Though comparing statistical contributions across college football eras is pointless, a handful (or three) of Irish skill position stars stand above the rest. Some, such as Reggie Brooks in 1992, received ample aid from future NFL Hall of Fame teammates while others, such as Lee Becton one season later, found clear running lanes behind a well-schooled, talented group of offensive linemen.
Others served as the lone bright spots on otherwise sub-par teams (Allen Pinkett, Autry Denson, and Julius Jones).
Noting the premise that "not all yards are created equal," I took the liberty of listing my personal favorite, and the player I believe to be the program's best of the modern era, at the top of the list.
Below is a review of the top single-season individual efforts of Notre Dame's best ball-carriers and receivers over the last 45 years
Rocket Ismail (1990)Ran for 576 yards on just 67 carries (8.0 yards per carry) and caught 32 passes for 699 yards (a 21.8 yards-per-catch average) while averaging 11.6 yards per punt return and scoring six total touchdowns, including a game-changing 94-yard kick return vs. No. 2-ranked Miami in Notre Dame's 29-20 victory over the rival Hurricanes.
Ismail changed field position as a return man for the Irish as opponents routinely kicked the ball short or out of bounds in an effort to avoid imminent disaster (his 36.1-yard kick return average as a freshman for the '88 National Champions not only led the nation, but would have if he'd taken a knee after the catch on his next two kick return efforts).
The Rocket finished with 1,723 all-purpose yards and was named the nation's player of the year by the Walter Camp Foundation, only the third (and most recent) Irish player to take home the prestigious trophy.
Ismail, who finished second in the 1990 Heisman Trophy voting, averaged a program-record 22 yards per reception, 15.3 yards per touch, and a comical 61.8 yards on his 15 touchdowns (not including Bowl Game scores of 29 yards in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl and 35 yards in the 1990 Orange Bowl victory).
Tim Brown (1986)Brown's best statistical season preceded his Heisman campaign of 1987 as the junior flanker caught 45 passes for 910 yards (20.2 per catch) while totaling a program record 1,937 all-purpose yards and scoring 9 touchdowns in 11 contests.
He helped the Irish recover from an 17-point 4th Quarter deficit, totaling 254 total yards (his fourth game in excess of 200 all-purpose yards that season) including a key 56-yard punt return to set up the winning field at USC in the season finale.
Brown followed in 1987 with consensus first-team All America honors, the Walter Camp Award, and the school's seventh and most recent Heisman Trophy, finishing with 1,847 total yards and seven touchdowns.
Reggie Brooks (1992)The senior but first-year starter produced the greatest season by a running back in the program's modern era, finishing with 1,343 yards (3rd best in program history); a staggering 8.04 yards-per-rush (No. 2 behind George Gipp's 8.1 average in 1920) and 13 touchdowns. In addition to providing one of the greatest and most determined touchdown runs in team history (below), Brooks added one of the most dramatic plays in team history with a diving reception of a Rick Mirer two-point conversion pass to beat Penn State on Senior Day, 17-16 in the famous "Snow Bowl."
Brooks erupted for 227 yards (on 19 carries) and three touchdowns in the regular-season finale, a 31-23 win at USC. He accounted for 896 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in the season's final seven games (all ND victories) for the 10-1-1 Irish.
Vagas Ferguson (1979)Set two team records in his senior season that still stand, with 301 carries for 1,437 yards. Ferguson scored 17 touchdowns (the fifth highest total in school history) and finished fifth in Heisman voting for the 7-4 Irish.
As a junior in '78, Ferguson ran for 1,192 yards (5.5 yards-per-carry) and seven rushing scores while adding another through the air for the 9-3 Irish. His record-setting 255-yard rushing performance vs. Georgia Tech stood for 25 seasons (see Julius Jones, below).
Allen Pinkett (1983)Rushed for 1,394 yards on 252 carries with 16 touchdowns while scoring twice more on 28 receptions totaling 288 yards in 11 contests. Earned first-team All America status from The Sporting News and Football News as a true sophomore. He added two touchdowns and 111 rushing yards in a Liberty Bowl win over Boston College (and star QB Doug Flutie).
Pinkett followed that effort with a 275-carry, 1,105-yard, 18-total touchdown (16 rushing) effort as a junior, adding 136 yards rushing and a receiving TD in the 1984 Aloha Bowl loss to SMU. Pinkett graduated as the program's all-time leading rusher, finishing his senior season with 1,100 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns for Gerry Faust's last Irish team.
Tom Gatewood (1970)Consensus first-team All American caught 77 passes for 1,123 yards and seven touchdowns and set a team-record (broken by Tate in ‘09) with eight separate games in excess of 100 yards receiving. Gatewood's numbers were accrued in just 10 regular season games though he added a 26-yard touchdown in the season-ending Cotton Bowl win over Texas for the 10-1, No.2-ranked Irish.
The"swinging-gate" (coined by then-Sports Information Director Roger Valdiserri) featured the 6'2" 205-pound Gatewood lined up wide, in the slot, and as an offset tight end for an Ara Parseghian offense that offered a portent to college football's multiple passing sets decades later.
