By Lou Somogyi, Blue & Gold Illustrated
In January 1972, the NCAA approved a radical change. For the first time since 1951, when the Korean War was at its height, freshmen would be eligible to play varsity college football.
The new ruling was initially perceived in many circles as irrelevant.
Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney, who led the Cornhuskers to national titles in 1970 and 1971, was particularly outspoken, stating: “When NCAA people meet in a place like Hollywood, Fla., what else are they going to do but pass a stupid rule like the freshman thing?
“If they met at Scranton, Pa., they’d get the hell out of there so fast they wouldn’t have time to make such a ridiculous decision.”
Under Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame wasn’t necessarily opposed to freshman eligibility — but the head coach also didn’t believe it would significantly impact his operation, a common sentiment among the major powers.
“Our attitude was that for a freshman to play — never mind start — he would have to be a really super athlete,” said Brian Boulac, an assistant for Parseghian, Dan Devine and Gerry Faust from 1970-82 and the first Irish aide to hold the recruiting coordinator title. “Either that or you would have to have a lot of weaknesses for him to be able to excel and be a starter.
“The more experience you had, the better the football team. And for every freshman you would start, you would probably lose a football game. The university’s viewpoint was the freshmen needed that year to get acclimated academically, not to have to come in and feel the stress of being part of a football team immediately.”
Back then, freshmen would get their initial action in a few junior varsity games that were played during the season against other JV squads. By 1980, the junior varsity program was eliminated at Notre Dame. Freshman eligibility allowed NCAA football scholarships to be reduced to 95 over four years (85 today), and no more than 30 in one season. Every hand on deck was needed for the varsity team, including the 20 to 25 incoming freshmen per year.
Here’s a chronological overview of the first 40 years of freshman eligibility at Notre Dame.
The First Man-Child
Of the 32 freshmen signed in the 1972 recruiting class, only one earned a monogram that year: 6-4, 265-pound defensive tackle Steve Niehaus from Gerry Faust’s powerhouse Cincinnati Moeller program.
Two days before his 18th birthday, Niehaus recorded a game-high 13 stops in a 37-0 shutout at Northwestern. He had a team-high 47 tackles during a 4-0 start in which the Irish yielded only 30 points.
Sports Illustrated came to the Notre Dame campus after that 4-0 start to do a photo shoot and feature on Niehaus and potentially put him on its cover for a story it was doing on the new freshman eligibility rule.
Shortly after their meeting, Niehaus injured his knee during practice and was ruled out for the year, keeping the “SI jinx” alive and well.
“It just put a pall over the whole team,” recalled 1966-95 Notre Dame sports information director Roger Valdiserri.
That week, the Irish also were upset at home by Missouri, 30-26.
Placed on the SI cover instead of Niehaus were North Carolina State freshman twins Dave and Dan Buckey, the passing combination for first-year Wolfpack head coach Lou Holtz.
It might be impossible to supplant Ross Browner and Luther Bradley as the two best freshmen ever to suit up for Notre Dame — because they also might rank in the top five of an NCAA list when talking about impact. (Georgia tailback Herschel Walker in 1980 and Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson in 2004 probably would be Nos. 1-2.)
Browner at defensive end and Bradley at strong safety stepped in as starters in the 1973 opener and exponentially upgraded the team speed and athletic ability on defense.
The 11-0 Irish yielded only 89 points the entire season en route to the national title. Including the 24-23 Sugar Bowl victory versus No. 1 Alabama, Browner had 74 tackles and 17 stops behind the line of scrimmage — with both figures pacing the line. Bradley led the team in interceptions (six) and passes broken up (11).
The duo was so good it was banned from riding the team bus that took the junior varsity for a game at Michigan the week before the Sept. 22 varsity opener with Northwestern.
“Ross and I were standing on the sidelines and watched [the other freshmen] as they were preparing to go,” Bradley recalled. “We said to one of our coaches, `Why don’t you let us go up to Michigan and play this weekend to get the bugs out?’
“He said, `Are you kidding? If something happened to you two, I’d get fired!’ ” So much for marking down a loss for every freshman you start.
A Cotton Pickin’ Good Time
What was the greatest impact game in terms of quantity by a freshman class at Notre Dame?
Our vote would be the memorable 35-34 Cotton Bowl victory over Houston on Jan. 1, 1979.
– Freshman fullback Pete Buchanan scored Notre Dame’s second touchdown — which was set up by freshman linebacker Bob Crable’s recovery of a fumbled kickoff.
– Freshman tight end Dean Masztak caught three passes, with 26- and 17-yard nabs setting up two touchdowns.
– Trailing 34-12 in the fourth quarter, the Irish rally began when freshman Tony Belden blocked a Houston punt that freshman Steve Cichy returned for a touchdown.
