The minute I opened the email I knew this gem was on deck for our Question of the Week series:
“Which Notre Dame players of the recent past would best fit Brian Kelly’s offense?”
Is there anything better than pure speculation that can’t be proven right or wrong? Not in the summer, kudos for this submission by a colleague…
Consider this list from 1986-present – a solid 30-year span and the three decades in which I’ve watched, and re-watched (a disturbing number of times in some cases) the most Notre Dame games.
In some instances, pure talent won out over the “perfect fit” but I tried to consider the latter as well, especially under center:
Quarterback – Jarious Jackson (1996-99): Rick Mirer, Kevin McDougal, and even Brady Quinn (and possibly Tony Rice) would be fine selections; the Mirer/McDougal pairing for their dual-threat capabilities, Quinn for his passing, leadership, toughness, and just enough athleticism to keep defenses honest on the read-option plays, and Rice because he’d have a field day as a runner. Jackson possessed all of the above and remains among the most underrated quarterback in program history.
Running Back – Ricky Watters (1987-90): There’s no ‘back close in terms of explosiveness, quickness plus power, and of course, receiving skills as the former flanker Watters. Others considered include Autry Denson (not as explosive as Watters), Jerome Bettis (not as fast or dangerous as a receiver), and Allen Pinkett (hard to ignore the production, but he pre-dates my selection timeline). I also considered moving Rocket Ismail to his more natural position of running back, but that would be cheating.
Slot Receiver – Raghib Ismail (1988-90): Selected over Golden Tate who was the far better pass catcher. I couldn’t pass up the Rocket in the slot with a defense spread horizontally by Kelly’s scheme. (Still, I’d consider Tate here and Rocket at RB.)
Wide Receiver – Tim Brown (1984-87): Hands, pure speed (prior to his NFL knee injury), the best cut-back skills in program history, intelligence, and simply the best all-around weapon the program has ever had. Plus Rocket needs someone to relieve him at kick returner in blowouts…
Wide Receiver – Derrick Mayes (1992-95): Sometimes you just need to choose the best pure pass-catcher available and move on. I considered Maurice Stovall for the matchup problems he presented plus superior downfield blocking and the benefit it would have on Ismail and Watters in the open field. But Mayes ensures that the downfield passing game would thrive.
Tight End – Tyler Eifert (2009-Present): Why not? I don’t even need to speculate how good he’d be. Eifert is the best overall tight end in program history, but he’s the best for the spread offense and I’m not sure who’s second.
Left Tackle – Zack Martin (2009-Present): I’m not sure fans realize how much he does for the running game. There were at least four better overall left tackles (off the top of my head) but Martin’s ability to move and yet still anchor in pass protection needs to be part of the mix.
Left Guard – Aaron Taylor (1990-93): Won the Lombardi Award in ’93 as a left tackle, but was just as good in ’91 and ’92 as a left guard. Plus I prefer my power players on the interior.
Center – Mike Heldt (1987-90): Not as strong as Tim Ruddy, who succeeded him, and not as nasty as Jeff Faine a decade later, but in Kelly’s spread offense, the center needs to be able to get out and move, and Heldt would have been an even better fit today than he was as a three-year starter for Lou Holtz’s dominant option teams.
Right Guard – Tim Grunhard (1986-89): Mea Culpa – I just chose the best player. No one is close to his skill level or production.
Right Tackle – Andy Heck (1985-88): The only true instance of cheating on my part. Heck was a first team All-America left tackle on the ’88 championship team. I’ve moved him to the right side because let’s face it: he started at tight end, previously, I think the first round draft pick could handle both sides of the line and that allows Martin, among the best fits listed, to remain on the first unit.
Wait, we’re not finished!
Second String Couldn’t resist an official second unit, one that would serve as the most physical read-option offense in recorded history:
Quarterback – Rick Mirer (1989-92) – Rice was a better runner, Quinn a better passer, and McDougal was more clutch, but Mirer would have won the Heisman Trophy as a read-option quarterback had Holtz employed the offense in 1992. Still the most underrated runner at the position in program history (nine rushing touchdowns in 1991 alone and 17 in three years as a starter). Mirer ran for 221 more yards than did McDougal in their best rushing seasons.