Jeff Samardzija (2005)Set team receiving records (since-eclipsed or tied by Tate and Rhema McKnight) with 77 receptions for 1,249 yards and 15 touchdowns and was a consensus first team All American and national two-sport phenomenon for the 9-3 Irish. Finished second in the voting for the Biletnikoff Award presented to the nation's top receiver.
Followed his breakout junior season with a 78-catch, 1,017-yard, 12-TD effort (in 13 games), while adding a rushing score as the holder on a fake-field goal.
Jerome Bettis (1991)Totaled 972 rushing yards (5.8 yards per carry) and 190 receiving yards (on 17 catches) while setting a program record with 20 total touchdowns in 13 games from the fullback position for the 10-3 Sugar Bowl champions.
His three-touchdown, 160-yard rushing effort in the '92 Sugar Bowl ranks among the most productive and memorable individual Bowl performances in team history.
Bettis battled an ankle injury as a true junior in '92 but still managed 825 rushing yards (5.4 per carry) and 10 rushing touchdowns. He posted 15 receptions for 239 yards and two more scores as the "Thunder" to tailback Reggie Brooks' "Lightning" as the duo formed the best 1-2 punch in the nation and rank as the most productive fullback/tailback pair in single-season Irish history. The bruising fullback added three touchdowns and 101 all-purpose yards in a 28-3 whipping of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
Like Tate, Bettis elected to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft (pick No. 10 by the LA Rams).
Ken McAfee (1977)Set team tight end records (that stand today) with 54 receptions for 797 yards and six touchdowns in a national title season while earning his third consecutive consensus All America honors, a feat unlikely to be accomplished again in modern college football.
McAfee was the program's first winner of the prestigious Walter Camp Award, presented annually to the nation's best player. McAfee is the only tight end to earn the honor in the award's 43-year history.
Autry Denson (1997)Rushed for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns while adding 30 receptions for 175 yards and a touchdown for the 7-6 Irish. He posted eight separate 100-yard rushing games as junior including a 101-yard effort in the '97 Independence Bowl. Denson's '97 rushing total ranks as the fifth-highest in program history.
The school's all-time leading rusher (4,318 yards on 854 carries) ran for 1,179 yards (5.8 ypc) and eight touchdowns as a sophomore in '96 and finished his career with 1,176 yards (4.7 ypc) and 15 rushing touchdowns as a senior in '98. Denson added 130 yards and three rushing touchdowns in a 35-28 Gator Bowl loss to Georgia Tech for the 9-3 Irish that season.
Denson finished with a team-record 24 games in excess of 100 rushing yards, breaking Pinkett's previous mark of 23 set from 1982-85.
Jack Snow (1964)Set team records with 60 receptions (2nd in the nation) for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns for Ara Parseghian's first team (9-1 final record). Finished the season as a consensus All American selection and fifth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy (won by teammate and QB John Huarte). Snow's mark of nine touchdown receptions stood for 30 years (see Derrick Mayes, below).
Julius Jones (2003)Finished with 1,268 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns for one of the five worst offensive teams over the program's last 40 seasons. Jones ran for more than 200 yards in three separate contests including a record-breaking 24-carry, 262-yard effort at Pittsburgh.
Lee Becton (1993)Set a still-standing team record with six consecutive 100-yard rushing games to end the season and added another in his 138-yard Cotton Bowl MVP performance for the No. 2 ranked Irish. Finished with 1,182 rushing yards despite missing the Week Four contest vs. Purdue and playing sparingly the following week due to a hamstring injury. Becton scored seven touchdowns and averaged 6.4 yards-per-carry for the 11-1 Irish.
Jim Seymour (1966)Caught 48 passes for 862 yards and eight touchdowns for the 9-0-1, national champion Irish. Seymour set a school-record vs. Purdue with 276 receiving yards (a mark that was challenged by Tate in the Washington contest this season) and was one of a staggering 11 players on the squad to earn All America mention.
Derrick Mayes (1994)Caught 47 passes for 847 yards and 11 touchdowns while facing consistent double-team coverage for the ground-oriented Irish offense and an underachieving squad that finished 6-5-1. Added four receptions for 93 yards and two touchdowns in Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl loss to Colorado.
Starred for a 1995 team that rebounded with a 9-2 regular season in which Mayes caught 48 passes for 881 yards (18.4 per reception) and six touchdowns. In a 31-26 Orange Bowl loss to No. 3 Florida State, the senior formerly referred to by his more svelte group of position mates as "Doughboy" added six receptions for 96 yards including two incredible leaping touchdown receptions vs. future NFL Pro Bowl CB Samari Rolle.
Nick Eddy (1966)A unanimous All America selection, Eddy finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting and led the Irish in rushing with 553 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and scored eight touchdowns for the nation's No. 1 ranked scoring offense and eventual National Champions.
For his career, Eddy scored 21 touchdowns, caught 45 passes for 708 yards, rushed for 1,615 yards on 291 carries, and averaged 7.8 yards per play from scrimmage.