– With 28 seconds left and Houston facing fourth-and-inches at its 29-yard line with a 34-28 lead, the Cougars opted to go for it — but freshman end Joe Gramke was in on the stop for no gain. That gave the ball back to Joe Montana and Co. for the game-winning drive.
On Oct. 13, 1979, at Air Force, Notre Dame started five freshmen in its 38-13 victory: fullback John Sweeney, split end Tony Hunter, linebacker Mark Zavagnin, and defensive backs Dave Duerson and Rod Bone.
Hunter caught a 75-yard touchdown pass and Zavagnin paced the team in tackles with 12. Yet another frosh, running back Phil Carter, carried three times for 29 yards.
For 28 years that remained an Irish record for most freshman starters in a game — until Nov. 17, 2007. That’s when head Charlie Weis’ 1-9 Notre Dame squad started six in a 28-7 victory versus Duke: quarterback Jimmy Clausen, running back Armando Allen, wide receiver Duval Kamara, nose guard Ian Williams, and outside linebackers Brian Smith and Kerry Neal.
Kamara caught a 25-yard pass against the Blue Devils, but a seventh freshman, running back Robert Hughes, stole the show with 17 carries for 110 yards and a touchdown (from 13 yards out). The next week at Stanford, Hughes started in place of Allen and rushed for 136 yards in a 21-14 Irish victory.
Speed Kills: The Second Chapter
What Browner and Bradley were to the defense on the 1973 national champions, wideout/special teams mainstay Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and tight end Derek Brown were to the offense for the 1988 national title team.
Both scored touchdowns on their first career receptions, versus Purdue.
Ismail stretched defenses with his mere presence, making the option game run by quarterback Tony Rice even more potent. He averaged 27.6 yards on his 12 receptions during the regular season, including four for 96 yards versus No. 1 Miami. Ismail also blocked a punt to set up a score versus Michigan State, and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against Rice.
Brown’s 12 catches netted 150 yards, as he too became a full-time starter — and allowed incumbent tight end Andy Heck to shift to left tackle, where he became a first-team All-American and first-round pick.
In the 34-21 national title victory versus West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl, Ismail caught a 29-yard touchdown pass and Brown set up two of the touchdowns with 23- and 47-yard receptions.
Early Entry, Part I
What is the Notre Dame record for most freshmen to play in a season, or receive a monogram?
It occurred in 1989 while defending the national title. In all, 18 of the 25 freshmen (72 percent) in 1989 saw game action during the 12-1 season, and 14 received a monogram.
Kicker/punter Craig Hentrich stepped into the starting lineup from the first day.
Five lettered on offense as reserves: quarterback Rick Mirer, running back Dorsey Levens, wide receivers Ray Griggs and William Pollard, and tight end Irv Smith.
One who didn’t was tailback Reggie Brooks, who played sparingly and temporarily moved to cornerback as a sophomore before finishing fifth in the 1992 Heisman Trophy balloting.
On defense, the eight who received a monogram as backups or special teams mainstays were: linemen Junior Bryant and Eric Jones, and linebackers Demetrius DuBose, Karl McGill, Brian Ratigan (now a team doctor and surgeon for the Irish), Erik Simien, Nick Smith and Shawn Smith.
So much for the stronger the team, the less the chance of a freshman playing.
Most Likely To Play
History shows that the position where a freshman is most apt to play is running back.
– In the first 20 years of freshman eligibility from 1972-91, a freshman running back played for the Irish and scored a TD almost every season. Art Best began the festivities in 1972 with a 56-yard scoring run on his first career carry.
– Under first-year head coach Dan Devine in 1975, freshman fullbacks Jerome Heavens (756 yards) and Jim Browner (394 yards) combined for 1,150 yards on the ground.
– Allen Pinkett’s 76-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run to help upset No. 1 Pitt in November 1982 might be the single most memorable play by an Irish freshman. Pinkett began the season as the third running back.
– The first year a freshman didn’t have any carries for the Irish was 1992 — and that’s because no running backs were signed that year. The following season, when the 11-1 Irish finished No. 2 in the nation, three freshman backs made an impact. Tailback Randy Kinder ran for 537 yards and 6.0 yards per carry, fullback Marc Edwards paced the team in touchdowns (eight), and Robert Farmer worked at both fullback and tailback, scoring three touchdowns and averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
– In 1995, freshman Autry Denson began the season at cornerback but shifted to running back after an opening-game loss to Northwestern. He finished with 695 yards rushing as a freshman en route to becoming the school’s all-time rushing leader.
– In 2004, freshman Darius Walker didn’t see any action in a 20-17 opening-game loss at BYU. A week later, he came off the bench to romp for 115 yards rushing and two scores in a 28-20 victory versus No. 9 Michigan.
