The 1980s hosted 83 wins, 53 losses and two ties for the Notre Dame Football program, though the latter portion of the decade included its halcyon days: a true return to dominance and a 24-1 record during the 1988-89 seasons.
Below is a look at the decade’s final four freshmen hauls and their immediate on-field impacts. Each group was coached by Lou Holtz, who began his Irish career with a 37-11 record over his first four seasons, despite a 5-6 start in 1986.
(For a look at the first two installments of Instant Impact, click the links below):
Impact Freshmen: 2000-2010
Impact Freshmen: The 90s
Freshmen Impact: The late-80s
The decade’s final four seasons (as well as the 1990 campaign featured in Part II) offered an annual embarrassment of recruiting riches – a talent base not since consistently witnessed at the Notre Dame Football (or for the most part, at any) program.
1989 Fourteen freshmen lettered for the defending national champions:
Veterans comprised one of the program’s best all-time offensive backfields, but the group nonetheless received backup support from QB Rick Mirer and RB Dorsey Levens - both emerging as starters over the following spring. Three first-year WR/TE earned letters: Ray Griggs and William Pollard, the latter of which played in 11 games highlighted by a 42-yard grab in a season-ending loss at Miami, and Irv Smith, who logged action in 13 games as the team’s third-string tight end.
Linebackers Demetrius Dubose, Karmeeleyah McGill, Nick Smith, and Shawn Smith lettered thanks to special teams contributions as did fellow ‘backers Brian Ratigan and Erik Simien, though the latter pair enjoyed a healthy dose of backup work from scrimmage as well.
The 12-1 squad enjoyed impact play from scrimmage from three freshmen: defensive linemen Eric Jones and Junior Bryant, and all-time program great, Craig Hentrich, who handled full-time kickoff and punting duties as well as part-time on the field goal unit.
Bryant appeared in all 13 games as a reserve defensive tackle while Jones appeared in 10 – his legacy nearly cemented by a single play: a sack, forced fumble, and 23-yard loss vs. Miami in the season finale with the program's 23-game winning streak and No. 1 ranking on the line. The Irish failed to recover the gift-wrapped football and Miami quarterback Craig Erickson completed the infamous “3rd and 43” pass one play later – eventually sealing Notre Dame’s fate and ending the record streak and hopes for a repeat crown.
Hentrich booted eight field goals, was 44-45 on PAT, and averaged a school-record 44.6 yards per punt as a true freshman. (Future star Reggie Brooks played in six games at running back but did not letter; so too did wide receiver and future two-game Irish hero, Adrian Jarrell.)
The 1989 freshmen class finished its career with a 41-8-1 mark at Notre Dame.
1988 Eight freshmen lettered for the 12-0, national champion Irish, including a quartet of impact starters/key reserves: WR/KR Raghib Ismail, TE Derek Brown, FB Rodney Culver, and Drop End Arnold Ale. Ale split time at the position with sophomore Andre Jones during the season, earning four starts including assignments in the decade’s defining victories: vs. then-No. 1 Miami in mid-October, and against then-No. 2 USC in the season-finale.
One of five Parade All-America running backs in the class, Culver began the season at strong safety, switched to fullback during Week 3 vs. Purdue, played in all 12 games, finished second on the team in special teams appearances, and concluded the season as the team’s fifth-leading rusher with 195 yards and three scores. Culver added a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl win over West Virginia, extending the Irish lead to 16-0 in the second quarter of that Title tilt.
Brown and Ismail were stars, earning a combined 12 starts and finishing third and fourth, respectively, in receptions and receiving yards. Ismail averaged 27.6 yards per reception and 36.1 per kick return; then added a 29-yard back-breaking score in the Fiesta Bowl on a perfect post-pass from QB Tony Rice. Brown caught two passes for 70 yards in the championship game while securing three touchdowns during the season.
