety (allowing freshman Bobby Taylor to start in the deep middle) for the season's second half including the Cotton Bowl, Burris led the '92 secondary with 73 tackles (third on the team behind linebackers Demetrius Dubose and Anthony Peterson) while adding five passes defended and five interceptions.

Burris began his foray as a goal line ‘back as a junior in '92, finishing with three touchdowns on seven carries – the '92 backfield featured TB Reggie Brooks (1,343 yards and 13 TD) and FB Jerome Bettis (825 yards 10 TD) – in other words, there wasn't much room at the inn for erstwhile Irish runners.

In the era of specialization, Burris' career totals are staggering: 206 tackles, 16 pass breakups, 10 interceptions, one reception for a 16-yard touchdown, 10 rushing touchdowns, a punt return touchdown, 868 minutes played, and additional bowl game statistics (in which the Irish were 3-0 with Burris as a starter) of 17 tackles (one for lost yardage), two passes defended, one interception, and one forced fumble.

Honorable Mention Safeties: Bobby Taylor (half-season as the starting free safety in 1992 as a true freshman); John Covington (1993).

Cornerback Bobby Taylor 1993

Taylor was a third-team All America selection by the Associated Press after the 1994 season and a consensus first-team selection among six of the other eight voting entities…but he was even better as a sophomore in 1993.

The lockdown corner led the '93 squad with four interceptions (100 yards in returns), added 54 tackles (two for lost yardage), a sack, two blocked kicks, a team-high nine passes defended, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries en route to consensus All America honors from the Associated Press (third team); Newspaper Enterprise Association, the Sporting News, the Football Writers Association (second team) and the American Football Coaches Association and College and Pro Football Newsweekly (first team honors).

He finished his Irish career as a Jim Thorpe finalist (honoring the nation's best defensive back) and bypassed his senior season to enter the NFL Draft (Taylor was elected to the Pro Bowl in 2003. Taylor accumulated 143 tackles, 23 passes defended, two sacks, five interceptions (143 yards in returns), four fumble recoveries, four blocked kicks, and scored two touchdowns.

Bobby Taylor at his Best

Cornerback Tom Carter (1992)

The most underrated defensive player (if not overall player) of the Lou Holtz era, Carter is rarely mentioned among Irish greats, but his two-season run of excellence in 1991 and 1992 on the corner is second to none over the last three decades at ND.

Carter broke into the Irish secondary as a true freshman free safety in the season's third game (Purdue) – one of four freshman defensive backs to see extensive action in the 1990 secondary (Greg Lane, Jeff Burris, and Willie Clark). As a sophomore cornerback in '91, Carter led the Irish with five interceptions (returning one for a 79-yard touchdown vs. Tennessee) and he shined in the Sugar Bowl victory over No. 3 Florida with five solo tackles and a team-high four passes defended (the Irish broke up a team-record 15 passes vs. the Gators "Fun and Gun" offense).

But his best overall season was as a junior in '92, finishing with 40 tackles, nine passes defended, and a team-high five interceptions (not including an intercepted two-point conversion attempt vs. Pittsburgh). Carter limited BYU star receiver Eric Drage (more than 3,000 career receiving yards) to just three receptions for 25 yards and Penn State star O.J. McDuffie to three catches for 46 yards in the Snow Bowl season finale.

Perhaps the most impressive anecdote to Carter's three-year career was supplied by his coach, Lou Holtz, who stated Carter defended the deep pass better than any player he ever coached.

In keeping with the underrated theme, he was named third-team All America by the Associated Press and Football News. Carter bypassed his senior season to enter the NFL Draft (he was a first round pick of the Washington Redskins) – Irish fans are left to wonder how the lockdown cornerback might have affected a certain season-ending game vs. Boston College in 1993 for the 11-1 and No. 2 Irish.

Also Considered: Tom Carter (1991); Bobby Taylor (1994)

Honorable Mention Cornerbacks: Greg Lane (1992 and 1993)

Tom Carter at his Best

Note: I originally created both videos above as part of a BGI (Blue and Gold Illustrated) poll column posted last summer detailing the best cornerbacks of the last 20 years at the University.


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