– In addition to 1992, the only other years in which a freshman tailback or fullback didn’t play were 2002, 2003 and 2010.
Least Likely To Play
It took 23 years before a freshman offensive lineman made a start at Notre Dame — Mike Rosenthal in 1995. Only five have done so overall (see “40-Year Irish All-Freshman Team”).
There also have been only six Irish freshman cornerbacks who started a game for the Irish, and only two in the last 18 years (one by Ivory Covington in 1994 and four by Robert Blanton in 2008).
Luther Bradley (1973), Randy Harrison (1974), Todd Lyght (1987), Tom Carter (1990) and Bobby Taylor (1992) all were starters as freshmen — but at safety. Bradley, Lyght, Carter and Taylor later became first- or second-round draft picks at corner.
Early Entry, Part II
In 2006, Notre Dame accepted early entries in its freshman class for the first time. High school seniors who opted to finish their academic work by December of their senior years could now enroll at Notre Dame in January to begin the spring semester. There have been 23 so far.
2006 (3): Running back James Aldridge, offensive guard Chris Stewart and wide receiver George West.
2007 (3): Running back Armando Allen, quarterback Jimmy Clausen and cornerback Gary Gray.
40-YEAR IRISH ALL-FRESHMAN TEAM
Quarterback: Matt LoVecchio (2000)
Quality all-around numbers — 11 TD passes and only one interception, 980 yards passing, 58.4 percent pass completion rate, 300 yards rushing — combined with team prosperity. He was 7-0 as the regular-season starter, leading to a BCS berth, and the offense had an NCAA-record-low eight turnovers all season.
Running Back: Jerome Heavens (1975)
Finished with 756 yards rushing and 5.9 yards per carry. He had 109 and 138 yards on the ground in comeback wins at North Carolina (21-14) and Air Force (31-30), and romped for a still-standing Irish-freshman-record 148 yards in the victory over Georgia Tech.
Wideouts: Michael Floyd (2008), Tony Hunter (1979) and Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (1988)
Floyd holds the Irish freshman marks for catches (48), receiving yards (719) and touchdown receptions (seven) … Fellow first-round pick Hunter averaged 25.6 yards per his 27 receptions. … Ismail’s 13 catches netted 360 yards (27.7 yards per grab), and he changed games just by walking onto the field.
Tight End: Kyle Rudolph (2008)
Easily holds the school record at his position for catches (28) and receiving yardage (340) by a freshman. More remarkable is he played almost every snap, and his 369:56 playing time is the most ever by an Irish freshman at any position.
Offensive Line: Sam Young (2006), Ryan Harris (2003), Mike Rosenthal (1995), Trevor Robinson (2008) and Brad Williams (1996)
These are the only five offensive linemen ever to start a game for the Irish as a freshman — and all were USA Today first-team high school All-Americans … Young became the first to start the opener … Harris started the last eight games of his freshman year … Rosenthal made three starts at tackle for the Orange Bowl team in 1995, while Williams moved from defense to replace an injured Rosenthal in two 1996 starts … Robinson started three times at guard.
Defensive Line: Ross Browner (1973), Tim Marshall (1980), Aaron Lynch (2011) and Anthony Weaver (1998)
Browner is the most decorated defensive player ever for the Irish … Marshall was the sixth-leading tackler (43 total and 10 for loss) on a unit that set a school record for most consecutive quarters not permitting a TD (23) … Freshman All-American Lynch (now at South Florida) paced the Irish in QB hurries (14) and sacks (5.5) …Weaver helped the Irish to a 9-2 regular-season finish and joined Browner as the only Irish frosh defensive linemen to start every game.
Linebackers: Bob Golic (1975), Kory Minor (1995) and Manti Te’o (2009)
Golic holds the Irish freshman record for tackles made (82) …The 1994 USA Today Defensive Player of the Year, Minor recorded six sacks during a 9-2 regular season and his 239:38 playing time was the most ever by a freshman under head coach Lou Holtz … National High School Defensive Player of The Year Te’o recorded 63 stops, behind only Golic and Browner amongst Irish rookies.
Defensive Backs: Luther Bradley (1973), Randy Harrison (1974), Stacey Toran (1980), and Bobby Taylor (1992)
Bradley joined Browner as a dominant force for the 1973 national champs … The following year at safety, Harrison made 57 tackles, broke up seven passes and had two touchdowns off interceptions in head coach Ara Parseghian’s final season … Taylor started the last six games of his rookie season and tied for the team lead in passes broken up (nine) on a 10-1-1 unit … Toran started the final 10 games at corner for the aforementioned record-setting defense and recorded 30 tackles, six passes broken up and an interception.
Kicker/Punter: Craig Hentrich (1989)
In addition to converting eight field goals, he set a single-season school record for punting average (44.6 yards per punt) and kicked off, making him a unique triple-threat.