Future starting offensive linemen Mirko Jurkovic (then a defensive tackle), Justin Hall and Gene McGuire won monograms in backup duty while Rod Smith (he of the 4.32 40-time) lettered for his work as a backup flanker to Ismail (4.28 40-yard dash). Backup LB Michael Smalls did not letter, but appeared in six games including the de facto championship game in the Fiesta Bowl, making the game’s first two tackles.
The class of ’88 finished their careers 43-7 with a national title and three New Year’s Day bowl victories. Ismail's three-season run at the school included 33 wins vs. 4 losses.
The group included several contributors with a quartet of legitimate first-year stars in freshmen Tony Brooks, Frank Jacobs, Todd Lyght, and Ricky Watters. Watters finished second on the squad in rushing and third in receiving yards, while averaging 5.4 yards per carry with three touchdowns including a 75-yarder through the Alabama defense in a 37-6 humbling of the then-No. 10 ranked Crimson Tide in South Bend.
Brooks, who finished 5th on the team in rushing and fourth among freshmen in minutes played, also made his mark in the contest vs. ‘Bama, running down All-America Bobby Humphrey from behind on a long kick return.
Jacobs, a tight end who also starred for the Irish baseball team during his college career, finished third in minutes played among the team's receivers and tight ends, trailing only Heisman winner Tim Brown and future All-America OT Andy Heck in ’87.
The future 1st Round pick Lyght led the class in minutes played, started two games at free safety and caused a trio of turnovers (fumble, interception, blocked punt). He finished 10th on the team in tackles.
Freshmen linebackers and future starters Don Grimm and Scott Kowalkowski both earned monograms due to special teams work as did Andre Jones, though the Jones also won a starting assignment vs. Penn State in mid-November. He finished second behind Pat Eilers in total special teams appearances.
Kent Graham served as the backup quarterback for Tony Rice in seven games while freshmen prospect Tim Ryan lettered at linebacker (Ryan started at offensive guard the following season and for the remainder of his career). Future three-year starter Mike Heldt won a monogram as backup center. George “Boo” Williams was the only frosh to letter along the D-Line.
Of note: Chris Zorich (then a linebacker) was withheld from action as a true frosh in ’87. The class finished 41-8 over their four years at the school including 21-2 at home while once winning 23 straight – a program record.
1986 Lou Holtz’s first team enjoyed contributions from eight key freshmen: Jeff Alm, Braxston Banks, Tim Grunhard , Anthony Johnson, Jeff Pearson, Stan Smagala, Mike Stonebreaker, and Pat Terrell, four of whom became second-round NFL draft picks. Seven of the eight were drafted at the conclusion of their Irish careers.
A future All-America and 2nd round pick at free safety, Terrell debuted as a wide receiver but showed his hitting wares early as a member of the Irish special teams, playing in 11 contests. Smagala joined Terrell on special teams, earning a monogram for his work with the coverage units.
The season's freshmen stars were Banks and Johnson, who both contributed to the ‘backfield while leading the class in minutes played. Banks earned two starts, played in every game and finished with 264 yards from scrimmage on 59 touches. Johnson earned the most playing time, scored five touchdowns, averaged 4.4 yards per pop, and started five contests at tailback (he converted to fullback for the ’88 campaign).
Stonebreaker was the top freshman defender though he backed up team captain Mike Kovaleski for the bulk of the season at inside linebacker. The future Butkus Award finalist racked up 19 tackles in the season’s final four games as his playing time increased, adding an interception and three pass break-ups, while starting two games. Stonebreaker, who earned first team All-America status in both 1988 and 1990, finished third among defensive players in special teams appearances in his first season.
Alm made 14 stops as an outside linebacker (later converted to defensive tackle and was drafted in the second-round). Future All-America guard and second-round pick Tim Grunhard lettered as the team’s long-snapper.
The final member of the class to earn a varsity letter was offensive guard Jeff Pearson, who later transferred to Michigan State and was a key mouthpiece in the scathing, half-fiction mess, Under the Tarnished Dome, years later.
Of note: QB Tony Rice sat out the season due to Proposition 48.
Next in the series: The freshmen stars of 1980-85, followed by the conclusion and a look at the program’s incoming frosh for 2011.