Running Back – Autry Denson (1995-98) – If we’re looking for a fit for the spread scheme, Denson gets the nod. Quicker than fast with excellent hands, toughness (I’ll take Denson over many in blitz pick-up) and the ability to pick up short-yardage inside when necessary. He was the whole package minus straight-line speed.
Slot Receiver – Golden Tate (2007-2009): – Kelly’s first season at the helm would have been a bit different with Tate in the slot rather than converted RB Theo Riddick. Wow…
Wide Receiver – Maurice Stovall (2002-2005): – Assuming I can bottle his senior season and not the non-descript efforts of his first three years. Stovall was a perimeter blocking beast and walking mis-match downfield.
Wide Receiver – Michael Floyd (2008-2011): – I just put the most imposing blocking/receiving tandem of monstrous wideouts on the field at the same time, and slotted Golden Tate inside them. Are we sure this offense isn’t better than the first unit’s?
Tight End – Irv Smith (1989-92): – Again, the combination of in-line blocking and reliable hands, plus run-after-the-catch acumen is hard to top. The skill position group for the second unit would inflict pain on the defense each week rather than vice versa.
Left Tackle – Luke Petitgout (1994-98): A first-round NFL Draft pick and had the feet and versatility to play tight end and both offensive tackle guard under Bob Davie. Anchored a line that allowed just nine sacks in 1998, a modern-era low.
Left Guard – Dan Stephenson (2002-2005): – Technically a right guard, Stephenson was the most underrated player on the one-year wonders of 2005: a true pulling guard that excelled in the pro set and could have played option ball or in the spread.
Center – Jeff Faine (1999-2002): – Just in case anyone cheap-shots Tate or Mirer, I’ll have Faine on for retribution. Or he might just hit someone for no reason, which I applaud as well.
Right Guard – Mike Gandy (1997-2001):
Improved greatly during his time with the program and finished as a three-year starter/four-year contributor. Combined power and quickness (another former tight end) to start for two of the best rushing units in recent history (1998 and 2000).
Right Tackle – Mike Rosenthal (1995-98): – Hard to go off-the-radar and pick a quick-footed “fit” over a first-team All-America, right?
Others that would fit/Off-the-radar McDougal is obvious at quarterback and I believe Quinn would have been tremendous in the scheme. Jimmy Clausen would have been interesting, though he was nowhere near the athlete Quinn was, and it would show on read-option running plays.
My off-the-radar choice: 1987 placeholder QB Terry Andrysiak, who beat out a sophomore named Tony Rice until the former was sidelined with a broken collarbone in Game Four.
If you want to, you know “win games,” you should probably go with McDougal or even Rice, who was easily the worst passer among the group but really, would that matter with his rushing ability and the talent around him?
Slot and Perimeter Receivers: Diminutive Joey Getherall (1997-2000) could cut up the middle of a defense in the spread. Jeff Samardzija would fare well in any offense, but one of the few players of the past that would have benefited from modern offenses rather than the option-style he played under was Lake Dawson (1990-93), a player every bit the receiver of past producers such as Rhema McKnight, but one that played in the wrong era for his skill set.
Running Backs: The late Rodney Culver would have been a load, and he was a better downfield receiver than Bettis (at some point, you’d simply choose Bettis over this group because of talent). With tremendous open-field skills and vision, both junior members of the 1993 backfield, Ray Zellars and Lee Becton, would thrive taking a deep shotgun hand-off from the read-option set. For consistency, you could do worse than Darius Walker, though I’m not sure Cierre Wood isn’t already the better fit.
Tight Ends: The list is obviously endless. I’d go with Anthony Fasano (2002-05) and John Carlson (2003-07) over the likes of Derek Brown (1988-91) and Kyle Rudolph (2008-10). Both Fasano and Carlson were better receivers than Brown and better blockers than Rudolph. For an off-the-radar choice, Jabari Holloway (1997-2000) would have been a star in modern offenses. NFL All Pro Mark Bavaro pre-dates my selection timeline.